by Matt Robert / photo above by Stephen DiRado
Originally appeared in the May 8, 2013 issue of Worcester Magazine.
Becker College will celebrate its 225th Commencement on Saturday, May 11, and stage a one-night exhibit of Jacob Knight (born Roger Jaskoviak), the prominent local folk artist and the alumnus of the former Leicester Junior College (now the Leicester campus of Becker College), on Friday, May 10, from 6-9 p.m., as part if the College’s Commencement activities.
Though not exactly a household name, Jacob has a powerful cadre of acolytes and a number of avid collectors, who continue to bear the torch which illuminates this legendary character’s work. Combine this with the newfound attention from Jacob’s alma mater, in general, and its archivist, in particular, and then add a well-timed landmark in the college’s long history, and you just might have the catalyst to grow this accomplished artist’s status in the art world.
“First of all,” says Becker preservation archivist Nancy Richards, “we just really started putting this thing together in March. I had learned through my work in the archives that Jacob Knight had gone to school here, to Leicester Junior Academy, as Roger Jaskoviak, his birth name. He graduated in ’61.”
Jaskoviak, says Jonathan Cook and Kirk Jaskoviak’s biography assembled for the exhibit, had graduated from Spencer’s David Prouty High School, where he was a four-year class president, a dominant baseball and basketball player and track athlete, while also cartoonist for school publications, a drummer and drama club member. This last pursuit led him to Hollywood after graduation, where he appeared as an extra in several fi lms and acquired an acting contract, which he declined, choosing instead to return to the east coast. It sounds like a lot of details about Knight, but Richards says it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“One thing we’ve discovered is that there is no book,” says Richards. “There’s no complete listing of all of his works, and my coming at it with some experience as a librarian is that sense of completeness is very important.
“And going online you don’t find tons of things, and so there are still lots of holes. Exactly where is that original? Does anybody own this? Does it still exist? What’s the year of that? What’s the exact medium? So, we have a lot of research ahead of us, because my hope is that we can continue working on trying to get a full listing of everything he did, where it is today, that sort of thing.”
Richard’s challenge is exacerbated by the fact of the still spotty catalogue of this artist, who, by all accounts, made art out of everything, at every chance. He painted commercial and uncommissioned works; he sculpted, he made figures, collages, and still life arrangements from detritus scavenged from the town dump; he played guitar, bass, and drums; and he wrote poetry. And since no one person knows entirely what he made or where all of it might have ended up, the quickly assembled collection is anything but complete.
But it is as good a place as any to start.
“I began thinking,” says Richards, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have an exhibit or do something?” The result is the Jacob Knight Art Exhibit, which Richards hopes will break the ground for a permanent collection at the college. “As part of the college archives, which we really just established last fall,” Richards says, “there’s going to be a Jacob Knight special collection. We’ve already received some donations for that. We’ll have biographical information as well as, references to, or copies of, or original pieces, and photographs and [ephemera] if people want to donate those.”
And start it has. Documents, reproductions, and originals, as well as letters and posters and catalogues, have begun pouring in from friends, acquaintances, and contemporaries of Knight.
And this is how it begins: The art community expresses excitement, art enthusiasts collect the work and drive up its value, and groups, like colleges and universities, research and compile information that helps to complete the picture, while scholars continue to explore the meanings and historical value of the artist and works.
“One of the things that has been very interesting,” says Richards, “is that all of the people who knew Jacob as friends or relatives or classmates, going back to childhood, have been surprised at what other people have brought in or have talked about. So, even among those closest to him, no one seems to know everything that he ever produced. So, there’s been a lot of discovery going on, even among his closest friends.”
This is the beginning, perhaps, the birth of a bright light in art while his friends and family are still around to tell the story, warts and all.
The exhibit, she says, is for the purpose of “bringing together various pieces of his work to renew interest in him” and “to introduce people, who might not have heard of him to the diversity of his work.”
To this end, Richards has gathered a pretty representative sampling of Knight’s work. “Not everything is an original. We do have giclees [digital copies made on inkjet printers with a pseudo-original texture] of most, or I think all, of [Knight’s] community scenes.”
