Video by Kathryn Kao
Vision can be many things. It can be a gift, a science, an image or a distant dream.
But for Jonathan Jacquet, a professional artist, a security supervisor at the Georgia Museum of Art and a soon-to-be-nurse, vision is an obsession. His paintings and sculptures cling to a fading age of Romanticism that often borders on the grotesque. As an artist, he is heavily influenced by a childhood accident that left him blind in one eye, and on many levels, viewing his works is like reading an intimate autobiography. He is enthralled by how the brain and eye function together to read depth and proportion. In fact, most of his works of art examine the science of neurobiology to explain the physiological processes that occur while a person is drawing. For some people, this may be a dense and complicated subject matter, but for Jacquet, it is his life.
He is a great admirer of scientists like Margaret Livingstone and Nobel Prize winner Ruth Hubbard for their investigations of how the eye functions. Jacquet humbly explains that Livingston’s article on Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt might explain why he has a natural ability to replicate visual objects from life onto a two-dimensional plane. “There has been a lot of science and biology that’s fed into the understanding of vision and how the mind processes vision,” says Jacquet. “Just how you hold a pencil, that tactile feel, how the touch is and the amount of brain space dedicated to the hand is miniscule compared to the amount of brain space dedicated to the retina.”
His stereo blindness, or inability to see depth, is a visual experience that is often represented as a ring or halo in his paintings. In a nut shell, his art depicts what an eye sees. If a person shuts one eye, he or she sees a round, oval shape that defines the perimeter of his or her vision. This ring, representing Jacquet’s unique field of vision, is often depicted in sketches with his nose at the bottom left corner and his eyebrow peeking over the top. Additionally, the anatomy of the retina is built in concentric rings that he believes students can use as a tool to perceive angles, horizons and values. Although this takes a bit of awareness on the artist’s part, the ring in the center of Jacquet’s vision makes reading proportions a great deal easier. “The amount of brain space dedicated to perceiving vision is phenomenal,” says Jacquet. “A student that could train themselves to become more aware of the retina as a tool would greatly aid them in drawing.”
To Jacquet, the retina is just as important as the hand, if not more. “Sight is a wonderful gift that is easily lost,” he says, gazing out the window at a clear sky. “Just being able to see currently, I greatly appreciate it.”
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Born on February 13, 1975, Jacquet was only 5-years-old when he stabbed his left eye. “I was carving a piece of wood with scissors my mom took away,” says Jacquet sheepishly. “But I kept sneaking the scissors and carving to make a little knife.” To cut the tape, Jacquet put the end of the roll in his mouth and started poking it with scissors, when he lost his grip and accidentally stabbed his eye. “I don’t remember it hurting. I do remember walking into the living room and being like, ‘Mom, am I going to be blind?’ and she said, ‘Yes, Jon, I think you probably will be.’”
He was flown to Minneapolis, Minn., where doctors removed the lens over his left eye. But less than a year later, he suffered a retinal detachment that required doctors to wrap a sclera band around his eye. “I actually found out just recently that they should have removed it at around age 12, so my eye could have grown some,” he says. “But my eye is the same size as it was when I was 5-years-old because of the restriction by the sclera band. So there’s actually a rubber band around my eye, but it’s a piece of silicone.” Jacquet is frank about wanting a fake eye one day. “If I saved enough money, but it’s $3,000.”
Jacquet’s earliest memory is of his first house in Marion County, Fla. He remembers the cows in his backyard, two geese, a fig tree and his dog named Blue. His parents, Leon and Melanie, met at a Bible college and moved the family, which included Jacquet’s brother Emmanuel and sister Star, across the country. The family traveled from Florida to North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, back to Florida and then to Idaho, where they lived on a dairy farm for two years. When his family moved back to Florida from Wyoming, they lived on his grandfather’s front porch for six months. Jacquet slept under a desk. “I think those were some of my favorite memories,” says Jacquet. “When I think about it, I’m like ‘Wow, we must have been really poor.’”
While he was attending elementary school, his father moved the family to Cambridge, Idaho to find work. Two years later, Jacquet moved back to Florida, living in a tent for two to three months as the family traveled from Idaho. Along the way, Jacquet helped his father move water lines in fields and load up trucks with hay for money. “It was fun. We got to see birds and be outside all the time doing stuff,” he says. “We were just like migrant labor.”
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A romantic appreciation of sculpture and wood carving runs through Jacquet’s bloodline. His grandfather was a Swedish wood carver and cabinet maker, and his paternal relatives were glassblowers. Jacquet believes this hierarchical perception of art perpetuates within him, often hampering his professional goals. Nevertheless, the classically trained artist couldn’t care less about using an outmoded medium. “It’s what I like to do,” he says simply. “There are people that do what I want to do better, but I’m where I’m at.”
He holds an intense affinity with major European artists and sculptors of the 16th and 17th centuries. Much of this appreciation stems from the depth of vision he experiences while standing in front of older paintings. Italian artist Caravaggio and Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker Pieter Bruegel are some of Jacquet’s favorite artists. Their technique of layering transparent paint over opaque colors allows him to see a degree of depth despite his stereo blindness. His romantic fascination with wood sculptures—a medium he’s struggled to make time for in the past decade—is inspired by German sculptor and woodcarver Tilman Riemenschneider. “His work method was primarily facilitating a team of carvers to make a cohesive work of art and not carving solely as one individual,” says Jacquet. “It’s beautiful to me because it goes against the narrative of the isolated artist.”
