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Local Artist Highlight: Jacob Wiseheart

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Avenue for the Arts interviews Jacob Wiseheart about his painting practice, his thoughts on the role of an artist, and his brand new studio space in downtown Grand Rapids. Interview by Pamela MacDougal
Trailer Park Paradise (2022), 10 ft x 4 ft (diptych), acrylic on canvas

Trailer Park Paradise (2022), 10 ft x 4 ft (diptych), acrylic on canvas /Jacob Wiseheart



MARCH 22, 2024 from 10am-4pm

Woodbridge Federal Building, 17 Pearl Street NW

/Jacob Wiseheart

Yesterday I Saw The Strangest Thing (2022), 22 in x 28 in, acrylic on canvas

Yesterday I Saw The Strangest Thing (2022), 22 in x 28 in, acrylic on canvas /Jacob Wiseheart

In Jacob Wiseheart’s words, “Art has really saved my life. It has a therapeutic quality for me. People are always interested in the artist’s thought process. They have an instinctive desire to know the artist’s mind. I love that, but I also think that notion is romanticized. I like to be transparent, but I also think you don’t ever want to go too deep into your own idea verbally. That starts to take away the authenticity of the work.  Art should be a cathartic thing that is coming out in a systematic way. When looking at the white canvas, you’re afraid to start it, and then in the middle stages, it may not look like what you want it to. You have to suspend disbelief and keep working on it until it looks right to you. It can be a mistake to make the painting too precious while you’re working on it. The painting is really just an artifact of the process. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the viewer and the artifact. The artifact has to stand in for the artist.”

Jacob shared several dynamic paintings he has hanging in the Admissions lobby at Kendall College of Art and Design with me, and then we sat down in the Atrium to talk about how he got to be where he is today. See more of Jacob's work on instagram.

Where are you from and how did you get started with painting? Jacob is originally from St. Clair, Michigan, a small rural town on the St. Clair River about 40 minutes south of Port Huron. He started painting in the 10th grade. He says, “My all-time love story would be when I started painting. I haven’t stopped since. Initially, I thought of myself as someone who draws, but my art teacher in high school said, ‘Here’s some paints, here’s a canvas, go have some fun.’ I came back after that weekend and had a painting done. It’s pretty much been a constant in my life ever since.”

In a rural area, art was not really an option for people, or at least people didn’t think it was an option. Jacob recalls, “I spent my own time getting good at it, because I didn’t have that many classes. It was really cool to sync myself into something I was more passionate about than choir or sports. I ended up receiving a Gold Key Award in a Scholastic Art competition. That brought me to Kendall where I felt like I was decent enough that I could get in.” Kendall held an art competition that awarded Jacob a merit scholarship. He remembers, “By that time, my parents felt I was good at this and that I could invest in this. That was great, because I felt intimidated to get into art school. The art world can seem intimidating, if you don’t know what it’s all about.”

How did you develop your path? Jacob completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting at Kendall, participating in his first group show at UICA (Coming Home, 2015). He painted the three-story stairwell exhibition space visible from Division Avenue, basing the mural on thesis work he completed for his degree.

After Kendall, Jacob entered and won a contest at Founder’s Brewing Company for designing their Green Zebra beer label. He says, “This was a big opportunity with a nationally known beer brand, so I was very fortunate.” He worked at Founders for a couple of years, but the service industry and beer world was too all-consuming.  Finding that he wasn’t painting very much during that time, Jacob decided to come back to Kendall “full force” to work on a Master of Fine Arts in Painting, as well as a Master of Fine Arts in Visual and Critical Studies. He needed to work on something he felt passionate about, and higher education is where he wants to be. He now works in the Kendall admissions office as an Admissions Counselor and has taught the 2D Design course. His favorite part of working in the Admissions Office is performing portfolio reviews and talking to prospective students about their work. Having recently acquired a new studio space downtown, Jacob also looks forward to fully developing that workspace this summer.  

Where do you see yourself going with painting? Jacob sees art and life as complementary: “Over the years I’ve honed my craft, but I’ve also learned how to use my art in the therapeutic sense. There is always the idea of getting picked up by a gallery and being a full-time artist. But, I have to live my live and have painting be the escape. If painting were a full-time job, I would lose the emotional propulsion that I get from living my life.”

