For the last five decades, the forms and values of our region have been told in the works of Jake Van Wyk. Over the course of his career, he’s taught innumerable cohorts of art students at both Dordt and Northwestern and amassed staggering numbers of his paintings, drawings, sculptures and even photographs, all inspired by his life, his country, his religion and more.
When a kiln explosion burned down his studio and destroyed much of his life’s work in 2020, his immediate reaction of grief was soon healed by a greater sense that much of art is natural and out of human control. Though it seems an artist who teaches at great length about the thoughtfulness and intentionality of creating art would be contradicting himself to also admit that much of it is left to the forces of nature, so too it would seem contradictory that a farm-raised, corn-fed rural Iowan boy would grow up to follow a successful career in the classical arts. However, Jake Van Wyk is a pure and shining example of the wise words put to page by Walt Whitman in 1855 in his poem “Song of Myself, 51,” “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
His body of work is vast and shows a rich story of his developing style through the years. He is clearly impressed by the sloping forms of the Northwest Iowan landscapes around him, as it is the subject of much of his painting and drawing. So too, he admits a deep curiosity for angels and depictions of the apocalypse in the book of Revelation, which also comprise a large portion of his works. Those familiar with the paintings hanging in The Fruited Plain coffee shop in Sioux Center will recognize much of those as works by Jake Van Wyk.
On Nov 28, 2020, a vent on his Olympic kiln failed and the ensuing fiery explosion burned his studio to the ground. Hundreds of works were lost, and it took months to clean and parse through, but he remembers how the process, though horrific, led him to explore what was left after the fire, uncovering pieces he hadn’t seen in over twenty years. He remarks on the experience as such, “I work hard at keeping this nightmare at bay, but it has been life changing in many ways.”
Van Wyk’s work, “Out of the Fire,” a collection of pieces both completely spared or changed by the fire in significant ways, is on display in NW’s Te Paske Gallery, and will remain there until March 4. On Jan 12, he came and spoke about his pieces over light refreshments. He is an energetic and charming old man, deeply religious, and unlike most career artists. He would rest his half-eaten snacks and half-drunk drinks on his own pottery on display, and through his Midwestern charm I could see very little of the pain he suffered losing his studio just over a year ago.
Dissimilar to an artist like Garrison Keilor, or other rural artists who have—at least for some period of time—left the farm, only to return and interpret their rural upbringing with as much wistfulness as intellect, Van Wyk is a true rural artist.
He mentioned something when he was asked to speak about the pieces that I’ve been thinking about since. He told us that in picking through decades-old works, he remembers every stroke of every work. He explained art as a deeply thoughtful and intentional process. But contradictory to this is how he also explained how he spins pots, by letting the pot take its natural shape, his hands being only a follower to the clay. I half expected him to knock the pot in question off the display pedestal and watch it crash to the ground, for this too is, it seems, the natural tendency of clay that he described.
The same principle, of course, applies to how he now considers the fire that claimed so many years of his work. He had to reconcile with what was left behind and realize that the random power of fire was a beautiful accent to many of the pieces it scorched. The licks of smoke were strokes that he didn’t necessarily make himself, but certainly stokes he remembers. Art is a mysterious and natural, but nonetheless thoughtful process. It is as if his works were purified in the fires of the judgement which he has spent so much of his life exploring.