A Knife Way to Start the Day

Every morning for a decade, a Montclair artist crafts meticulous collages from the daily paper.

Peter Jacobs hard at work on a collage.
"It's a ritual that eases me into my day," says Peter Jacobs, making his March 12 collage from the New York Times.
Photo by Eric Levin

Few newspaper subscribers have ever anticipated the daily thump on the doorstep as eagerly as Peter Jacobs has for the last decade. And none who still relish, as he does, the morning ritual of perusing the paper over coffee at the kitchen table get out of it what he has every single day since March 31, 2005: a finished work of art in about two hours.

Jacobs, 54, a photographer, curator and oft-exhibited artist, has been making collages since 1980. Some are more than 5 feet wide. But the Collage Journal, which he began in the kitchen of his Montclair home that morning in 2005, is intimate in scale. He makes each day’s collage from photos, ads and illustrations he cuts with an X-Acto knife from that day’s New York Times. After pasting the finished work into a 9-by-12-inch, spiral-bound watercolor pad, he scans and e-mails it to his followers on Facebook and thecollagejournal.blogspot.com.

From May 17 to September 6, the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton (just off I-78) will honor Jacobs’s achievement with an exhibit called, “The Collage Journal: The First Decade.” Of the 3,652 collages he produced in that span (2008 and 2012 were leap years), Jacobs has chosen 120 to exhibit—12 from each year.

The project began modestly. On that first morning, Jacobs and his wife, Elizabeth, a sculptor, were reading the paper. In 2002, Jacobs had finished a series of large, mixed-media portraits of artists, called “Face to Face,” to open the new wing of the Montclair Art Museum.

“I was thinking about scaling down to more intimate pieces and my roots in collage,” he recalls. “I realized at that moment that I wanted to do something daily as well. And I felt a need to have a visual dialogue with the state of politics, the environment and the divisions in the country.”

The Collage Journal eventually evolved away from topicality and recognizable faces and images toward what Jacobs calls “a poetic narrative.” Some collages perform a geometric dance on the flat surface, but many create fascinating and improbable 3D worlds—visual equivalents of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels.

“It’s a visual game,” Jacobs says, “a puzzle I try to create a different ending to each time. When I start each collage, I have no idea where I’m going to end up.”

Doing the work first thing in the morning is important. “I feel I’m still dreaming a little bit,” Jacobs says. “Distractions are going on around me in the kitchen, but I can half pay attention to them. They don’t affect the trance kind of state I’m in.” He sips coffee as he works, but postpones breakfast. “That would interrupt the process. I get pretty obsessed with doing it.”

Never missing a day requires flexibility as well as stubborn determination. “One time, when my wife was having surgery, I brought my stuff to the hospital and did the collage in the waiting room,” Jacobs relates, noting that the surgery went fine. “We plan our trips so there will be some access to a newspaper. We thought about going on a cruise. I think they said they can print the paper on board. But it seemed too risky.” He chuckles. “No cruises for me.”

When Jacobs started, he didn’t know how long he would continue. One year seemed reasonable. But the project took on a life of its own. Now, he says, “I can’t see myself stopping. I would have withdrawals, like a drug addict.”

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