Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades of Encouraging Life

By Shantay Robinson 


Creating art is simply what Suzanne Jackson does. And for the past 50 years or more, Jackson has been creating a body of work that mirrors the development of black artists living in America. She came to accord at a time when race tensions were high, she exhibited Emory Douglas’ artwork as a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party programs in Los Angeles, and she was even arrested. Although her movement parallels the movement of black artists, she moves at her own pace and doesn’t follow trends. She’s always working toward the next new thing. It’s just what she does and what she has always done. In 1967, she decided she would not take any job that was not related to the arts. Since then, she’s had many exhibitions, published poetry and art books, taught at several schools across the country, and received a degree from Yale in Theater and Costume Design. Telfair Museums will exhibit a 50-year retrospective of her work titled, Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades this month.

There’s always a little bit of love and I guess that’s what I’ve always wanted to pass on in the midst of all of these difficulties and violence. We still have within our souls some poetry.”

“Her Empty Vanity”, 2018, by Suzanne Jackson.

“People tend to think it’s only black art when you see a black figure in it,” but Jackson believes that what she creates is black art because she is a black artist. Jackson’s work is evidence of the range of stylistic choices black artists can make and it signals to this idea of longevity that can be had once one is open to the changes occurring in the world and in one’s life. She states, “When I was working figuratively the comment would be, you’re not abstract enough. And then when you become more abstract then they say you’re not working figuratively, so you have to just do what comes out of you and do that.” As a model of steadfastness to her practice, the trajectory of Jackson’s career is astounding given African American artists from past generations are only now receiving overdue credit for their work.

Jackson knew from the time she was 12-years-old that she wanted to be an artist. She would use the painting sets and books sold at the pharmacy to teach herself how to paint. The exhibition includes childhood drawings Jackson’s mother kept. “Some of the drawings that I found that my mother had hidden away in the chest, and I couldn’t have been more that 3 or 4-years-old doing pictures of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island.” Her dad drove a trolley in San Francisco and when she rode with him, she would see the public art by Sargent Johnson and all the Works Progress Administration murals.

In the early 1960s, she attended San Francisco State University to major in painting. She was an inexperienced young woman from Fairbanks, Alaska, where there were 12 students in her high school graduating class, and only two were black. She recalls, “I was growing up in Alaska where what mattered was what you achieved and the quality of what you did. That’s how you were rewarded. It wasn’t a matter of color or anything like that.”

When she moved to Los Angeles, she was told to take a drawing class at Otis Art Institute by the famed painter and educator Charles White. She remembers that White was actually the first teacher to talk to her. Many years later, in conjunction with Charles White’s retrospective at LACMA, she is a part of a group exhibition Life Model: Charles White and His Students at Charles White Elementary School until September 15, 2019.

Jackson is a painter first, but she is well-known for starting Gallery 32 in Los Angeles. For the two years, between 1968 and 1970, Gallery 32 allowed her to show the works of some of the most influential artists of our time, including David Hammons and Betye Saar. All she knew when she moved to Los Angeles was that in order to be a painter, she needed to have a studio, so she found a space, and David Hammons and Timothy Washington, whom she had met at Charles White’s class, convinced her to turn the space into a gallery. She funded the gallery for a year or so by teaching at the 95th Street School. But in order to focus on her practice, she quit teaching and the gallery was operational “as a space that allowed the artists a place with freedom of voice to exhibit.” “In my generation we all worked together,” Jackson states. “We were all trying to support one another just to keep us going. There was nobody else who was going to do something, so we had to do it ourselves. I still feel that way, even though there’s a lot of other cultures of people who are jumping on the bandwagon because we look like money now.”

Fifty years ago, during her foray in Los Angeles, African Americans were not having exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) or showing up in popular art magazines. She responds to the past stating, “Now we’re finally getting our retrospectives and getting exhibitions and it’s just incredible every time you open up a magazine or see an article about an African American artist having an exhibition.”

Jackson has lived all around the country but moving to the South has given her a different perspective. She feels more connected to nature, which shows up in her work. She’s been living in Savannah, Georgia for over 20 years and has felt a little out of the loop because if you’re not from New York or Los Angeles, the general consensus is you’re less relevant.

The exhibition at Telfair Museums is striking because it’s a retrospective of someone from the community. Yes, the museum has had major exhibitions of African American artists Carrie Mae Weems, Paul Stephen Benjamin, Nick Cave, Whitfield Lovell, Jerome Meadows, and Sam Gilliam, but for a long time, no curators had stopped by Jackson’s studio. Rachel Reese is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Telfair Museums who happened to stop by Jackson’s studio. In planning for this major exhibition, three dedicated curatorial interns from Spelman, Parsons, and SCAD worked on the exhibition during Summer 2018 doing research in files and notebooks. They’ve been correcting the errors in history that have been written, straightening it out, and including truth in this exhibition. Reese adds, “[I], working closely with Jackson to have this team of interns, contributing catalog scholars who are young art historians and museum colleagues for about two years to encourage thorough new scholarship in order to correct the errors in the historical record, uncover written details and documents and consolidate all of this material for the public record.”

Although times have changed a bit, whereas today you have recently minted MFAs racing for international notoriety, Jackson believes in a different way. Jackson believes that when you do the work and develop your skills, success will come. On moving to Los Angeles in 1967, Jackson states, “I was supposed to have a studio and I was supposed to work, that was my thought. If you wanted to be a painter, that’s what you did. You had a studio and you just worked. And you didn’t expect to have an exhibition for a long time until you developed your work.” She always understood it to be this way, “After you’ve been around for a long time, you have a retrospective of your work. Not two years after you graduate from college.”

Suzanne Jackson is the flower that sprouts up through the crack of the concrete. Her gentle spirit sways with the changing of time. And this malleability has allowed her to sustain a career as a painter, even while many deem painting a dead artform. Her passion is evident through more than five decades of work. Despite turbulent times, where racism and sexism might have rejected her, she believes in love and beauty. And this belief sustains. “You think black people can only respond to the violence that is happening to us. We also have love and I’ve believed in that for a long time. There’s love, there are beautiful things that have happened in our lives, even tragedy. There’s always a little bit of love and I guess that’s what I’ve always wanted to pass on in the midst of all of these difficulties and violence. We still have within our souls some poetry.”

In 2016, Jackson’s 45-year-old son passed away after his second heart attack. As opposed to mourning, she’s put her energy into her work. Without her parents or her son, she’s alone, but she says, “The impetus for my work basically comes from the spirit of my parents and from my son who supported me all my life and encouraged my work and made it possible for me to do that work.” The moments that changed her career for the better revolved around her son’s birth and death. And her parents’ adventuresome nature taught her that you always figure out a way to survive. She says, “And I think that’s important so, maybe this retrospective is another sense of surviving. For me, this is another way to encourage life.”

Although Telfair Museums is honoring Suzanne Jackson with a retrospective, she hasn’t stopped working. “I’m still working. It’s something you have to do. It’s like musicians who make music, they don’t stop.” She’s on to the next new thing. She’s developing acrylic paint as its own substrate or surface by layering the paint. Instead of using canvas or paper, she’s experimenting using paint.

Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades will be on view at Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia from June 28 – October 13, 2019.

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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