Doreen Jakob: Ceramic Artist, Owner of Doora Ceramics
Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.
Doreen Jakob is a Durham based artist, entrepreneur and scholar. After more than a decade in academia she founded doora ceramics to bring meaning to everyday objects and into everyday lives. Doreen tells her clients’ stories in clay by using their personal materials. She is a recipient of the Ella Fountain Pratt award for craft and exhibits her work at local as well as national arts and crafts festivals. Follow doora ceramics here.
Tell me a little bit about your history with ceramics.
My grandmother was a professional seamstress, my other grandmother crocheted. My mother knitted. So [craft] was always around.
I grew up in East Germany and spent a year as a high school exchange student in Canada. And my art studio there had a pottery wheel and I remember looking at it and thinking, “that’s really cool but I would only have a year to learn it.” But it stuck in the back of my mind.
When I moved to Durham I didn’t know anybody here, I worked online; [there was] no reason to leave the house. And I thought, “clay is so prominent in North Carolina. If I don’t do it here, where else am I going to do it?” My motivation was to do something I always wanted to do and do it in a place where it would give me a sense of place, it would ground me.
I very quickly realized that I liked the medium and that I could bring everything I had previously learned about arts and crafts to the medium. I could integrate [my history with textiles and fiber]. I did a lot of print-making when I lived in New York and Berlin, and I could experiment [with print] on clay. So [clay] was a platform onto which I could bring everything else I had learned previously.
You also have a PhD and are a social scientist. Do you see your academic background and your art as being related?
Yes I do. My academic work has always [been centered around] arts and culture and urban and economic development, either from the artists’ perspective or the public policy perspective. I worked predominantly in geography departments and urban studies think tanks examining the notions of the Creative City.
The idea of the Creative City was very prominent particularly in the early parts of the 2000’s and many cities in Europe or even Australia, where I also worked, were trying to find ways to become that. But often times many of these Creative City initiatives folded after a few years. With my last research project we looked at two craft guilds in the UK that are 64 and 86 years old, respectively. And the question was, “how are these networks able to sustain themselves while all these contemporary creative industries networks and incubator projects that are being sponsored with millions of euros, pounds, dollars are folding after a few years?”
I loved being on the interviewer side and enjoyed my work very much. But eventually I decided, “I’m going to move myself to the other side.”
Did you find that your academic background gave you the confidence to take that leap?
Well, I got into social science focusing on arts and culture because I was scared of needing to make an income with my art and it felt less risky to write about arts and culture.
My research definitely gave me an awareness. I never stopped making art throughout those years. But I wasn’t making my income from being an artist. That’s a totally different thing! Eventually, I did feel like I’d seen this [transition into making income from one's art] enough and was able to learn some of it from my interviews, at least I thought so. It’s always different once you’re in the cold waters.
My work is all about storytelling. I was a qualitative researcher, so [my research] was predominantly based on interviews. I was interviewing artists about their lives in a similar way I now talk with my clients. And I transfer that knowledge no longer onto paper but onto clay.
Can you think of a project that’s been most outside the box as far as what materials you use?
Goat hair! (laughs) This [was part of] a collaboration with Elodie Farms, a [goat] farm north of Durham. When we were first experimenting with how we would tell their story in clay, [a farmer] actually cut a piece of beard from a goat. We decided to go with some other materials because the hair didn't leave a good imprint. [I’ve worked with] wedding shoes. Lots of belts. Generally it’s special textiles and plants.
How can we get our country and also the world to value art and creativity more highly and what would it look like if we did?
I think about that all the time. I think about it from different perspectives. I’m a European living in the United States. I think arts and culture are valued very differently in Europe than in the US. They are more part of everyday life and firmly grounded in our culture and how we define ourselves.
For example, I have a 4-year-old son and he just started public school. In an American public school as soon as the budgets are cut, arts and culture gets slashed first. It’s just really disappointing because we know that in order for our society to succeed we need to be a creative society. Most manual labor will be taken over by robots.
