Tinkering with the Source: The Work of Martha Jackson Jarvis
By Shantay Robinson
Washington D.C. based visual artist Martha Jackson Jarvis has a long memory. Living with her grandparents in rural Virginia before moving to Philadelphia with her sister and, later, attending Howard University, Jackson Jarvis’ memory traces a narrative illustrating success as an artist despite scarcity in resources.
On her grandfather’s farm, she remembers going to the spring to fetch water and, later on, observing her grandfather and uncle dig a well. “I remember watching them go deeper and deeper and then it was a black hole and suddenly there was water that appeared at the bottom of that hole. I’ll never forget that. And it just told me the endless possibility of things that seem solid and dead and not present, are ever present.” Being from the country and moving to the city of Philadelphia, Jackson Jarvis says, was like she had “died and gone to hell.” Coming from a town where half of the residents were relatives, Philadelphia taught her to be tough, observant, and stand her own ground. The blessing of the city was that her mother made sure she and her sister experienced the museum, theatre, and symphony. Though she moved away from her grandfather’s farm, Jackson Jarvis remembered how he could go into the back shed with his tools and build anything. “I thought whatever he wanted, he could go in that shed and come out and be tinkering. He’d come out with whatever was necessary. And I loved that.” This memory may have guided Jackson Jarvis on her life’s course as an artist.
Jackson Jarvis still lives by her grandfather’s model and believes that there’s a way to create whatever is necessary. Being an artist affords her that ability. “I like the freedom of being an artist. And what is that freedom? That freedom is being able to think and imagine and investigate anything.” She believes there are no boundaries to possibilities as an artist and there is a creative abundance of the things that are available.
In 1970, she enrolled in Howard University’s art department where her professors and guest lecturers were notable Black artists like Lois Mailou Jones, Jeff Donaldson, Elizabeth Catlett, Hughie Lee Smith, and Charles White. Being at Howard was the first time Jackson Jarvis was able to gather with Black creatives from all over the world. The art professors at Howard encouraged their students that art could be their life’s work. Jackson Jarvis was particularly influenced by Lois Mailou Jones. “So, Lois Mailou Jones, for me, was really paramount because in the mix of all these male figures there at Howard, she stood out,” recalls Jackson Jarvis. “She was tough. She was smart. She had travelled the world. And she had a savviness about her and toughness and at the same time, this elegance. And I loved her for that. And she was generous.” Gaining insight from her professors at Howard that her work would be important, Jackson Jarvis took her work seriously.
Though she hated to leave Howard, Jackson Jarvis would transfer to Tyler School of Art at Temple University back in Philadelphia for the access to technology she didn’t have at Howard. Tyler
was isolating for her. There were few artists of color. It was rigorous and artists from all over the world would lecture there. But she admits that, culturally, it was like a desert, so she taught at Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the heart of North Philadelphia run by the Arthur Hall Afro American Dance Ensemble. Artists from New York, Chicago, and all over the world would come through Ile Ife. Jackson Jarvis created a cultural life separate from here academic life at Tyler.
In 1975, her final year at Tyler, during one of her critiques her professor suggested she do something else. She says he told her, “The field is already flooded and no one’s going to want the work that you’re producing.” But Jackson Jarvis didn’t let his opinion deter her. She packed up her book and struck out to become a professional artist. She got a studio and worked every day trying to empty her head of all it was filled with from critiques and other voices. She worked for two years in her studio and, at the end of those years, she had a solo show at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
“I think there’s something really paramount about the energy and the fearlessness that Black women have to operate under. You have to walk with a level of knowing and perceptions at all times,” Jackson Jarvis reckons. “That’s why I’m endlessly impressed with women of color who have over the ages produced art and continue to produce in spite of the big recognition and all of those things.” As a Black woman artist, Jackson Jarvis has had to be more diligent in her artmaking than, perhaps, some of her contemporaries. Mainstream art institutions are only now looking to place the art of Black artists in their collections for several reasons including, more Black curators, pressure from the public, and gaps in their collections’ history.
