“Preston Jackson: One of the Greatest Black Artists of Our Time” by Debra Hand
In a day when people of all races are grasping for ways to understand what it means to be Black in America, our artists are critically needed to illustrate narratives of not only Black pain — but also, Black triumph, tradition, culture, and beauty.
The artist Preston Jackson has long been at the forefront of this movement.
Through his paintings, sculptures, and intensely poignant written narratives, Jackson delineates critical moments in the nation’s evolution. His sculptures eloquently bear witness to the worlds they have arrived here from, through Jackson’s gifted mind and hands. He is a quintessential story teller, on par with the greatest literary minds.
Preston Jackson is a master artist, even to the masters. His list of honors and awards are innumerable. But just to note a few off of the top, Preston Jackson holds the title of Professor Emeritus of Sculpture at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During his tenure there, he served as Sculpture Professor / Head of the Figurative Area, and Chair of the Sculpture Department. He is a 1998 Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois (the highest possible honor bestowed by the state on an individual); was named as a History Maker by the The HistoryMakers institution; was awarded the Rhodell Owens Award by Peoria City Beautiful; was selected in 2018 as one of the ten top Illinois Artists of all time; and his work hangs permanently at world-known locations such as McCormick Place West in Chicago. He was also an instructor of drawing and painting at Decatur’s Millikin University prior to joining the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
He is the owner of Side View Gallery at the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria.
Preston Jackson is an extraordinary writer whose sculptural installations are amplified by powerful, first-person accounts of the lives of the sculptures themselves. The written narratives that accompany his works further transport his figures into actual being as they play out the sagas of their lives right before your eyes. They are so convincingly present in this realm of existence that Jackson’s sculptural collection “Fresh from Julieanne’s Garden” led to him receiving a Regional Emmy for hosting the Television Show “Legacy in Bronze – Fresh From Julieanne’s Garden” which featured and explored this amazing installation. If you have experienced this collection in person, it is quite easy to imagine that winning Emmys on their own is not beyond these virtual thespians of history.
His dynamic sculptures seem to escape into our dimension, mid-action, from some magical time machine: They enter full-force with their dramatic stories playing-out right before our eyes. One piece snatches you into the terror and chaos of a hound dog chasing-down a runaway slave; while another piece takes you confidentially into the calculating thoughts and experiences of a woman living out the harsh realities of plantation life.
Jackson’s exhibits grip you with the power of a great novel or film; each sculpture, visually captivating on its own, but the stories he provides for them further lift them into actuality. He is highly acclaimed for the heart-moving dialogue that accompanies his pieces. As with all great stories, Jackson’s characters pull the audiences into their worlds while simultaneously entering into our own. They activate empathy for the human plight through their lives, determination, endurance, and will. Their stories teach us all something about ourselves: namely that, it may be too late to root for their survival, but it is not too late to root for our own; to change ourselves in ways that will insure a just and civilized humanity.
Jackson’s sculpture installations, such as the powerful collection “Fresh from Julieanne’s Garden,” are known for their visceral effects on the audiences. They stun viewers with a one-two punch combination of superbly written stories and sculptural masterworks that continue to provoke thought long after the encounter with them is over. Here, as with every sculpture Jackson creates, we benefit from the deep-dive into research that brings this particular world alive through more than 100 bronze sculptures. These pieces were created by a process that guarantees each is one of a kind with no copies. The method used to create this series begins with wax models that are sculpted rather than cast which means the models are literally destroyed by the bronze pour itself.
In discussing the series Jackson says, “The narratives which accompany each piece are my interpretations of historical texts I have read in my research of the lives and personalities of our ancestors who lived in the Southern United States in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. The stories, which are an integral part of the sculptures, are reflected in the lives of those who moved North through the Underground Railroad or as a part of the Great Migration. Despite the hardships of those who had been enslaved or viewed as less than human, the pieces do not reflect bitterness or hostility, but rather an admiration for the resolution and resiliency of each individual. I admire their strengths in the face of a hostile world. Many of the pieces are of women and children—in part because much of the personal history of the times was written by women, and in part because I sense their vulnerability—I hear their unspoken fears. I see my grandmothers, my aunts, my sisters in their faces. My wife and my daughters speak from their mouths. The sculptures seem to come alive to tell me their stories and their dreams.”
