Jacob Wiegmann: Supporting the arts

This week’s Portrait is an enthusiastic and talented young man. Jacob Wiegmann is the business and program manager at Fresh Artists, an organization that does the much-needed work of ensuring all children have access to art by delivering art supplies and innovative art programs to severely under-funded public schools. 

Where are you from?
I grew up in a really small town called Avella about 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh and just really rural. I grew up on what used to be an orchard and [had] a pretty, farm pastoral upbringing.

Were there any fruits left for you to pick?
Yeah, we had a good number of green apple trees. They weren’t sweet like Granny Smith or anything. But every July, my brothers and I would pick them and we’d make applesauce and anything else that you can make pouring a ton of sugar into because they were so tart! 

Good for you. I think my brothers would have used them for weapons!
I mean, we did that too. I’ve got two older brothers and I have memories where one of us would be locked outside of the house and the other two would be up on the roof with the hard little apples, pelting them down.

So was it just the three boys?
Yes, I’m the youngest and my two older brothers are Elijah and Isaac. Elijah’s about 10 years older than me and Isaac’s about five.

With those names, do I dare say that you came from a religious family?
Surprisingly, actually, not all that much. My parents both just really liked Biblical names. We were more involved with our local church growing up, but by the time we became preteens and teenagers, we all kind of fell out of the habit and the routine. [Laughing] But I understand, I get people who are like, are you Mennonites? Or Amish with names like that? 

What’s a favorite family memory? Other than throwing or cooking apples?
Well, as I mentioned, we grew up really rural. The whole back section of the property was all beautiful wooded valleys and creeks and everything. So my most favorite family memories were of getting to play outside in the woods with my brothers. We were all in Boy Scouts. My dad was actually the Scoutmaster for my two brothers and was active in my troop, even though he wasn’t the leader. And so we would always be outside building forts and rope swings and all types of stuff out in the woods. There’s still a few structures that we made back there now! 

That’s amazing. And where do you think you got your artistic bent from?
I think about that sometimes because my parents are not really in creative professions. My mom was a nurse at a local hospital for her entire career, and then went into the insurance side of things and traveled for a bit. My dad had his own greenhouse and landscaping business for a while that my brothers and I all worked in for a minute growing up. But then as the economic problems started developing and things like that, it just wasn’t worth all the time and upkeep to keep open. So, he ended up being a manager at a local hardware store. But long story short, though, his mother was an art teacher and she definitely instilled in my brothers and me a love for the arts and for being creative. I have a lot of fond memories growing up where she would babysit us and we’d be out on her back patio and she’d be teaching us the basics of drawing or about painting. She had all sorts of art materials around, like chalk pastels and oil pastels and paints. So those were my first lessons in art and all of that. 

And my parents do have talents in the arts. My dad does wood carving on the side as a little creative outlet and my mom has been doing crystal jewelry work for the past two decades. Now that she’s retired, she does it as a side hustle to keep herself busy and recently has really been putting a lot more time and energy into the leather jewelry that she makes. She’s been going to all these craft shows and fairs. And she’s even selling in some places in Pittsburgh. She does really well. My boyfriend and I actually went out in August for the second year in a row to help her with the Shaker Woods festival in Ohio, which is a really big craft fair.

That’s great. So you got it from both sides.
Yes, I definitely grew up with art around, but it wasn’t something that I considered for myself until college where I took an intro to design course.

So what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was always and I still am interested in and fascinated by science. I was always pretty good at it. So I was actually going to go the premed route. I was studying biology but then I realized that it was going to be so much studying and time. And then I went to Pitt for a year and took this intro to design course, and it just kind of clicked for me.

My oldest brother actually went to Philadelphia University for industrial design, which is what I ended up majoring in, too. So after that semester, where I took that intro to design course, I called him and was saying, “Hey, I don’t think I want to major in biology and do this pre-med route. But I really like the idea of getting into design. Can you talk to me more about it; what you’re doing now that you’re out of college?” And that’s how it all started. 

Is that what brought you to Philadelphia?
Yes, I did a semester at the University of Pittsburgh, and a semester at my local community college before that. Pitt’s a really big school but one thing they don’t have is industrial design. So when I decided to change majors — after hearing how much my brother liked the program here and after growing up in a really rural area where I had always dreamed of going to live in a big city — [I had] the queer mentality like, “OK, I’d like to be in a city where there are different  things and opportunities and people.” So the move to Philly wasn’t scary at all for me. I liked the idea of a new city and new experiences.

