Artist Spotlight: Janel Jacobson

For over 40 years Janel Jacobson has diligently honed her craft in Sunrise, MN. Carved clay forms led her to exploring miniature wooden carvings, creating works that received national and international recognition. Now she is turning her focus fully back on clay, and specifically on porcelain. She tackles each material challenge with tenacity, and we are rewarded by her perseverance. Get to know a little more about one of our October Featured Artists in the following conversation.

NCC: Tell us about your work.
JJ: I am currently working exclusively with a grolleg-based porcelain clay for making useful pots, and continue to pursue wheel-thrown forms that may be gently reshaped, carved and textured, to be enhanced with celadon glazes; or to serve as a canvas for active, responsive carbon trapping glazes.

NCC: Where do you make your work?
JJ: Sunrise, Minnesota has been where my home and studio have been since 1975, having purchased the old house when I was 24. I lived and worked alone in this house for ten years. After marrying potter Will Swanson in the mid 1980s, and then our becoming parents, we built a separate studio building nearby to work in.

NCC: How long have you been making?
JJ: Pottery-making became my first and enduring love beginning in 1970 as a student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Upon graduation in 1972 I became a self-employed potter and have remained so ever since.

NCC: What's your background in?
JJ: Since 1972, my pottery work has transitioned from utilitarian pots in stoneware and exploration with porcelain clay, to shallow relief carving first on stoneware, and then on porcelain with celadon glazes. Those carving explorations brought my work to national recognition and the carved-porcelain work was placed in many collections.  

The continuing evolution of designing the compositions led to more 3-dimensional, small sculptural forms. Those porcelain forms then led me to a two-decade, deep affair with carving small wood sculptural pieces called netsuke and okimono. During this period I made pottery just about every year for three to twelve weeks at a time.

In 2016 I returned full-time to my first love, pottery making. For the first year or so I switched between stoneware and porcelain clays, but have decided to use porcelain exclusively for the next while. I love the texture and strength of the throwing body of stoneware, and miss using it, but to advance with porcelain I have to focus on it and push through the tough parts and strive to make it work for me.

Recently I have been actively testing celadon glaze variations and other porcelain-like clay bodies. I use a grolleg-based clay and plan to explore various color shades with a base celadon glaze. A recent acquisition of a 20 cubic foot downdraft gas kiln will facilitate more frequent testing cycles so that inspiration may grow from the new results.   

NCC: What else do you do for money in addition to making your work?
JJ: Once a year I produce the new version of the web site for the annual Saint Croix Valley Pottery Tour (SCVPT), for which I receive a modest payment. Early next year Will and I together will be giving a workshop at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts titled: “Two Working Together, Separately.”

Otherwise, we are always working at the studio or doing the required planning and preparations for the annual SCVPT or our annual fall group sale. Pottery-making/selling is our sole source of income.

NCC: What do you love most about making your work?
JJ: This is a tough one! I am a doer, so the intense focus when starting on and following through with batches of pots can be very satisfying. What I love, with my work with clay, begins with the smell of the clay, to the feel of a pot growing from the actions of my hands, to the surprise successes that emerge from the kiln. Then, the interactions with the people who take the pots in their hands and whom eventually cannot leave them behind. Learning from these folks, what they see or experience when meeting my pottery, adds to the love of making pots.

NCC: What’s the hardest part?
JJ: I am determined to create a celadon glaze formula that is stable and reliable. It can be such a quietly seductive glaze that can be used with complex shallow relief carving and with simpler surface decorations.  

The hardest part of my work had been creating glaze formula alterations that result in glaze test failures and larger failures when more pots are involved after creating larger batches of tested glazes. I have been butting against glaze fit problems for the celadon glaze since before my full-time return to making pots in 2016. The problems that have plagued the celadon glaze formula variations are mainly crazing, and crawling from rims and handles. So much time and effort, having been spent testing, only to have it often result in dead ends or promising, but not yielding successes.  

With the recent firing, #3 in the new kiln, the newest glaze formula iteration was perfection. Firing #4 was disaster, all celadons crawled to some degree on rims and handles. I will now focus on the firing schedule and make a good effort at slowing the first 1,000° or so of temperature climb to see if that has been playing a part with the failures. With the new small kiln I am now able to fire independently from Will’s stoneware schedule, which I had been following until recently. The tricky part is the transition from the pilot/candling period to when the big burners are lit. The difference in size of the larger flame in the small chamber tends to cause a rapid temperature climb. What I appreciate about this experience is that I am growing and learning all of the time, even after nearly 50 years of working with clay.

NCC: What are your goals for the future of your work?
JJ: Short-term goals are to establish a stable celadon glaze base. From there I want to create various other colors of that base glaze that compliment or contrast between themselves, to see what other quiet dynamics can be achieved with that glaze type.

I also want to pursue using the carbon trapping glazes such as our studio carbon trap glaze and Malcolm Davis’ Shino. Both of those glazes are responding very well in the new small kiln. It is fun to see what happens, and to guess why the widely varying carbon deposits do what they do.

NCC: What do you see as your biggest achievement so far?
JJ: Surviving as a self-employed artist for 46 years with no other job for income.

NCC: What else are you excited about in your life?
JJ: Seasonal changes; gardening when possible; watching insects and the indigenous critters that are part of the habitat and environment where I live in rural Minnesota when the brief season of warmth is upon us; and the occasional sightings or conversations with our son who lives far away.

NCC: What art do you look at for eye candy?
JJ: This is too difficult to answer in detail. Being rural, our area has been underserved with internet service until this past winter. Now we are served with true high-speed internet (compared to land line and satellite service) with fiber optic cable with seemingly no data cap. When that was installed, I gave myself a six-week clay-camp in the studio, watching all manner of ceramics videos, and worked with thin slabs and throwing and altering forms. Whether or not the pieces were successful, I felt good about having that time to expand my experiences.