ELKHART — Sometimes covered in sawdust or splattered with paint, Jake Webster punctuates every sentence with a warm smile and a laugh.
Webster, an artist with a two-story studio downtown, has been painting, sculpting and jotting down poetry for as long as he can remember.
“I have never dreamed of being or doing anything else,” said Webster, who will celebrate his 66th birthday on Feb. 20. “When most kids were thinking about being doctors, lawyers, policemen and firemen, I just wanted to draw and color.”
Among the pieces that Webster creates are contemporary wooden sculptures, some small and others towering, detailed with smooth curves and cavities.
“In the old days, I would have to find the wood on my own, but now, every time a tree falls, somebody calls me,” he said. “Better still, sometimes they bring it to me.”
One chunk of wood on the ground floor of Webster’s studio weighs close to three tons, he estimated.
Webster’s passion for sculpting can be seen in his ink drawings and paintings.
“I’m interested in shapes and light direction more than I am anything else,” explained Webster, who co-owns Artpost Gallery in South Bend. “Before I go social or political, my main concern is how I transform this blank piece of paper or this blank log into something that’s worthwhile for me to talk about.”
Dave Casper, a poet who met Webster in the mid-70s, has at least 15 of Webster’s sculptures, paintings and drawings at his home in Benton Harbor, Mich.
“No matter how long I’ve looked at a piece, it seems like every time I get a chance to sit and stare at one, I will see something new,” Casper said. “There are so many fine details that when you look at it, you might not see something. You have to be exposed to his art over and over again to really start to see the details come out.”
Much like his sculptures, Webster’s paintings are accented by texture, incorporating everything from cereal boxes and aluminum soda cans to horseshoe nails and rope.
“I’m really amazed at what he does,” said Eileen Welch, owner of the downtown gallery Faces of Art. “I was very drawn to him. He’s a very giving, very joyful person.”
For Webster, portrait painting is a collaborative process. He asks his models to write something positive about themselves on the paintings using a calligraphy pen.
“Most women can say terrible things about themselves and find it difficult to say good things, and since I don’t make bad art,” he said, pausing to chuckle, “I don’t want you to say nothing bad about yourself. And I don’t care if it’s written nice and neat because art is never nice and neat.”
Webster wants to create a positive, constructive dialogue through art. One of his favorite subjects is family.
“There are two kinds of families — dysfunctional and dysfunctional,” he laughed. “If you come from a dysfunctional family that makes you cry, you’re still expected to grow up to be kind, loving and good. If you come from a dysfunctional family that makes you laugh all the time, we still want you to be kind, loving and good.”
Until two years ago, Webster worked with teens at the Elkhart County Juvenile Detention Center.
“They all thought I was coming there to teach them how to draw and paint, but I was really interested in teaching them how to read and write. Art was just a vehicle to get them to do that,” Webster said, adding that he wanted to erase any fear or anxiety that comes with learning something new.
Art and education are Webster’s passions, Casper said.
“I wish the community could find more ways to make use of him as a resource,” Casper said about his longtime friend. “He’s a gem in our community.”