Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

Sam Jacobson’s fascination with faces

The Lincoln County clay sculptor, who has a show opening Saturday, says faces are more alike than different.

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Sam Jacobson doesn’t recall a time when she wasn’t creative. Raised in a family of Norwegian immigrants, she moved to Portland in 1961 after her father was transferred by his job with International Harvester.

“We were a family of modest means,” she recalled. “I made my own clothing. I would go into the dressing room with garments at I. Magnin and turn them inside out to see how they were made.”

“Late Bloomer,” by Sam Jacobson (clay sculpture, 12 by 8 inches)
“Late Bloomer,” by Sam Jacobson (clay sculpture, 12 by 8 inches)

Jacobson went on to a career in law, teaching at Willamette University College of Law. Even there, she found ways to get creative, particularly for the 8 a.m. Friday class where she rewrote song lyrics to make the students laugh. “The anxiety ran so high they couldn’t learn anything. If I could make them relax, you could feel the anxiety and exhaustion drain away when they left.”

Ten years ago, she left the university, and now makes her home in the forest of Lincoln County, where she shapes faces and functional pottery in a medium that surprised even her.

“I can’t stand to get my hands dirty,” said Jacobson, who is largely self-taught. “That’s the reason I don’t work on the [pottery] wheels. To me it’s like you’ve got your hands in a pile of poo. Slab work is very architectural. I can work with the pads of my fingers and don’t have the mess.”

Jacobson’s exhibit of ceramic and mixed media sculptures depicting human faces, Have We Met?, opens Saturday, Aug. 7, in the Newport Visual Arts Center, with Jacobson speaking at 2 p.m. Oregon ArtsWatch talked with the artist about the allure of faces. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to faces?

Jacobson: I’m very intellectually curious. I’m always shaking it up, doing something different.  There are several techniques for sculpting faces. The technique that really worked for me was the cylinder technique. I create a cylinder for the neck and a larger one for the head. It allows me to stick my hand in the top of the cylinder and I can push it out and create a bone structure, cheekbones. I just love it. Sometimes I have something in mind that I want to create, and my fingers decide it’s going to be completely different. The most comical was when I started out to do a sort of regal-looking female, and it ended up being a Hawaiian surfer dude.

Do you have a face in mind when you start?

I don’t try to copy a face. Normally, there is a feature that attracts my attention. I have three women sculptures I am looking at that are drying. The idea for one of them came from a photo of a model in a runway show. She had this huge head ornament of ribbons, almost a rose shape. It was very dramatic. I took something from that. Instead of giving the sculpture hair, she’s got ribbons that twist and curl on her head.

"A Mixed Bouquet" by Sam Jacobson
“A Mixed Bouquet” by Sam Jacobson

Another one, I was looking at a photo of Angela Bassett from Black Panther. There’s an interesting white hat; it looks like the shape of a cooling tower in a nuclear plant. I made a sculpture with a similar hat. The third, I had seen a photo of a woman who had her hair in an interesting bun, so I did that.

There’s a new article out on Scottie Pippen. He has the most interesting face. I don’t plan to do Scottie Pippen, but I’d love to do his nose to get that sense of strength from his face.

Have you ever approached someone and asked to sculpt them?

I haven’t, but I do have a lot of sculptures that end of looking like somebody. One looks like a former student. I sent him a private message and said, “Don’t you think this looks like you?” He took a look and said, “Oh my goodness, that looks exactly like me,” and he bought it.

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Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

What have you learned from sculpting faces?

I’ve discovered how little difference there is in faces. Just a slight difference in the nose or the chin and you completely change the face. A lot of what we associate with a different look has nothing to do with the face at all. It has to do with the context.

I was in China and I asked a professor if he knew where a tour group was from.  He said you couldn’t tell. But I could. They were from Japan. You could tell by the dress. How is it people know you are from America? People know you are American by your attitude and what you wear. There is a lot of similarity in faces.

Are some faces more difficult to capture than others?

“Meringue, Queen of the Confectionary Islands” by Sam Jacobson (clay sculpture, 12 by 6 inches)
“Meringue, Queen of the Confectionary Islands” by Sam Jacobson (clay sculpture, 12 by 6 inches)

Yeah. Some sculptors are quite sophisticated in their realism, with wrinkles and things as a face ages. I haven’t gone that direction. Mostly, I’m not sure how well I could do that. I find that the age of a person comes from more of a gestalt, not physical characteristics. I did one sculpture called The Crone, and it’s obvious when you look at her that she is probably in her 50s, but she could be anywhere from her 40s to 60s. Not because of any wrinkles or frown lines. It’s just kind of an aura about her.

Any face you’d like to sculpt but haven’t?

Both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family are Norwegian immigrants. I’ve made a couple of attempts at what I call the “Norwegian bachelor farmer.” But I haven’t captured it the way I want. A lot of people had families who immigrated where there weren’t people to marry; I have a lot of great-uncles and -aunts, and a good number never married.

I have an image of a great-uncle in particular, the ubiquitous bachelor farmer. I haven’t captured his nose, and I don’t have the cheekbone quite right. His nose is very distinctive. Very hawkish. Very strong. These were the days before the cabs on the tractors, so you always had the farmer tan: white where your hat was and the rest deeply tanned. It’s hard to get right. But I’ll keep working on it.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities, and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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