Past, Present, and Future at the Huntington


To me, Ferne Jacobs's basket-like sculptures call for repeated view­ings, in the same way that one cannot comprehend a lovely symphonic tone poem from one listening. Her coiled fiber objects are three-dimensional drawings in space. And that is their magic.

Kenneth R. Trapp, Formerly, Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American ArtMuseum

 Ferne Jacobs's father wanted her to be a secretary, though in retrospect few people seem less suited to typing and shorthand. Even in high school, "I would do anything not to write a paper," she has recalled, noting that a "lot of the teachers would let you do these art projects" instead.* A sprite of a woman, with a nimbus of gray hair and a faraway, if impish, look in her eye, Jacobs is a fiber artist who likes to say that her "life has been led by a thread"-by which she means that while it has evolved and transformed in sometimes mysterious ways, it is all connected. The same can be said of her art.

Ferne Jacobs sits by the edge of the karesansui in the Japanese Garden. Also known as a dry land¬scape or waterless stream garden, the karesansui is a Buddhist place of contemplation, where the viewer uses his or her imagination to interpret the scene. Steiner-Halperin photograph.



The non-academic (who earned an MFA even though she never graduated from college) gained her education by connecting with one leader in her field after another. She started as a painter, studying briefly with Ron Blumberg and Gabriel Laderman, and found her way to weaving after walk­ing into a studio on a Los Angeles street. "I don't even remember his name, but he had a loom and I was enthralled by the threads-the color and texture, and the smell of the threads." After that she bought her own loom, and her relationships started to build, and entwine: Arline Fisch, Mary Jane Leland, Dominic de Mare, Olga de Amaral, Peter Collingwood, Jack Lenor Larsen, Joan Austin, Lenore Tawney, and the list goes on.

Cabinet by Walter Crane (1845-1915), English. c. 1875. Ebonized wood with silk-on-linen em¬broidered panels; height 32 ½, width 22, depth 12 ¼ inches. Crane was probably encouraged to take an interest in embroidery by his friend Wil¬liam Morris, whose literary manuscripts were col¬lected by Huntington. Gift of the Art Collectors Council.

Jacobs moved from flat weaving to basket shapes and then to larger three-dimensional sculptures. Today she primarily uses the bas­ketmaking techniques of coiling and twining, practiced since ancient times and used throughout the world. Because of the size and intricacy of her pieces, the process is laborious and exhausting. A work takes about six months. "Each piece I make takes me into a mystery that I have to solve," Jacobs says. "I become like an old Indian basketmaker, sitting with my work in my lap." She might start with an idea or a color, but "the minute I see the actual line in front of me, the idea just fades away; it disappears and I'm left with that line in that moment."

The Night of Enitharmon's Joy by William Blake (1757-1827), 1795. Planographic color print with hand-tinting, 16 ¾ by 22 inches (sheet).


Jacobs's appreciation of the mysterious-as well as of the unknown and of the ambiguities of the psyche (she reads Carl Jung)-no doubt explains her affinity for William Blake's Night of Enitharmon's Joy at the Huntington. A par­ticular interest of Henry Huntington's, the multifaceted Blake is one of the writers best represented in the extraordinary holdings of eighteenth- to twentieth-century English manuscripts and first editions in the Huntington Library. The Rare Book Collection holds a num­ber of his illuminated volumes; the hand-colored print is one of nearly one hundred separate Blake works of art housed in the art collections.

"Blake was an explorer of images and ideas,"

Jacobs says. "He was moved to create a per­sonal philosophy and images that made it visible to him. The colors and energy of the print remind me of my Medusa's Collar. The figure of the woman [recently identified as Enitharmon, a repressive nature goddess in Blake's mythology] also reminds me a little of Medusa in that she appears strong. There are all these odd or dreamlike figures, too, and the different curls that move around my work remind me of these dream figures."

Medusa's Collar by Jacobs, 2009-2010. Coiled waxed linen thread; height 18 inches. Photograph by Susan Einstein.




As one thought seems to thread its way to another in Jacobs's mind it is easy to understand why many disparate aspects of the Huntington's collection appealed to her. In addition to the Blake, and perhaps for obvious reasons, she is enchanted by Walter Crane's aesthetic movement cabi­net with its embroidered figures representing Sight and Smell. Outdoors she delights in the bam­boo forest and karesansui, or dry landscape garden (where she is pho­tographed) in the Japanese Garden-"threads, they are so like threads." But the most astonishing object to her is an eighty-volume scrapbook in the photography de­partment created over a lifetime by Frederick W. Nelson-"an absolute treasure." I think everyone who saw it would agree.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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