It is clear that Jackson serves caringly as an open channel through which these protagonists enter our world and challenge us to become better as a society.
Another well-known Preston Jackson installation is his “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story” exhibit. The sculpture installation consists of hundreds of figurative sculptures, relief sculptures, buildings, and realistic scaled-down automobiles – all of which took more than two decades to create. Jackson notes that, “the Harlem Renaissance was an ultimate period of cultural growth for African Americans. This period of creativity and intellectualism occurred through the 1920’s and 1930’s, and its effects were felt well into the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. This movement took place throughout the U.S., in small towns as well as large cities, but its origins were in Harlem in New York and specifically with respect to music, began in the Bronzeville area of Chicago. The sculpture is an epochal reminder of neighborhood morals and ethnic greatness through the arts, which teach that all groups have made contributions to American culture.”
Preston Jackson is a highly sought after public sculptor with an impressive list of public art commissions include works honoring historic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jean Baptiste Point du Sable; and many icons such as Miles Davis, Ernie Banks, Richard Pryor, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. Jackson has also been commissioned to create numerous public monuments to either commemorate or memorialize significant moments in American history. Among these works is “Acts of Intolerance,” a piece created to memorialize the “Springfield Race Riots,” and “Knocking on Freedom’s Door,” a 25 foot bronze monument commemorating the Pettengill home in Peoria, a historic station along the Underground Railroad.
Preston Jackson’s work is cleverly nuanced with both overt and covert messages that tell America’s full story including the hypocrisy of the founding principles upon which it still exists: being founded on the one hand upon the ideology of independence and freedom – while on the other hand being built upon an economic and concrete infrastructure that rested on the backs of the slaves whose independence they brutally stole in order to get free labor.
Preston Jackson’s work not only explores this horrific practice, but it also traces and reveals the ramifications – the social, emotional, and systemic complexities — that still endure to this present day.
Exquisitely rendered, even when infused with historic pain, Preston Jackson’s sculptures feature a cross-pollination of high-stakes emotion, historic narratives, and compelling first-person narratives all whirled together in a glaring illumination of America’s hard truths. Collectively his works provide the only realistic ground-rules for any possible evenhanded discussion of America’s systemic racial disparities and injustices.
For anyone that is sincerely seeking to better understand the experience of being Black in America, Preston Jackson is definitely one of the foremost voices in the world today. In Jackson’s own words, “My work reflects anthropological digs from the African American graveyards to the European architectural craftsmanship seen in cities…There are signs and clues that we are a one-world American society and all must be acknowledged as contributors.”
Preston Jackson’s art speaks visually with the same social-political mastery as the mighty pen of the great James Baldwin. Jackson says, “I feel it is the role of the artist to tell difficult truths to aid in achieving the betterment of society.” The painting “Legacy” is a contemporary look at our history, including some events that are little known or not taught in our schools.”
Truly, Jackson’s works-of-art also double as a works-of-history that have been left maximally clear. In my opinion, there is not one major museum in this nation that should be leading discussions of race, art, and diversity without the work of Preston Jackson being present to inform those discussions. That’s how relevant his body of work is, especially in today’s social climate.
His work has not only provided critical insight regarding history, but also informs on the subject-matter of being Black in America; and it continues to offer clarity to those sincerely interested in trying to repair the damage of the past and to truly do the work needed to heal this nation going forward. It’s all right there…in bronze, or black & white, or and technicolor.
Fortunately the world has finally caught up to the kind of discourse that Jackson has been leading throughout his entire artistic career. Jackson confronts the truth boldly and directly, leaving history no place to hide from itself. Even when he incorporates symbolism in his works, history is not allowed to cower in the shadows of translation. He intends his work to speak vividly, just as the reality of those moments did.
Preston Jackson’s work is powerful, relevant, and to the point. He is the quintessential artist of our time.
From paintings to tabletop sculptures to his monumental works, Preston Jackson is a true renaissance man; one who, like every other great artist in history, uses art to explore and illuminate our potential (from the lowest level to the highest) as a human group.
For the many fortunate collectors who already own Preston Jackson masterpieces, they undoubtedly know that they are in possession of American artifacts as telling as rock strata and dinosaur bones. For those collectors who don’t own his works, you might want to consider beating a path to his door. He is the real deal.
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Debra Hand is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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