Just ask Jay Jacobs about art in Augusta, and prepare to be schooled.
“Public art can change a community,” said Jacobs, a local artist who recently astounded downtown residents by completing a beautiful 32-foot-tall mural on the back wall of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts building on Greene Street. “I think that’s one of the things that’s not being explained. It’s not just aesthetics. It’s identity.”
And, believe it or not, Augusta can have more than just one identity, Jacobs said.
Not everything has to be about golf, he joked.
“If we want to maintain a singular identity as a town, that’s easy to do. We are already a golf town. There you go,” Jacobs said, laughing. “And now we want to start calling ourselves the Cyber City or whatever. Fine, but we can be more. So much more.”
Jacobs wants to help knock down the many barriers within the community by bringing to life some of the city’s walls with art.
For seven days this summer, Jacobs spent hours painting the 32-foot by 70-foot garden mural on the Jessye Norman School of the Arts building on a boom lift in temperatures topping 100 degrees.
One of the most incredible aspects of the mural is that Jacobs painted it totally freehand.
“This was the largest painting I’ve ever done,” Jacobs said. “I must have painted the image in my studio at least 10 different times and 10 different versions. By the time I got on the boom and got up there, I knew that image frontward and backward, so I did it freehand.
I outlined the image that I wanted and painted it in a week.”
In preparation for doing the mural, Jacobs read opera singer Jessye Norman’s memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!”, to come up with the perfect image: a young, African-American girl with orchids in her hair holding a glass jar with hundreds of blue butterflies flying into the air.
“When I first started out, I was going to use birds to parallel her singing,” Jacobs explained. “But the first thing that I thought of was a bird could take down an airplane, and some people are scared of birds. That’s when I thought of the butterflies.”
The butterflies are flying up from the young girl to fill the sky around her.
“Butterflies are seemingly non-impactful, but when they all come together, they can change their landscape,” Jacobs said, adding that the same can be true for art students at the school.
The young girl in the mural is also wearing a red, white and blue skirt.
“The other thing I wanted to include was the French flag dress because Jessye Norman sang the French National Anthem for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989,” he said. “I also wanted to include the orchids in the girl’s hair because that particular orchid was actually named after her. It is known as the Jessye Norman orchid.”
Painting a mural was an entirely new experience for this longtime local artist.
“I took one of these paint rollers and extended it with a 4-inch roller on it and was able to pull the boom off of the wall and draw with the roller like a large pencil,” Jacobs said. “Before I started, I was concerned because that was the only thing I couldn’t practice. But when I got there and began painting, I was really surprised. It was so much fun. It was so fluid. I was like this kid with a giant crayon. It was awesome.”
Jacobs said he’s been extremely pleased and surprised by the community’s love for the mural.
“People really enjoy it, and they have been so positive about it. And I am not the most positive person in the world. I can bitch with the best of them,” Jacobs said, laughing. “For me, it’s definitely harder to do something that is super positive that gives a positive message. But I felt it was important to show hope and a positive look towards the future.”
LINKING THE PAST WITH THE FUTURE
Local art students should know that anything can happen — even in Augusta, Ga., Jacobs jokingly said.
In fact, he pointed out that if anyone takes the time to research this city’s past, the area actually has a long legacy as an artistic community.
“The Westo Indians lived along the Savannah River near Augusta from about 1660 to 1680,” Jacobs said, sitting in his art studio pointing to the first of a series of panels that he recently began painting which display, what he calls, the “creative history” of art in Augusta. “The Westo Indians built some of the oldest man-made structures in Augusta, and they were really some of the first artists in Augusta.”
With this new endeavor to capture the history of art in Augusta, Jacobs said he wants to help honor this city’s past, as well as encourage future artists.
“This next panel here will feature artists like ‘Dave the Potter,’ from Edgefield, S.C.,” Jacobs said, explaining that Dave Drake was an artist born into slavery who created more than 100 alkaline-glazed jugs that were inscribed with poetry, which was unheard of at that time. “And then this panel will also feature the two ladies who started the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, which is really the genesis of our timeline.”
In 1932, Louisa Mustin and Julia Johnston co-founded the Augusta Art Club that eventually grew into the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, Jacobs said.
This weekend, starting on Friday, Aug. 24 with a preview party and continuing through Saturday, Aug. 25, the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art will present the Augusta Art Tour, which encourages several local artists, including Jacobs, to open their studios to the public.
The tour will include many other local artists such as Jason Craig, Brian McGrath, Matt Porter and Lauryn Sprouse, who are involved in the Pink Slips studio on Jones Street in downtown Augusta, as well as Aiken artist Staci Swider.
Just this year, the historic Ware’s Folly home, which houses the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art and is considered one of the finest examples of Federal Style architecture in the United States, is celebrating its 200th anniversary.
Purely by coincidence, Jacobs recently began this new piece that honors several of the artists connected to the Gertrude Herbert’s history. His panels of Augusta’s art history will include Horace Talmage Day, the institute’s first executive director, as well as local writer and artist Berry Fleming and renowned sculptor Freeman Schoolcraft, who relocated to Augusta with his family from Chicago.
Schoolcraft, who was a professor at then-Augusta College, became an active member in Augusta’s art community.
“In 1966, he brought 50 paintings and illustrations by world-famous artist Maxfield Parrish here to Augusta,” Jacobs said. “It was the first time Maxfield Parrish’s work had been exhibited in the South, and Freeman Schoolcraft installed the exhibition. That’s incredible.”
Therefore, when Jacobs paints Freeman Schoolcraft’s panel, he is planning on including some Maxfield Parrish-inspired clouds in the image.