He plans to paint, of course: “I really just want to spend the summer painting honestly. I’m very excited about my new studio. Usually, if I have nothing going on over the weekends, I’m at the studio Friday night, Saturday, and then most of Sunday. People wonder how I can be there 8-10 hours. I have to do that! I get into the zone. Now that I’m on the other side of having my education, I feel like everything is starting to work out the way that it should. I am always going to paint. I probably will never stop. I think about, what am I really trying to say with my painting? Am I trying to say something ‘new’? I’ve stepped away from that. I link into just trying to make stuff and not trying to make things that look like someone else’s work. It’s a good exercise to emulate other artists to a point, but you need to distill things and take it in your own direction. It takes time to know how to do that, to learn how to synthesize.”

Can you tell me a little about your work? Jacob has several pieces hanging just outside the entry to the admissions office at Kendall College of Art and Design. The first two he shows me were created as part of his work toward his MFA. The body of work centers on exploration of Americana spaces and how memories are created and held in the mind.  I see vibrant greens, golds, pinks, and blues. There’s a graphic quality to the work with flat areas of color and defined edges. One piece expresses the dissonance between experiencing a place and then looking at photographs later as a fragmented representations of the experience of being there. A second piece explores the concept of “hotels acting like liminal spaces that are similar to the idea of a memory … a place that you are in, but don’t stay very long.” The work has a magnetic quality, with repetition of shape and motif.

He says, “My main thought behind the body of work was—what does memory look like if I were to try to visually represent it?” His paintings put the viewer in the space of the memory, jumping around through different parts of the work. Jacob favors a welcoming color palette for engaging the viewer, but he notes that the pieces employ distorted imagery and have a haunting quality on closer examination. These particular works were created during COVID and are devoid of human figures—evocative of the isolation we all experienced. He says, “I love to use color to get the viewer interested, but then I do flip it on them.” He notes that the subject matter is a bit more difficult than the colors indicate: “What I'm trying to do is trying to build those surrealistic spaces inside the mind and memory.”

Jacob’s influences include David Hockney and Richard Diebenkorn. He says, “I get a lot of my inspiration from artists like David Hockney. I love his stuff—because of how quickly he makes decisions. He really understands what is the main essence or line weight of somebody's face, for example. I guess that's how I start to work is by looking at what are the main things that I find inspiring about a space. Richard Diebenkorn…His stuff is much more expressive and painterly than mine, but I do get inspiration from California artists. They have so much color in their state.  I like looking at artists in the Bay Area, and what colors they are using. I love landscapes … but if I do landscapes, I tend to amp up the saturation and use arbitrary colors, because it's a little more fun.”

What is your preferred medium? Jacob works primarily in acrylic: “I really like the matte-ness of it and the fact that you can work a little bit quicker.  The only downside is that to get things as opaque as you want them, you have to layer them over and over and over again. Personally, I find that very meditative, so for me that's another reason why that medium is attractive to me. It does take time to build that up.  With oil you can get that rich look to your paintings, but for me it’s a little too opaque and glossy.”

Do you have a new project? Jacob is working on a new series—still very much in the domestic space. He says, “I take a morning walk every morning. There’s quite a bit of variety in the houses on the west side. Some houses are nice, others not as nice. I like to see the variety there. When the sun rises over the valley, the way it hits everything on the west side is amazing. I love shadow, cast shadow. It’s visceral for me. I started taking a few pictures of some of the houses that are over there. I’m thinking about how we all live in different types of houses, but we all still take out our trash. That interests me for some reason. Some people wait until forever to take out their trash, and it’s overflowing. Some people take it out every week, and their lawn is super nice. There’s just something about that. I am not sure where it’s going to go yet. I would like to do a series of domestic spaces, and there’s that trash out at the curb. There are those bigger houses in East Grand Rapids; you’ve got trailer parks, apartment complexes. There’s that underlying theme that we all contribute to waste. Getting super political is not my intention, but I think about what we can find in common. There’s so much division between us, but we’re all humans, we’re all animals. We all take our trash out. I want to look at ways we can connect again.”

Jacob would like to see the Grand Rapids art community move toward more frequent small community art events to emphasize connection. His own art is moving in the direction of finding our commonality and keeping conversation open, even where there is difference.

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