Remembered in calico
Collage artist Alex Jacobs
For the last 25 years, Akwesasne Mohawk artist Alex Jacobs has been coming to Santa Fe, living here off and on as a poet, writer, and visual artist. Although his work in the visual arts has slowed down, having taken a back seat to a busy freelance writing life, he comes to We Are the Seeds, showcasing some of his own work at the indigenous art fair and sharing space with his niece Margaret Jacobs.
He has participated in readings and poetry slams across the country and currently writes for Indian Country Today Media Network. Descended from a family of quilters, his own art practice honors that legacy while adding a Pop Art dimension. Jacobs works in fabric collage using found materials and calico textiles. His interest in collage came slowly, after his student days at the Institute of American Indian Arts and then at the Kansas City Art Institute in the 1970s. “When I got to IAIA, Allan Houser had just left and Carl Ponca took over the painting and sculpture department,” Jacobs said. “People like T.C. Cannon, Earl Biss, and Kevin Red Star were still around campus, and I met all of them and hung out with them. T.C. was very big at that time. They were painting murals, and I had a mural up, but I think it’s gone now. The painting class was just too full and the same thing with sculpture. It was full of Navajos and Apaches carving stone. There was no more room at the tables and no more tools. So Carl Ponca said to go check out the back pad where there were all these abandoned pieces. That’s how my mixed-media started.”
At IAIA, Jacobs studied clay, printmaking, and experimental painting, the last practice influencing the direction of his later work, which includes vivid portraits and landscapes made using a combination of found textiles, commercial advertising, and acrylic paints. In the 1990s, Jacobs returned to Santa Fe to work at his alma mater, which was then under the directorship of Rick Hill. “I was a starving artist in Santa Fe,” he said. “When my contract was up, I stayed out here.” At IAIA he came across a pile of old advertisements and packaging showing Native people in stereotypical guises, such as the maiden on Land O’ Lakes butter and the feather-headdress portrait of a Plains chief on the packaging for Natural American Spirit cigarettes. Familiar with Native
ledger drawings, typically made on ledger paper, he took the ads and, in Pop Art style, incorporated them into his work. “I started by doing a background of American Spirit, Land O’ Lakes Butter, and something called Big Chief pretzels,” he said. “Commercial backgrounds are romantic or fantasized. Then I would make what I called the real Indians out of real material, what they actually wore.”
When he started out, he was influenced by the work of Native artist Stan Natchez, who used real currency as a background in some of his works, and a younger artist named Marcus Cadman who does ledger-themed works using bingo cards instead of ledger papers. “What I do is a continuation of these collage artists,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs hails from upstate New York, close to the Canadian border, traditionally the territory of the Akwesasne Mohawk. “My mother and grandmother were well-known quilters,” he said. “I took my mom’s scraps, which was exactly what I needed for my work. It was my mother’s calicos that really made it for me, because it was something traditional, something from home. All of this was a free resource, the commercial packaging and the calicos, and I combined it with what I learned at IAIA in experimental painting. Over the years, I actually got to work with my mother side by side. I would do collage in the kitchen, and she’d be quilting in the den. When my mom passed away, I inherited my grandmother’s calicos and my mother’s materials. Using them became almost a therapy.” — Michael Abatemarco
Father River, 2011, mixed media
I WOULD DO COLLAGE IN THE KITCHEN, AND MY MOTHER WOULD BE QUILTING IN THE DEN. WHEN MY MOM PASSED AWAY, I INHERITED MY GRANDMOTHER’S CALICOS AND MY MOTHER’S MATERIALS.