You’ve probably seen Jacob Weitzner ’22 around campus sporting his handmade shoes and pandemic-era shoulder-length hair. Jacob has that indescribable quality that tells you upon first glance that he has a deep connection with nature. It’ll come as no surprise, then, that Jacob’s medium is a form of intimately shaping the earth: pottery.
“At its core, the clay that we’re working with is from the earth,” Jacob mused. In fact, Jacob’s art not only begins with earth, but is informed by it in its completion as well. “Right now, I’m working on a set of teapots that have a lot of natural textures and movement. These pinched forms are meant to evoke tree bark.”
I got the chance to sit down with Jacob in the ceramics studio in Beardsley for our interview together, where I got to see these intricate and winding ruminations on florae. I had seen, handled, and even drank from many of Jacob’s finished pieces, which he generously gives to friends around campus, but I had never seen his process up close before. As we talked, I learned that Jacob got his start doing pottery in high school, when a class was offered his sophomore year. Since then, he has sat in or taken as many ceramics classes as possible. But in the years before this artistic discovery, Jacob wasn’t as aesthetically confident as the fine young craftsman we all know him as today.
“I always liked visual art, but never quite developed the skills of fine art drawing or painting. But I found that, in pottery, I was able to express a lot of those kinds of 2-D, very abstracted, very simplified designs into a 3-D form. It’s tactile. I’ve enjoyed building other things with my hands, like woodworking, or sewing,” Jacob said. “But I didn’t really think of myself as an artist until I found this art form.”
Sitting across from Jacob in the ceramics studio, next to some of his larger and more intricate pieces, it’s difficult to imagine him struggling with his identity as an artist. But despite all the hours Jacob spends in Beardsley, he is actually a history major, and manages an intricate equilibrium between life as a student, artist, and a student artist.
“I’ve had to strike this balance of taking pottery classes, but having it be functionally a secondary part of my college experience. There is a tension there. I think because I’m not an art major, and because I haven’t really thought about myself as an artist until recently, anytime I go into the studio when I should be doing history work or other academic work, I feel like I’m distracting myself or I’m procrastinating. I think it’s been important for me to embrace this as a real part of myself, rather than a side hobby.”
Part of Jacob’s struggle with his identity as an artist comes from ceramics itself and its nature as a physical, functional form.
“It does fill this kind of complicated space between these silly terms of craft and art,” Jacob said about his identity as a potter. “When I’m sitting down to make a dozen cups to sell or to give as holiday gifts or something like that, I feel a little more like a craftsperson — craft being the lost art of turning raw materials into a finished good by hand.”
However, being a ceramics student at Swarthmore College under Syd Carpenter has pushed Jacob to begin to think about himself as a true artist with an aesthetic eye as well as a craftsman.
“She has really pushed me to think about concepts of design and aesthetic as more than just making a nicely crafted object,” Jacob said about Professor Carpenter. “Because sometimes I can make a cup and it can function well. And it can even look good. But I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve expressed something through it. I think that’s often the distinction [between art and craft]. it doesn’t have to be anything literal or philosophical, but just like, is there emotion? Was I using my eye when I made it? Did I do something that was unexpected to myself?”
While the journey to aesthetic beauty has been a recent focus of Jacob’s, the functionality of his pieces remains high priority. His products have become a way to not only express himself artistically but to express his love for friends and family.
“I think that the feeling of making something functional is pretty indescribable. It’s the closest thing to turning raw material into a finished good that I have in my life. In my apartment on campus, I have a few dozen cups and bowls and other pieces that I’ve made. Anytime I eat or drink anything, I get the satisfaction of using my own work and knowing that I’ve made something. Much more importantly, I get the satisfaction of sharing with other people. I think a lot of it comes from a sense of hospitality and wanting to share something with others. Making with the intention of sharing is a pretty rare gift, especially in a college experience, where so much of your time is put towards what is, for good, and for ill, a pretty self-centered practice of learning and self-development.”
In addition to sharing his finished work with friends, Jacob enjoys the communal aspect of working in the Beardsley studio with other student artists. One of his favorite elements of pottery has been learning from those around him and also passing on his craft by working as a teacher. The studio has become a meditative, cathartic place for him.
“It’s therapeutic, because you have to be so focused. The slightest movement of your hand can knock a pot off-center, you can rip through the wall of a big thrown form, or you can stretch the pot just a little too far so it collapses. But also, if you have a really attentive eye, you can get that curve just as you wanted it.”
Thinking about it further, Jacob clarified, “You have to be focused, but also you have to let go a little bit. You can’t control every movement. You have to rely on some intuition, of the muscle memory of it all, and sometimes even zone out a little bit. There’s a repetition to it as well that is really therapeutic.”
As we wrapped up the interview, Jacob expressed some final thoughts on the magnitude of his form.
“There’s such a rich — over 10,000 year — human tradition of ceramics and pottery that emerged around the world, you know, independently, you know, in dozens and dozens of cultures around each kind of their own methods and aesthetic taste and some of these traditions that live on through the present, but what’s really interesting is also seeing the kind of the design choices that emerged independent of each other. I don’t think there are, you know, essential pottery forms, but there are definitely things that we really love. I think that’s pretty exciting to be connected to that tradition that has been so universal.”
Maybe Jacob’s academic passion for history isn’t so different from his artistic interests after all. Looking towards the future, he’s drawn to a variety of career options in the field of his major. For now, though, he’s going to spend some time at the wheel.
“I’ve recently made what is a hard choice, but exciting choice, which is next year to try and make pottery full time. Supporting myself with another job, but trying to go into the studio 30 hours a week in a way that I’ve never been able to and trying to explore what it would mean to work as an artist and to sell work. I’m excited. But it’s an unexpected development.”