When you moved here, were you out to the family yet?
Yeah. So I came out after I graduated high school. And throughout that summer and into my first year of college is when I told all my family. 

Was your brother able to show you around the town when you got here? Point out Woody’s for you?
[Laughing] No, both my brothers are married to women and straight. They’re great. They were absolutely fantastic about it. But my brother actually moved back to Pittsburgh, just as I was moving here. He wanted to be closer to Mom and Dad and wanted to settle down in that region. 

So he didn’t get to be your tour guide for very long.
No, but I definitely visited him several times throughout the time he lived here.

I read you did some study abroad. Tell me a little bit about that.
In 2013, I was fortunate enough to get to study abroad in Milan, Italy from about January to June. It was just an incredible experience. Milan is such a capital for design and art and creativity. We got to go to the Salone, which is a huge furniture design festival that they hold every year in the city. And since we were in the design program, our professors got to take us to different studios of the artists exhibiting their works and introduce us to them. 

Just getting the freedom to travel was amazing. It was just wonderful to get to go around Italy. But then I also got to go to Germany and celebrate Carnival in Cologne, which was a lot of fun. 

And the first week, when we landed there in January, I found out that Venice Carnival was happening that weekend. All of my classmates were like, “We’re just gonna stay in Milan and settle in.” Ever since I was in the eighth grade, and read a National Geographic piece about Venice (it featured Venice Carnival), I wanted to go there; to see the city, especially at carnival time. So everyone stayed in Milan and I took the first train out to Venice to catch the carnival and cross off something from my bucket list. 

Bravo! When I was in South Korea for their film festival, there were only about 20 non-Asian filmmakers who were there and they all just hung together. They didn’t go anywhere. I was the one who was with all the Asian directors and filmmakers from all different countries at the local dive bar at 4 a.m. drinking from metal pots!
During our spring break while studying abroad, when everyone else went to the beaches, I decided to go as far north as I could and work my way back down. So I ended up spending three days in Stockholm, then I took a train to Hamburg, Germany, and spent three days there because that’s my family lineage and my dad’s big into history. I was able to tell him I got to see the city of his ancestors. 

And then I went to Amsterdam and spent another four days couch surfing with a bunch of awesome hosts who were all queer men that were lovely enough to invite me into their homes to stay. There’s a great photo at this Swedish historical town — outside of Stockholm — of me with my host and some friends, who I also met through couch surfing. [There] was a woman from China; a dude from India, who now lives in Sweden; a man from the UK; then another woman from, like, the Middle East; and it’s of all of us, in this little international grouping. And one of my classmates was like, “How do you meet all these people?” Well, I’m not staying in my dorm with my classmates. I’m getting out there talking to people. 

Yeah, it’s amazing what you can do when you open up just a little bit. So what did you do after graduation?
So as I was wrapping up college, I had a few internships and I wrote for art and design websites throughout college. I worked as a model maker for Lasko Products, running these big 3D printers they had on site. That was hands on and a lot of fun. Then I worked for a company called Remedy Simulation Group in Perkasie. We were building and fabricating anatomy and simulation models for nursing, medical and veterinary schools. It was a really cool job but the commute was awful.

Ha! I also work at Drexel with med students, and we use SIM dummies and parts. It always cracks me up when they have marked boxes of buttocks, or breasts and other anatomical parts.
Yeah! I would walk in and my desk would have a box of catheter training models. So there’s just a box of silicone-like penises and vaginas sitting there. You hook them up to a fake bladder. And yeah, it was an interesting job. So I did that for a bit. And then after that, I took a little hiatus from the design world, probably burnout from the commute. 

I lived in East Falls at the time. I worked for a store called Vault and Vine. I worked in the retail side, and was a greenhouse manager there. I had a pretty good knowledge base from working with my father’s landscaping business. It was nice to interact more with the community and get engaged in a local neighborhood. After that, I transitioned into tech a bit and did some UX design and research for some companies here in Philly. And then after that, COVID happened.

What does UX design mean?
User Experience. It’s a lot of thinking and research and design around how individuals interact with digital interfaces, and workflows and systems. It really kicked off a new interest in information architecture for me. How is information disseminated? How can you get it to clearly make sense in a quick and digestible way? That’s a lot of what I do with Fresh Artists now.