Jacquet is a history junkie, naming the English Reformation as one of the most fundamental turning points in art. It was during this time that his favorite painters started shifting away from the church toward the bourgeoisie as their primary supporters. Jacquet mimics the quiet drama of the early Baroque period by applying the painting techniques of Spanish painters Francisco de Zurbarán and Diego Velázquez. “I think Jonathan’s work is notably outside the trends in contemporary art,” says Katya Tepper, a contemporary painter and performance artist based in Athens, Ga. “They feel reactionary. I define them not by what they are, but by what they are not, how outside of the zeitgeist they feel. Although he and I appear to be working on opposite ends of the spectrum with our paintings, I think we are both mesmerized by paint as a material, and we are both expected to refer to its intense history when we make art in the age of technology.”
Jacquet enjoys modeling sculptures after bog bodies, or preserved human corpses found in Northern Europe. When he lived in New York during the 1990s, he made several life-size figures from wood, hand-stitching leather over them with kite string to create a mummy effect. “Those who are looking for pictures to match their sofa don’t quite ‘get it,’” says Shawn Vinson, a professional art advisor and Jacquet’s representative in Atlanta. “Jonathan’s work stopped and made me look further. I was struck by his unique style and his painting talent was obvious.” These leather bodies were often suspended from the ceiling or hung from the wall for balance and dramatic effect. “I think I’m kind of attracted towards the grotesque because of my eye,” says Jacquet. “The facial deformity that’s caused by the eye being smaller than the other one is always there.”
In 1997, Jacquet graduated from the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., with a bachelor’s degree in sculpture. He later earned his master’s in sculpture from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2001. Jacquet was a scenic sculptor for the Ringling Bros. Circus for two years, carving massive floats from polyurethane foam. He sculpted a 40-foot-tall mountain for “Hercules on Ice” and cast 40 to 50 skulls for Rasputin’s lair in “Anastasia on Ice.” As the lead scenic sculptor for Sightline Studios in Stark, Fla., Jacquet helped construct a 30-foot-long dragon that now sits in a theme park called Terra Mítica in Spain. Additionally, he carved rocks for Universal Studios, sanded the seat backs of river rafting ride Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and carved a Mickey Mouse statue for a rest stop off Interstate 4 in Florida.
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Jacquet currently works at the Georgia Museum of Art as a security supervisor and at Athens Regional Medical Center as a patient sitter. He is finishing his last year of nursing school at Athens Technical College and will graduate next spring. Balancing his time making art with work and family is a stressful challenge for the father of two. For the past decade, he has not created many sculptures—his preferred medium—because of time constraints.
He adores his two children, Daisy, 8, and Victor, 6, but admits that taking care of them limits time for his art. On weekdays, he wakes up at 7:15 a.m. to feed his kids and drop them off at school, so he can get to class by 8:30 a.m. After his two four-hour-long lectures are over, he picks his children up from school and tries to devote the rest of his time to them. Every Tuesday, he takes them to the library so they can check-out books and do homework. “Victor’s starting to read, and Daisy’s reading chapter books,” says Jacquet. “She’s in this kind of network for kids and what books they read.” He can name several of her favorite series off the top of his head: “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Judy Moody” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
When he arrives home, he cooks dinner (his entire family is vegetarian), gives his children baths and then reads to them for an hour before they fall asleep. He has about 90 minutes to himself after this to read and prepare for the next day.
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After spending most of his childhood in and out of hospitals, Jacquet knew he wanted to be either a doctor or an artist. The course curriculum at Athens Tech coincides with Jacquet’s interest in medicine and, he hopes, will provide him with a stable income in the future. Despite his interest in both areas, Jacquet still feels torn between his art and nursing school. “I hope my pursuit of art doesn’t damage my career as a nurse,” he says. “I don’t know how corruptive the two will be.”
He believes that sacrifices in his artwork are necessary to pursue a career in nursing. “People’s lives are important,” he says. “If they need me to be at a level of skill that might be impeded by my career in art, then I might have to sacrifice something.” Despite his confusion, he finds nursing fulfilling. He both fears and respects the amount of dedication the profession requires. In clinicals, students are expected to mimic a nurse’s typical work day, often forcing Jacquet to put art on the back burner. After spending eight hours a week in class and 36 hours a week prepping and doing paper work, he doesn’t have much time to paint.
Instead, he turns to his children for inspiration. Lately, Victor has been drawing more. He likes to decorate pages, stapling them together to make a book or magazine. “They believe they’ll be able to draw like I can,” he says. “To help them, I put pirate patches on them, so they can draw with one eye.” He wants his children to follow their interests and isn’t too concerned about them learning how to draw accurately from life. “I have a vision of what I’m trying to work towards,” he says. “Sometimes it gets clouded, but I have faith that I know what I want to do. I always know I’ll be making art.”