So what makes our lives fulfilled? What makes us economically sustainable? Creative thinking. And how do you learn that? Not by memorizing in the classroom. Especially at such a young age you want to plant the seeds for creative thinking, for artistic expression, for thinking outside of the box. And it’s really unfortunate when it’s seen as just a separate thing that you can just cut [because it’s] seen as not as important as multiple choice test scores.
What do you think the world would look like if we did value art and creativity more highly?
I think people would be more peaceful. When you are able to express yourself artistically you become a more grounded person. And I think that we wouldn’t be as aggressive. We’d be able to channel our energy in different ways. We would probably be a more equal society.
In my urban research experience, cities want to be seen as creative or cultural and then they build a 12-million-dollar arts and cultural center that looks really good. That’s not what [being a creative or cultural city] mean[s]. But it helps because everything we do has to be quantified. We show revenue and losses and profits. But a creative society starts with being able to live your life creatively.
Yes, the impact of creativity can be so intangible. I was in fundraising for the arts for a long time and with every grant we received we had to report how it was used and what the quantifiable results were. And so much of that is intangible. Maybe someone saw a show provided by that grant and went home and completely changed their life. There’s no way you can write that into a grant report. But I have no doubt it happens.
Onto our next question: what does living a creative life mean to you?
[It means] having arts and culture embedded into my everyday life. Of course I love going to museums and seeing art. I love going to see dance and theater. And I do think that these events are really important.
My son went to see the Nutcracker and now he dances every night. He gets up from the dinner table and before we do our whole bedtime routine, we turn all the lights off, put the Nutcracker on and he moves around the room. I love that he comes up with movements. Kids can show us that so much better than we can. Kids don’t compartmentalize in the same way.
It’s important that I wake up and I’m excited to go into the studio. It doesn’t happen all the time. But that feeling of: “I can’t wait to get my hands on the clay and have ideas and express them and work with it and have time that’s just my time” – that’s a creative life for me.
What’s an assumption about making art that you believed as a young person that has surprised you as you’ve grown?
I contemplated studying art in high school. And I was really scared of the pressure to make a living from my art and what that would do to me artistically. I remember thinking, “well if I don’t wake up every morning thinking about my art then I can’t be an artist.” And so I went with a different passion – I studied geography, which was amazing because I really love traveling.
And when I started working with clay I did wake up in the middle of the night thinking of what I’d do with clay the next day. Now does that happen every time? No. But oftentimes it is the first thing or a very dominant thought. And the thing that’s surprising to me is that I don’t actually feel the professional pressures as much as I feared [even though] I do work fulltime as an artist. So that’s been an affirmation.
What are some creative challenges you’ve experienced during your arts journey?
There’s always something. Clay responds very strongly to the weather. When it’s more humid the clay is wetter and when it’s dry the clay cracks more. I find it fascinating but I didn’t anticipate how much I’d be working with a natural material. I’m working with nature. And we’re not really attuned with nature.
Last winter even though my studio is heated, some of the clay froze and there were ice crystals popping out of it. I had to throw everything away. That’s a challenge I never thought about.
What or who are some creative influences?
I’ve always loved Miro. I don’t look at a lot of ceramic artists [for influence] because I want to develop my very own aesthetic. I look more toward textile artists. I look at how a lot of artists, especially second-career artists, have transformed or built their careers because I find that really fascinating. [For example] Lisa Congdon was in non-profits before she got into illustrating and that totally motivates me.
Because my art is all about storytelling I observe how other artists tell stories. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Some of the interviewers blow me away. [For example] the woman who runs Design Matters, Debbie Millman. The questions she asks in the interviews are so on point, she’s so well prepared. There are a lot of artists who inspire me in the way they are thinking, talking and asking questions [rather than aesthetically]. I find everything that Grace Bonney, the woman behind Design*Sponge, does really inspiring.
[Podcasts inspire me to ask myself] how do other artists tell stories? What can I learn from them in terms of how I want to tell stories? And who do I want to work with?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more creative?
Just do it. Do it for yourself. Don’t do it for what other people think. Just do it because you like doing it. And whatever it is – if that’s running from one wall to the next to the music of the Nutcracker and that makes you happy – do it!
This interview has been edited and condensed.