“People don’t know, but Freeman Schoolcraft is the reason Ed Rice is an artist, so all of this builds on itself,” Jacobs said, pointing to each panel. “So the next panel will include great local artists like Ed Rice, Philip Morsberger, Kath Engler and Bea Kuhlke. And the final panel will feature artists like Leonard Zimmerman, Raoul Pacheco and Jennifer Onofrio.”
All of these extremely talented artists in Augusta are linked together, he said.
“So, when you look at this timeline and you put it all together, you begin seeing how the artists in this panel impacted the next panel of artists and so on and so on,” Jacobs said. “I want people to know this history because it’s really disheartening to ask somebody who’s in the art community, ‘When is the last time you went to a museum and you saw a Philip Morsberger painting?’ And then they say, ‘Who is Philip Morsberger?’”
These artists should be celebrated in Augusta because they are a part of this city’s identity, Jacobs said.
“I don’t want to go down that negative road because there are so many positive things happening here in Augusta, too,” Jacobs said. “But it could be a thousand times better. Unfortunately, we still hear comments like, ‘It’s just art.’”
THE VALUABLE LESSON OF ART
As Jacobs passionately explains the importance of each individual artist on every panel that he’s creating, he also reveals another side to himself: the teacher.
For more than two years, Jacobs, 44, has proudly served as an art teacher at Aquinas High School.
“Behind husband and dad, that’s probably my favorite title: Mr. Jacobs, the art teacher,” Jacobs said, chuckling. “This will be my third year. I teach kind of a creative, problem-solving class disguised as an art class.”
Jacobs, who is a towering figure with a long, thick beard, probably doesn’t look like your typical teacher, but he takes his role in the classroom extremely seriously.
In fact, he wants to help his students by providing them with knowledge and practical tools, such as learning about grant writing, that will help them succeed in any career, whether it’s art related or not.
“Stuff like grant writing is something that I wished I would have learned when I was 15 or 18,” he said, adding that he absolutely loves the faculty and students at Aquinas. “Every day is a challenge and, let’s face it, getting 15 kids to communicate an abstract idea, that’s problem solving in itself.”
But while Jacobs provides his students with practical tools, he also wants them to explore the definition of art.
“I don’t think teaching art should be, ‘This is how you do it,’” Jacobs said. “I think it’s important to let the kids figure out how to use tools differently. So, if they want to use a hammer to make music, I say, go for it.”
After all, learning about art comes in many different forms, he said.
In Jacobs’ case, he attended Savannah College of Art and Design for less than a year before he decided to get what he describes as an “education by proximity” by exploring the art community in Savannah.
He later lived in Philadelphia and befriended some Jesuit priests at Saint Joseph’s University.
“I learned a lot from those guys,” Jacobs said, smiling. “It’s odd how life aligns itself, but a lot of the stuff that I learned from the Jesuits, I’m applying to my classes now at a Catholic high school. The Jesuits would say, ‘We find God in everything.’ It’s an interesting approach to seeing things.”
While living in Philadelphia, Jacobs also began studying the murals throughout the city.
“That was when the murals were just starting in Philadelphia,” he said. “And Philadelphia’s mural project is just something, if Augusta hasn’t looked at it, they really need to. It’s amazing.”
As he admired the murals in Philadelphia in his 20s, Jacobs knew he wanted to one day paint a large mural of his own.
Now, after successfully completing the garden mural at the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, Jacobs says he’s hooked.
“I’m riding around looking at walls now. I’m collecting them,” Jacobs said, chuckling. “Specifically, I’ve been calling people who have buildings with bad roofs or no windows, things like that. Those are the places I want to paint and help give new life.”
Unfortunately, Jacobs admits that he’s already hit a few brick walls.
“There is a building near Davidson Fine Arts on Fenwick Street that I thought had a lot of potential,” Jacobs said. “It was the first place that I called, and a Realtor owned it. I called him up and I said, ‘I’m interested in doing a mural on the side of your building.’ Before asking any questions, he said, ‘We are looking to develop that building into workspaces.’”
Jacobs quickly explained that he already has the funding to paint the building, all he needed was the property owner’s permission.
“He said, ‘I’m not sure that’s what we want to do. We are just trying to develop it,’ and he hung up,” Jacobs said. “And now that building is still just sitting there with no windows, completely empty.”
He also had no luck with another building located around the Harrisburg neighborhood near the Augusta Canal that is owned by a prominent landowner and developer.
“From the Kroc Center you can see the top third of the building,” Jacobs said, as he picked up a sketch of the proposed mural that he wanted to paint on the building.
It was a painting of a boy holding a balloon shaped like a fish.
“As you head downtown, you would only see the floating fish,” Jacobs said. “You wouldn’t see the child and the rope until you went over the bridge. Once the car goes up over the bridge, it’s a big reveal. People would say, ‘Oh, it’s a balloon.’”
Jacobs liked the image, particularly near the Augusta Canal, and the position of the wall because the entire mural would slowly be revealed as a motorist drove over the bridge and toward the building.
“I explained that the owner wouldn’t have to pay for anything,” he said. “I would prep the building and fix the parts of the building that were messed up so I could paint on it. I would handle everything, and the response I got was, ‘Absolutely not. And tell him I will press charges if he touches the building.’”
Jacobs just shook his head and moved on.
Fortunately, Jacobs says he’s already pinpointed a new location for a mural that will be much larger than the Jessye Norman mural and motorists will be able to see the image from the Calhoun Expressway.
All he has to do now is get the property owner’s permission.
“Some people in this town will never understand what we are trying to do,” Jacobs said. “But some people get it, and some people love it. That’s my hope and that’s what’s encouraging me. They know it’s not just art.”
The Augusta Art Tour, presented by the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art
Preview Party: Friday, Aug. 24, 7-9 p.m.
Tickets: $55 (includes admission to Saturday tour)
The actual tour: Saturday, Aug. 25, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.