Jackson, Earl 1948–
Earl Jackson 1948–
An artist of originality and vision and an astute businessman as well, Earl Jackson has done much to define a contemporary visual style for African-American life. By the late 1990s, prints of his graceful, elegant artworks were widely and consistently sold in art stores and bookstores. A measure of their appeal to a wide cross section of Americans was that they appeared several times in hit films and television programs. “African Americans… are hungry for images on their walls— positive images of African Americans,” Jackson was quoted as saying in the International Review of African American Art. By responding to that hunger, Jackson became one of the few American artists unconnected with an educational institution to make a living from art full time.
Earl Jackson was born in 1948 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and raised in nearby Willow Run, an unincorporated area west of Detroit that was largely dominated by auto manufacturing. He attended Willow Run High School (also the alma mater of the R&B vocalist and songwriter Nickolas Ashford, of the duo Ashford and Simpson), and graduated in 1966. Taking art courses at Washtenaw Community College and at Eastern Michigan University (both located in Ypsilanti near his Willow Run hometown), Jackson worked for some years toward an art degree. He never finished that degree, but along the way he obtained an education of a different kind.
Working for fifteen years as a picture framer at the Borders Book Shop in Ann Arbor (the original store in what became a nationwide chain), Jackson spent his evenings creating artworks—predominantly oil paintings—of his own. In 1970, he exhibited his works for the first time at the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, a huge outdoor event that draws hundreds of thousands of art enthusiasts. He continued to show and sell his works at similar events through much of the 1970s, but gradually he came to feel that the art fair scene was a poor fit with his own creative process. Producing large batches of original works in the weeks leading up to the fair season, Jackson would find himself completely burned out creatively for some time afterward.
Many working artists depend on art fairs for income, but Jackson chose a different approach. Instead of putting himself under the pressure of having to create large numbers of originals, he decided to channel his energies into more distinctive works that he would reproduce as
At a Glance…
Born 1948 in Ann Arbor, Ml; raised in Willow Run, Ml, near Detroit. Education: Wiliow Run High School, 1966; attended Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilianti, Ml.
Career: Visual artist. Exhibited work publicly for the first time at Ann Arbor Art Fairs, 1970; continued to exhibit and sell work at art fairs, 1970-78; worked as picture framer, Borders Book Shop, Ann Arbor, ca. 1974-1989; solo exhibition, Blues, Sippie Wallace and Eureal Montgomery, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1983; traveled to Africa, 1985 and 1988; completed painting “Following the Path,” 1988; strong sales of painting in print form; solo exhibition Journey with the Blues Gods, St. Louis, MO, 1992; moved to Atlanta, GA, area, late 1990s.
Awards: Best Miniature Paintings, African World Festival, Detroit, Ml, 1983.
Addresses: Home—1063 Seven Springs Circle, Marietta, GA 30068.
prints and distribute as widely as possible. Between about 1980 and 1985, Jackson created several black-and-white works that he made into prints and built a network of distribution contacts. The new depth in his paintings was recognized when they were included in group exhibitions at galleries, corporate offices, and educational institutions around Detroit and beyond. Several solo exhibitions of Jackson’s work were also organized in the early 1980s.
One of those exhibitions, Blues, Sippie Wallace and Eureal Montgomery, held in 1983 at the Eva Jessye Afro-American Music Collection at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, demonstrated one of the emerging themes of Jackson’s art: the role of music in African-American life in general and the lives of African-American musicians specifically. Jackson went on to create a number of paintings on musical subjects. A series of “Jazz Greats” depicted such figures as Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie, while such works as “Crooners” and “Left Hand Like Thunder, Right Hand Like Lightnin’” evoked not specific musicians but more general types.
A crucial experience in the formation of Jackson’s mature artistic personality was two trips he made to Africa in 1985 and 1988, first to Senegal and then to Kenya. After these voyages, Jackson’s art was deepened by a layer of awareness of the way that many aspects of African-American life had their roots in African backgrounds. The culmination of this new awareness was “Following the Path,” a painting that took Jackson a year and a half to complete. The painting depicts a group of women and girls, several holding parasols, walking along a stone wall. Influenced by music, they seem to be reenacting some ancient practice or ritual. Rendered in pastels and composed of an unusual collection of geometric shapes (the curves of the women’s dresses, the circles of the parasol tops, the long rectangles of the wall), “Following the Path” suggests both lightness and strength.
Just as he made this creative breakthrough, Jackson also was on the point of perfecting his new business model. Ready to receive the 1,000 prints of “Following the Path” that Jackson had made was a nationwide network of galleries, distributors, and wholesalers, including 20 shops specializing in African-American art to which Jackson shipped prints directly. The results were startling. Jackson’s initial run of 1,000 copies sold out, as did a second run of 600 more. Fourteen months after the work’s release in December of 1988, 2,300 copies were in print and Jackson was a full-time artist—a picture framer no longer.
Jackson’s art practice combines his creative concerns, retains elements that characterize his work at one stage of his career and incorporates them into new contexts at another stage. For example, Jackson continued to paint works based on musical subjects, but the paintings also showed the impact of the new spiritual ideas that were finding their way into his art. Jackson’s solo exhibition, Journeys with the Blues Gods, shown at the Lithos Gallery in St. Louis in 1992, depicted blues singers, but represented them to some extent as religious icons; in one painting, several musicians’ heads grew from a single body, and the paintings also included dowels or staffs, made of handmade paper, that suggested the heavy walking sticks used in a religious procession.
Through much of the 1990s, Jackson’s art gained showings around and beyond Michigan; in addition to exhibitions at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor and the Creative Arts Center in Pontiac, Michigan, Jackson’s works have been displayed at Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and in the National Gallery of Art in Dakar, Senegal. He has painted several murals in southeastern Michigan (including one at Detroit’s impressive Museum of African-American History), and has taught art and mentored young artists in local schools. In the late 1990s, attracted by the vibrant African-American culture of the city of Atlanta, Georgia, Jackson moved to the Atlanta suburb of Marietta.
Ann Arbor News, February 21, 1988; February 17, 1990, p. B1; November 3, 1991, p. F6; April 16, 1996, p. C4; July 14, 1997, p. C4.
International Review of African-American Art, volume 14, number 1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 19, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a biography provided by the artist.
—James M. Manheim
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