Richards has gathered several original pieces, including a morose head sculpted from wood and dressed with metal and nails that once hung outside Knight’s front door on Wigwam Hill in West Brookfield, where he made a living museum of his Colonial-era home. She also has clean, detailed folk scenes painted onto old door panels, and a rusty piece of duct work, beaten flat when Knight found it en route to the Brookfield Elementary School where he volunteered in art classes, and identified by the students as looking like a cat. Then, there is the wide wood panel adorned with old leather boot scraps that look like cuddling animals.
Knight saw the potential art in everything.
Richards has collected photos by B.A. “Tony” King of the artist himself and his zany domain, beautiful black and whites of the artist at rest amid his imagination manifested as a home. Others chronicle the day that Knight built a towering sculpture of old bikes – right in the road.
Then, there are the album covers done by Knight, for The London Philharmonic and Corky Laing, the poster of “Carly Simon on Her Lion,” the Martex Linens catalogue for its funky 1970s “Home Is Where the Art Is” collection, for which Knight designed a set of beddings; magazine covers, and event flyers (including one for a poetry reading at Worcester’s former Coffee Kingdom, for which Union Music’s Carl Kamp was an opening act).
And, of course, the exhibit will feature the works for which Knight is perhaps best known: his classically nostalgic mural-like paintings commemorating the southern New England towns around which he grew up, like Palmer and the Brookfields. “The one he did of Palmer fills the back wall of their community room – it’s huge,” says Richards.
Others mark milestones of area businesses, like Ware’s Mary Lane Hospital’s 75th anniversary and Worcester’s Coughlin Electric’s 100th; and yet others simply mark milestones, like the Boston Common’s birthday, and the 1991 Sturbridge Harvest Festival (for which Knight always donated an outsized, outrageous scarecrow).
“He worked in acrylic or oil on canvas,” says Richards. “One of the pieces actually appears to be oil on drapery fabric. He did a lot of pieces that are what you would call ‘found objects’ or ‘bris-collage.’ He and some of his friends would make runs to the dump in West Brookfield to collect shoes, dolls, bottles, pans – almost anything you could think of,” says Richards, “and then create works from those.
“It’s a fairly common technique,” she says, “but Knight makes it distinctive. Many of the pieces he created were larger than life size.” One well known example, documented in one of the exhibit’s photographs, is a gigantic figure made entirely out of white enamel pots and pans that stood guard in his yard.
Knight excelled on canvas, too, creating meticulous, miniature worlds full of stories rooted in keen observation of geographic and cultural details, and, like Norman Rockwell, clues suggesting identities, including his own, in the works. “His works are also very personal. [In] the community scenes people can identify themselves and many times he’d work his friends in, even on album covers,” Richards says.
One such album cover, for Corky Laing’s 1977 album, “Makin’ it on the Street,” shows Jacob’s friend, the late Worcester familiar, Paul “Tiny” Stacey, who can be recognized by the blue plate he holds, signifying the Holden bar with which he is associated. An art blog features posts by “Sue Edling” discussing a painting of Knight’s that included several friends. Edling was disappointed at her omission, until Knight explained that she was a butterfly tucked safely under a boat at the bottom of the work.
“Knight excelled at both creating worlds and representing the world around him,” says Richards, “wherever that might be – Wigwam Hill, Martha’s Vineyard, Spencer or Palmer, Mass. and he did so with intelligence, ingenuity, insight, whimsy, and charm.”
So, despite the often biographical, literal nature of his folk paintings, he deemed his work “fantasy.” The term is fitting, as peculiar abstract elements often compete with otherwise documentary landscapes, such as a painting loaned to Becker by Frank and Patti White of West Brookfield, which naively depicts a small town and a disproportionately large white cat looming over the night horizon.
“It’s whimsical fantasy/folk art,” Richards says. “He had a great sense of color; and there is a real balance between human and animal life, and in many cases the animal life and nature predominate over the human images.”
THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST BY YOUNG ARTISTS
The house on Wigwam Road, where for decades, Jacob laid low and made art and friends (and perhaps a few disgruntled enemies among his neighbors), and which became in time something of a mecca for young artists who were drawn into his ever growing sphere of influence, bears little trace of the surrealism of his painted woodpiles and rock walls, his looming tin pan scarecrows, and the carved faces that emerged from trees throughout the surrounding woods. (The house remains, though the barn leans precariously to the ground.) The memories among some young artists transformed by Jacob Knight’s vision, however, burn bright as ever.
Stephen DiRado, a noted photographer based in Worcester, and an arts faculty member at Clark University, tells stories of social comment through his work. In the early ’80s, he shot a series at Worcester’s Bell Pond and another at the Galleria Shopping Mall.
He says that he met Jacob “in 1985 through a mutual artist friend, [realist, surrealist] Bryan Davagian.” Jacob, he says, had asked Bryan to drive him out to Knight’s home on Wigwam Road in West Brookfield, “to become acquainted and talk about life and art.” This led to a series of photos, at Wigwam Road, beginning in April of 1987, later published in DiRado’s book “Jacob’s House: Photographs 1987- 1994.” DiRado set up a makeshift studio in Jacob’s barn, where he made painstaking prints of the artist’s collections, and occasionally photographed the artist, too.
PHOTO: Portrait of Jacob Knight at his home by friend and fellow artist Stephen DiRado.
“My, or anybody’s, first visit to Jacob’s house is overwhelming,” says DiRado. “His environment makes any hardcore hoarder jealous. The only difference is that there was a sense of an aesthetic placement of everything collected about in his acres of yard, barn and house. It was a visual feast, and bewildering to the mind to comprehend the sanity of an individual who self-proclaims to be the caretaker of so much chaos.
“As a visual artist and one who documents community, I was hooked,” DiRado says. “Not only for what Jacob achieved with his collection, but [because] Jacob himself was an enormously charismatic individual that was impossible to neatly define. If you were willing to hold on and go for the ride, Jacob became a magician in front of your eyes, relentlessly performing his magic to an individual or willing audience.”
Beauty, though, rests in the eyes of the beholder, they say, and DiRado says Jacob was no exception. “To others, he was toxic and a recluse that was perceived to lack any sort of sophistication. Jacob was a bohemian to the bone.”
To DiRado, though, Jacob Knight was tonic not toxic. “It didn’t take me long – after a few visits – to love, respect and cherish a visionary that somehow, against all odds, in his early 50s, held onto the idealistic child within him,” he says. “Contrast this with a man that is well over 6 feet tall and looks like a lumberjack, sporting a prominent gold tooth when smiling.
“I was one of many artists that frequently drove down Wigwam Road, an old country road (at that time), to Jacob’s. We were all ears, like kids, hearing bedtime stories about his life.”
These stories are now the stuff of legend: “He was a baseball star in high school,” says DiRado, “worked briefly as an extra in Hollywood, and then moved to NYC to become a janitor at NYU in the art department. There he pulled out of the trash discarded canvases that he reworked to develop his own primitive maturing style. The finished paintings he sold out of the back of a van to the likes of Liza Minnelli, (Hungarian photographer) Andre Kertesz, (late folk guitarist) Richie Havens, members of the Rockefeller family and many more. It was hard to connect Jacob to any of these people,” says DiRado, “until he showed me photos of him side by side with all [of them].”
“Kertesz,” says DiRado, “has a portrait of Jacob in his book titled ‘Portraits.’ I was at a Richie Havens concert with Jacob in 1993, that impressed me the most. Havens, at the end of one of his songs looked out into the audience, spotted Jake and acknowledged him. Later, behind the stage, the two of them hugged and talked about old times.”
“Jacob proclaimed to be the keeper of the Brookfield’s dump. Five times a week he would rummage through new deliveries to bring back and archive an array of items. I witnessed him many times over file away books, picture frames, old photographs, toasters, kitchen utensils, and boxes. Boxes full of belongings to a recently deceased, a person’s history collected in a box to be thrown away because they were the end of the family line. Jacob felt somebody owed it to them to remember. I went through many of these boxes and relived many a stranger’s life.
“Over the years, starting in 1987, I made it a point to photograph Jacob in and around his house. Later, by the early ’90s, I invited Jake to stay with me and other friends on Martha’s Vineyard. We picked up our same conversations about life and art wherever we ended up together.”
