The Art & Work of Jake Early
By Melissa Mendonca
Fresh Prints of ChicoMay 2016
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photo by Paula Schultz
There was a day when Jake Early’s two art worlds collided, and the result was a professional change in direction that has brought him personal satisfaction and the world a more stunning way of understanding the places most important to him.
Early, 46, a Chico native and now part-time resident going back and forth between there and Tempe, Ariz., is a prolific and highly collected serigraph artist who represents “places that are meaningful to me, and other people, too, for sure.”
But he started out as a designer at Enloe Hospital, putting his graphic design degree from Chico State University to good use after graduation. It was a nine-to-five gig, but he was paid to be creative, so life was good.
In his spare time, however, he was delving into screen printing, finding deep satisfaction in it. “I love the process. I love everything about it,” he says. It's not an easy process, though, and he says he even enjoys the intense physicality of the work. “I really enjoy getting my hands dirty. And my back hurts, and it stinks. And I love it.”
Early grew up surrounded by screen-printed artwork. “I liked it. I didn’t know why I liked it. But I liked it a lot,” he says. That early exposure came from the works of Sr. Corita Kent, designer of the 1985 US Postal Service Love stamp. Sr. Corita was a teacher at Early’s mother's Catholic high school in Southern California, and was a dear friend of his aunt. Her work showed up in both households and Early was drawn to it. “It’s a look you can’t get in other media,” he says.
The screen print studio he set up turned out to be his evening and weekend hangout. “I just built this contraption in my garage,” he says. It worked. One of his first designs was of a Chico water tower. He was making prints for fun and giving them away to friends and family.
The collision of worlds came the day someone from Chico Paper Company called, puzzled to see Early's name on a serigraph. She was used to working with him as a client, as Early would send Enloe's artwork there to be framed. Seeing his signature on a print was a curiosity she wanted to clarify. Once the story was told, she decided to represent his work. The company is now the primary source for Early's prints. “A year, two years after that, I quit my job to do this full time,” he says.
Combining his love for screen print work with his love for his home town, Early developed a following by designing pieces that represented Chico. He's captured everything from Bidwell Park to Bidwell Mansion to the Hooker Oak Tree to the almond blossoms of the area's orchards.
While perhaps most famous for his Chico-centered works, he has branched out to represent iconic areas of Santa Barbara and Highway 1. This year, his focus is on a series of California's wine regions. The first two, Napa Valley and Sierra Foothills, were released in March, with the second two, Lodi and Lake County, to be released this month. “Part of the fun is for me to do the research of each region and make sure I get it right,” he says. “I want each print to look like the place so you don't even have to read the place to know.”
Early has branched out to do public art installations in both Chico and Tempe, and hopes to do more down the road, though he says, “The wine series is going to gobble up the whole year for me.” He's making his mark on his adopted community in Arizona, where he and his family moved when his wife landed a teaching job at the university there, but says his true love is California. Of his wine series, he says he's attracted to the “natural beauty of it, the fact that it's local, the fact that it's home.
“I love this more than anything,” he says of his decision to become a full-time artist in the medium he loves. “It's really all I like to do. I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't draw or ride my bike.” He chalks his success up to persistence, dumb luck and doing what he loves to do. “I probably work a lot harder than I ever have, but it's a lot more enjoyable.”