Cortland artist reshapes work in era of pandemic
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or metro editor Marly Kosinski at email@example.com.
CORTLAND — Longtime teacher and artist Susan Jacobs, 69, tells her students that art is all about “shape, shape and shape.”
“Understand what the shapes are doing, and you can go from there,” Jacobs said.
Retired from 30 years of teaching art at Mathews Local Schools, Jacobs was teaching painting, drawing and design at her home studio, at Trumbull Art Gallery and other venues in the Valley and in Chagrin Falls — until all that came to a grinding halt in March with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, Jacobs had her studio to herself.
“I was actually doing more teaching than painting there for a while. Now I’m devoting more time to myself,” Jacobs said.
In order to keep busy, Jacobs did a painting of David Bowie. When that gathered attention on Facebook, she decided to start a celebrity series — 19 celebrity paintings she called “the COVID-19.” In September, Jacobs had a drive-by art show in front of her house.
Jacobs did the celebrity paintings mostly in black and white using negative space, a technique that focuses on shape and what is not in the painting.
“If I start getting too much detail, I have to start taking things out,” Jacobs said, likening the paintings to problem solving.
She has always worked with acrylics, but Jacobs’ interests have been in flux over the years.
“I work on one type of art until it becomes uninteresting or boring, then I move to something adjacent,” she said.
In the past she has done three-dimensional paintings, has made facial masks and body casts, and explored fluid painting, a paint-pouring medium.
Originally from Hermitage, Pa., Jacobs said growing up she thought everyone did art.
“My dad was a musician, my sister is a musician, so I started in art and music from childhood.”
Jacobs’ sister played in her father’s large band and went on to study music in college and then direct the choir at St. Joe’s in Sharon, Pa., for years.
“My only decision when I went to college (was) should I go into art or music?” Jacobs said. She opted for a bachelor’s of science in art education, graduating from Youngstown State University, but didn’t leave music behind.
For 29 years, Jacobs, a singer, headed a rock band. Most recently called “Boulevard,” the group played local clubs around the Mahoning Valley and in Cleveland and Pittsburgh — sometimes doing shows five or six nights a week.
“We were pretty hot,” Jacobs said. “We had people waiting in line outside to get in. It was fun.”
Jacobs met her husband, Chuck, when she interviewed the trumpeter and keyboardist for a spot in the band. Married for 34 years, they lived in Girard and moved to Cortland around the time Jacobs retired.
Like, Jacobs, Chuck comes from a family of artists.
“My husband and I laugh, we thought everybody’s dad went out and played jobs on the weekends,” Jacobs said. The pair have a lot in common, Jacobs said, and they operate on the same wavelength, knowing what it takes to be an artist.
Chuck records music in his studio, and Jacobs paints and bakes in hers, and they occasionally cross paths during the day, she said. Every night they do Zumba together, while their cocker spaniels, Kiki and Dagny, watch.
Jacobs treats the dogs to daily car rides since the pandemic began. The beloved pets are the inspiration for another one of Jacob’s endeavors — Blissful Biscuits, a healthy dog biscuit business she runs from the kitchen adjacent to her art studio.
Jacobs said she started baking dog treats after someone called one of her dogs a “chubbykins.”
The business keeps her busy, with the treats sold at Whitehouse Fruit Farm and nationwide.
Jacobs never sees roadblocks in her life.
“Anything I ever wanted to do, I did,” she said.
While teaching at Mathews and managing her band, Jacobs returned to YSU to get a master’s degree in secondary art with a concentration in painting.
Shortly after, she penned and illustrated a children’s book, “Meggie the Pup’s Summer Adventure.”
In the early 2000s, Jacobs founded Community Artworks and jumpstarted its first multi-artist project — “The Mona Lisa Masterpiece Community Project,” which now hangs in the Target concourse at the Eastwood Mall in Niles.
After fundraising and organizational efforts, she hung canvases up in her garage and sketched the famous Mona Lisa from a projection. She rounded up dozens of artists and gave each a canvas with just a few lines and four tubes of paint to match a color scheme. She had seen a similar project done by artists in Canada.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work,” Jacobs said.
When she collected the finished canvases, she could see the face of the Mona Lisa. The project was celebrated with a reception at the Eastwood Mall before it toured other Cafaro malls and the Youngstown Warre Regional Airport.
She said the individual paintings that make up the large work had to be related to the community or personal.
“You got a glimpse of something relatable. When you look at the pieces, you’ll see family portraits, the Warren courthouse, different areas around Youngstown and Warren. When it all came together it was amazing.”
Jacobs headed a similar project, “Never Forget,” that commemorated 9/11. After appearing at the Trumbull Art Gallery and in several art shows, that piece was donated to the Bazetta Fire Department.
Recently, Jacobs has turned her focus to commissioned paintings.
Although she and Chuck have not had inside visitors, they have stayed social with neighbors in their cul-de-sac by sitting under a heater in their open garage. Jacobs is planning a small Thanksgiving for just the two of them.
She said she looks forward to teaching classes again when conditions allow.