DiRado recalls, “Upon my first visit, Jacob, now sober for a number of years, told me that his best friend for decades was Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, but it almost killed him. Sadly, with no effective say in the matter, I witnessed Jacob’s return to drinking by early 1993. Jacob died in the fall of 1994.”
For Rhode Island painter Don Cadoret, “My relationship with Jacob Knight began in the early 1980s when I went to photograph him for stories for publication. And, after first meeting him, I immediately became — I don’t know — entranced, transformed, whatever, because we were both painters and of very similar style or look at life, and from that point on, I was at his house two or three times a week photographing him, bringing paintings up and we would work out details and try to solve compositional and story elements. So, I knew him for probably 10 or 12 years.
“He was definitely the attraction,” says Cadoret. “So many people would show up at his door just to visit with Jacob and it could be problematic, because he was trying to get work done, but he never turned anyone away. He loved having visits and talking about art or the way he saw the world.
“I refer to it, I guess, as a childlike sense,” he says. “He was kind of a poet with a paintbrush and I think that’s how I changed my outlook at that point, thinking in more poetical terms, but it was still very childlike, and my work has a similar feel to it. And so I think that connection between us was immediate. He was a story painter, so he would infuse his paintings with story, vibrant colors — it was whimsical and serious at the same time. I really enjoyed that aspect of his work, and his personality matched it perfectly.”
“He kind of was putting this word out, calling it ‘folkism,’” says Cadoret, “but the whole word ‘folk’ sometimes has a negative connotation. ‘Naïve’ style is probably more correct, because he intentionally chose to paint in a naïve style, because I think it was easier to convey the story he wanted to tell and ultimately it became easily accessible for everybody else to pick up what he was saying, be it in an illustration or some of his more magical works before that, in the ’60s and ’70s.
“It’s been an argument in art circles for maybe 30 or 40 years or more about the word ‘folk art’ and how it is applied to artists, either contemporary or artists that have been dead for decades,” he says. “I guess they’re more comfortable with the phrase with long dead artists and folk artists, and when you call someone a contemporary folk artist it’s almost a slur — not really a serious artist, although Jacob really believed he was a serious artist, and he was a serious artist and an illustrator at the same time.”
Cadoret says that “anyone who is totally passionate about it and can’t do anything but that; they’re just obsessed with their painting and creating. To me, that’s a serious artist, whether they get recognized or not. Jacob had his own recognition during his lifetime; not as much since then, although it’s definitely long overdue, because I believe he was definitely a serious artist and, by Becker acknowledging that and really wanting to get behind an important alum that they have, hopefully will bring more of his work out into the forefront.”
Jacob Knight’s works have not yet garnered the auction prices that would make an “Antiques Roadshow” contestant gasp or earn TV news highlights. Several auction websites record sales in the past decade that top out at about $1,200 for one of Knight’s paintings, with several others ranging from $400 to $1,000. Still, the enthusiasm of people like Cadoret and DiRado, who still carry the verve of those whose lives have been altered by the model of another, is a good start. Add to that, the rich anecdotes of a life lived with passion, spontaneity, and vision (Jacob was an untrained artist. It is said that he spent exactly one day at an art school in Boston. The instructor held up a paintbrush and said, “This is a paintbrush.” Jacob quit.) and you have the kernels that may sprout into a posthumous career with legs. In fact, a bulletin board on askart.com teems with posts inquiring about the deceased artist, from former schoolmates relating his sports heroics to those who were inspired by Jacob Knight’s ways, on and off canvas, and many others hoping to contribute to some kind of complete biography of the man.
“We’re just working our way into it,” says Richards at Becker. “[He is a] very interesting man and I think the thing that I’ve noticed most strongly is how beloved he remains almost 30 years after he died. The people who knew him just love him.”
Attend a reception for the Jacob Knight Art Exhibit at Becker College on the Leicester Campus, in the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Campus Center, 964 Main St., Leicester on Friday, May 10 from 6-9 p.m. Those interested in contributing Jacob Knight artwork to the exhibit should call the Becker College Office of Institutional Advancement at 508-373-9531.