Dec 052007
Authors: Anica Wong

For most, the evolution of life just happens. For art instructor Peter Jacobs, that progression has helped him create his own art, using everyday objects like ladders, houses and salmon.

“All of life is a progression,” he said.

And Jacobs’ life progression has taken him everywhere from Alaska to China to Michigan to CSU.

When Jacobs’ art teacher in high school pushed him to go to art school instead of taking a full ride scholarship in wildlife management, Jacobs realized that art was his future.

Now, though, Jacobs’ evolution at CSU has ended. After 31 years in the art department, Jacobs will be retiring in May of 2008.

After getting his bachelors, masters and education degrees, Jacobs was offered a chairmanship at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. He took that position and for the next 11 years worked as a professor or chairperson at three different universities around the country. Finally, in 1976, Jacobs came to CSU.

“All around, CSU has been a really fine place to be,” Jacobs said, thinking back on his time here.

While at CSU, Jacobs has had a dual-appointment with the art department as well as the Center for Applied Studies in American Ethnicity, also known as CASAE. He teaches sculpture classes as well as Native American Art and Material Culture classes in the art department and CASAE.

His interest in Native American art started when he was a child. Growing up in New York near a reservation, his best friend was part of a tribe nearby.

Jacobs’ work reflects the style of the North West Coast Native art from British Columbia and Alaska.

“I was attracted to (Native art) initially as an art form,” he said. “But also as art in its own regard.”

The North West Coast Indians had specialists or professional artists who helped the artwork to stand out when almost everyone was creating art, Jacobs said.

Currently, Jacobs has a solo show at the Curfman Gallery on campus. Titled “Peter Jacobs – my life, my art . so far,” the show features much of Jacobs’ artwork, dating all the way back to his early days as an artist.

“It is kind of a sampling over the years,” he said.

There are some consistent themes that thread their way through Jacobs’ artwork, even from his beginning art days.

He uses three different symbols, ladders, houses and salmon to illustrate his theme – the cycle of life.

While in India with a Fulbright study group in 1980, Jacobs experienced the symbolism of ladders. He witnessed the Hindu tradition of carrying the body of a deceased person on a ladder to piles of wood used to burn the body.

Jacobs found that there are references to ladders dating as far back as 600 B.C. Jacobs also uses the idea of kiva ladders, which allow southwestern Native Americans to “migrate from their origins within Mother Earth to the present world and pointing upward to the ‘spirit world’ above,” Jacobs wrote in his artist statement in the gallery.

“All over the world, people are using ladders,” he said.

Another tool he uses is spirit houses — said to contain the spirits of the dead — to show the progression that we make from life on earth to another world.

Salmon swim upstream to the place where they were conceived to mate with other salmon. The circle of life is complete for these fish when they make it back to the ocean, which is why Jacobs uses these fish in his artwork.

Making the natural connection between ladders, spirit houses and salmon, Jacobs was able to intertwine all three into his work.

“It was a very organized progression of ideas,” he said.

Although there has been a natural progression in Jacobs’ life, only now has it hit him that he is facing his last semester at CSU.

“I don’t know how I feel about retiring,” he said, laughing. “Reality is kind of coming around.”

Jacobs, who has had 70 solo shows and numerous group exhibits, plans on writing a textbook on teaching sculpture classes as well as to continue creating his own art when he retires.

Jacobs has progressed through many memorable moments while he has been here at CSU, including creating the National Council for Art Administrators, a national organization, receiving the Higher Education Art Educator of the Year this year, and of course, opening his own show at the Curfman Gallery.

Now that the end of his career as a CSU art instructor is nearing, Jacobs sees his work and his time at CSU once again as an evolution.

He said it best in his artist statement, saying, “This is what my art is all about: the cycle of life . the journey up the ladder of life.”

Jacobs’ ladder has helped him to climb out of CSU and into another life.

Staff writer Anica Wong can be reached at

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