Jackson Jarvis is encouraged about the future of Black women artists gaining more acclaim and acquiring the respect they deserve. “The universe is opening up. The time is moving,” she says. “And the larger artworld pretends they’re not looking that they are not seeing. They see. And they’ve been looking so now they’re scrambling to fill in the gaps. There are major gaps in their history and when I talk about the history of humanity, there are gaps in it. Big holes. And they’re supposed to be scholars. So, now they’re scrambling to fill these holes. And who fills them? Howardena Pindell or Betye Saar or Alma Thomas. You can’t ignore that work.”
Of this contemporary moment when Black artists are starting to fill the gaps in museum collections with their work, she offers, “There’s enough work out there. Rich, beautiful work has been produced. It exists. They can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist anymore. That’s not convenient anymore.” Stories from artists working in previous generations tell that the excuse for Black artists not being included in prominent art collections would be there ‘weren’t any good Black artists to collect.’ As Jackson Jarvis notes, this excuse is intolerable today, as there are a plethora of Black artists working with masterful skills that challenge the dominant artworld in aesthetic and meaning.
Jackson Jarvis is encouraged that there are so many young, gifted curators and writers working today to include the work of Black artists in the mainstream artworld. “It’s open. It’s up to us to create what the vision will be for art of the future and who’s going to be recording the artists. Because, ultimately, we are telling a human story. It’s broader than just an article in The New York Times. It’s beyond that.” Art adjacent professionals today are placing Black artists in the forefront of art institutions and requiring that there is representation in prominent art collections. But as Jackson Jarvis notes, this work is not only the doing of the current activists, but the work of generations before them. She cites Howardena Pindell whose activism, she acknowledges, practically started the work of talking about inclusion of Black women artists in the mainstream artworld. Jackson Jarvis states, “This moment isn’t just now. That’s what we have to see. We have to look broadly at time and space. This is residual evidence of work these people before us have laid.”
Her recent work on her ancestor, Luke Valentine, speaks to the abundant freedom of her artistry and the ancestral lineage she refers to as important. Consistently, Jackson Jarvis is working on public art with her daughter as she draws from her ancestral lineage while simultaneously promoting her own matriarchal lineage. The mother of four recognizes the very important role that motherhood has played in her life as an artist. “It brings a level of knowing about preparation and care that I don’t think I can imagine if I didn’t have the experience of being a mother, of knowing how to first of all experience giving part of yourself to others completely. I think that’s something that comes about from that matriarchal thing that happens.” She draws from her role as a mother to inspire her work, as well as her rich family history.
“My work really talks about space. I’m concerned with scale. What does that mean? Our bodies the space that we claim on this earth. As a sculptor, I’m always evaluating that.” Jackson Jarvis’ sculptures have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world including Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Galerie Myrtis, Baltimore, Maryland; African American Museum Dallas, Texas; Philadelphia African American Historical Museum; and Fernbank Museum of National History, Atlanta, GA. Her public art commissions include the Washington Metro Transit Authority, Anacostia Station, New York Transit Authority, Mount Vernon, and Prince George’s County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
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SHANTAY ROBINSON was a participant in the inaugural class of Burnaway Magazine’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, a fellow in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies Digital Publishing Project Editorial Fellowship and was chosen for the CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring program. In addition to writing for Black Art in America, she has written for Washington City Paper, Arts ATL, Nashville Scene, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Sugarcane Magazine, Number, Inc., and International Review of African American Art. She also published a scholarly article in Teaching Artist Journal. She presented papers about art and education at SCAD’s (Savannah College of Art and Design) Symposium on Art and Fashion, Georgia State University’s New Voices Graduate Student Conference, Georgia State University’s Glorious Hair and Academic Identities Conference, Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference, Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, and New York African Studies Association Conference. In 2019, she sat on a panel at Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Week. In 2020, she served as visual arts judge in Shreveport Regional Council’s Critical Mass 8 Art Competition.
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