That’s a perfect segue to ask about Fresh Artists and what drew you to it.
During the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to be working remotely with a lot of big corporate clients, but they didn’t always have the best PR track records. It just got to a point where it was becoming a little disheartening and I wanted a change. I wanted to go to something a bit more mission driven. I reached out to an old professor and good friend, Elaine Godley, who I also interned for as a public lighting artist throughout Philadelphia. She was in the same building as Fresh Artists and knew of a job opening there and then that’s what kicked it all off.

It looks like they do great work.
Yes, our main mission is to provide arts education, programming and art supplies to underfunded public schools. That’s doing everything from providing lesson plans to our teachers and their art classrooms [to] surprising teachers with donated art supplies through both gifted donations as well as corporate partnerships. We do a yearly give-and-get campaign with BLICK Art supplies, where customers purchase additional products to donate to community schools across the country. 

Another way that we support these underfunded schools is through our corporate art program where we take student artwork and print it for them. We take the high-res scan, enlarge it, reproduce it on really nice quality board and then install it in different interiors, or different exhibits, like the Flower Show. The donations we receive from those corporate partners and clients go to help fund the programming, the schools that help create the artists. We also run different design labs and art summer camps. Those are really special because that’s when we get to work directly and get involved with the students. 

Just seeing a group of kids go to town on blank paper and just create is really special, especially when we get to do things like our wallpaper design lab. We had a famous wallpaper designer and artist from New York. The kids got a whole intro into designing wallpaper and on the last day, we invited the parents to come. We printed off large scale sheets and tacked them up in our print studio so that parents could see their kid’s patterns blown up. We got to give each of those kids the sheets to take home. It’s cute seeing the kids react to their artwork, but it’s even more heartwarming seeing the parents react to the kids’ artwork and seeing the kids react to the parents. Just like “Oh my God! You’re so talented!”

Any one student or project that sticks out to you?
Project wise, I would say the Philadelphia Flower Show in 2022. We were a main exhibitor. This was when it was outside in FDR Park. I was still pretty new, but I helped oversee and manage the over 1700 pieces of artwork we received from students across Philadelphia. It was really special to the ones who were chosen to get to partake in such a huge event for Philadelphia. All the kids did artists’ statements about their pieces that we could point to and talk about, and then providing tickets for the kids and their families to come and see the exhibit was really special. I’m always amazed by what the kids can create. We have kids in our collection from kindergarten all the way to twelfth graders, and it’s special when you can find the kid who didn’t even view themselves as artistically inclined or necessarily creatively focused, but this program makes them see themselves in a different light.

We always hear that schools are cutting art programs. Do you find that’s the case?
Definitely, even though I expected it, it still took me by surprise to find out how bad it is. Even at the high school where my dad went, they took away all the music classes, art classes — all gone. All the arts overall are under fire. And it’s a shame because they find the money for the football and sports programs, and don’t get me wrong, I played sports and I know the importance but if you think about it, what has more longevity? How long can you play football? Even in the pros, there’s a short shelf life, but you can paint into your 80s. You can learn how to express yourself through the arts, through poetry or song or art. It’s something that can be used in all aspects of life. We do these art kit grants and I get a ton of emails from teachers talking about the needs in their schools and it’s heartbreaking. They spend so much of their own money, it’s ridiculous. On the other hand, I get a ton of emails expressing their thanks, often with pictures of the art the kids made with our art kits! 

So let’s get personal. You said you have a boyfriend…
Yes, Brett. He just graduated this summer from cosmetology school. He used to work for Wells Fargo but got laid off after the pandemic and decided to pursue a new path. And exciting news: As of New Year’s Eve, he’s now my fiancé. We’re engaged! 

Congratulations! What was the last movie you saw in a theater?
We saw “Napoléon” over the winter break. 

Most unusual possession?
We have an antique whaling harpoon that a friend gave us. We love tchotchkes! 

What’s a favorite quote?
The first one that comes to mind is from the designer Charles Eames. I don’t remember the exact quote but it’s about how eventually everything connects people, ideas, moments. It’s just a matter of looking for those connections. It’s amazing how true that is. 

For more information or to donate to Fresh Artists, visit freshartists.org.

Newsletter Sign-up