Studio Visit: Preston Jackson
Studio Visit is a Q&A with an artist. Here, a chat with Preston Jackson, of Peoria and Chicago, one of the most renowned artists in Illinois. He's a 1998 Laureate of the Lincoln Academy, the highest honor given to individuals in the state of Illinois — and he's even the recipient of a regional Emmy Award.
His paintings and sculptures are on view through April 26 in the exhibition "Distant Hollerings" at the Cinema Gallery, 120 W. Main St., U.
Q: Carolyn Baxley (owner of Cinema Gallery) tells me you're really prolific, that you're always working.
A: Yeah, that's a habit. It's not such a good habit because it cuts into time to be 'normal.' It keeps me from doing things. I want to spend more time with my grandchild, the first one. I'm telling you it's like starting all over again.
Q: Did they name him after you?
A: No, but he looks just like me, and that's really something. He's 10. He's asking questions and stuff and trying to draw.
Q: You started to draw when you were 7. Were you good right away?
A: I thought so. I was never judged except by my mother. And she liked everything I did.
Q: Were there other visual artists in your family?
A: Singers and musicians. My twin sister, she sings classics — she's an opera singer. My younger brother is an orator. My older brother plays the alto saxophone professionally. And then there's a sister of mine who is a great jazz vocalist.
Q: Don't you play jazz guitar?
A: Oh yeah. That developed along with the art thing. That was serious. We cut albums. We put music out.
I still play jazz. I play at a place called Touche and I play at my own place in the Contemporary Art Center in Peoria.
Q: Didn't you play with Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows back in the day?
A: Yes, and with Tony Zamora in Champaign-Urbana. That's the group that introduced me to hard-core jazz. Before that I was on the chitlin' circuit, doing R&B.
In Champaign-Urbana I was around people like John Garvey, Ron Dewar — so you had to really play. George Benson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ron Bridgewater. That was the company I kept.
That's a very important part of my career. The music and art developed at the same time. Neither took preference. They were equal.
Q: You seem too cool for school but you actually studied art at SIU and the University of Illinois.
A: I started at Millikin University (in Decatur, his hometown) but went to SIU because I didn't have a very good social life at Millikin. At the time I was going to night school and worked at Caterpillar and played music.
Q: Did you like SIU and Carbondale?
A: Oh, it was like the mecca. It was like Paris. You saw people that looked like you and in large numbers. But the U of I — that was so cool.
I got my foot in the door at the U of I. That's where (now art Professor Emeritus) Frank Gallo took me under his wings. He was my main inspiration as for serious art-making.
Q: Any other influences?
A: Frank was the main man. Dan Perrino along with Tony Zamora took care of getting me in school.
Q: Are there any Lincoln Laureates who are visual artists?
A: I think I was the first one to bring that. That's what they say.
Q: How did you feel when you got that award?
A: I felt really honored. I'd gone through a lot of changes. At the time I was head of the sculpture department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There was a lot of weight on my shoulders.
I fought and pushed for diversity because I knew it was something people would benefit from. I had a diverse upbringing. It was really hard to make that an important issue at the School of the Art Institute. It caught on but mainly in my department. The problems are still there.
Q: You taught at Millikin, Western Illinois University and Bradley too. Did you like teaching?
A: Oh yeah, I loved it. I serve as a professor emeritus at the School of the Art Institute now. I still teach there every so often.
Western Illinois was my favorite as far as teaching. It was a warm place, a warm school. Not too big; not too this or that. It's a hard place to leave.
Q: You've also done a lot of public-art commissions. Aren't you working on a sculpture of Richard Pryor for the city of Peoria?
A: That one's finished and is being cast. The city of Los Angeles is talking about me making a different one of Pryor. The one I'm working on in between is of Miles Davis, for the city of Alton,
Q: What other public-art projects have you been working on?
A: I just installed one two days ago at Purdue University. It's a 15-footer, a large piece about immigration and diversity.
I'm also doing another one for Peoria for the new downtown development warehouse district. This is one that gives honor to women.
Actually it's about my mom. I can remember the trials and tribulations she went through as a woman, and I have seven sisters over me. So I know a little bit about that.
Q: You grew up in a family of 10 children, right?
A: Yes, including three sets of twins.
Q: What was it like?
A: It was one solid loving experience and education, Lot of beautiful memories.
Q: What did your parents do for a living?
A: My father was a Baptist minister and he also worked as a foundry man in iron pouring. My mother was a very strong sort of home-school type person although we were not home schooled in terms of the word today.
But we were home schooled — that's where we received a lot of do's and don'ts and African proverbs to explain how things happened.
Both of my parents' upbringings were passed down since slavery. My father would tell stories his grandmother had experienced in slavery. He was 95 when he passed on.
Q: Have you traced your roots?
A: Yes, big time. We have a photograph of the slave master who owned my great-great-grandmother.
Q: Do you ever go back to Decatur?
A: I will be visiting tomorrow, in fact. I did a sculpture for the city, and I'm going to check it to see if they have the plaque installed.
It's about the African-American soldiers who participated in the Civil War and trained in Fairview Park, not too far from where I lived. They took off on the Sangamon River to the Illinois and then down the Mississippi and fought various battles. They were massacred in the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee.
Q: What were your thought processes behind your "Byways to Equality" sculpture in King Park in Urbana? (Please see sidebar.)
A: The whole thing has an upward feeling. It's like fingers pointing to the sky but it's laden. The thing that looks up is sort of weighted down by the forms of life that can go awry.
Like the burning of the churches in Birmingham, Ala., and the whole history of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama's experiences — all that hatred. It's so visible. We know it's going on but we don't take care of it, do we?
Urbana dedication is Saturday
Artist Preston Jackson has created a range of public art, from an Ernie Banks Relief Sculpture for the Disney ESPN Zone in Chicago to the large "Bronzeville" for McCormick Place West in the Windy City to a Martin Luther King Jr. bust for the city of Danville.
One of his latest, "Byways to Equality" at King Park in Urbana, will be dedicated at 4 p.m. Saturday. He will be present, and the public is invited.
The 12-foot piece, inspired by the legacy and ideas of Martin Luther King, was made of stainless steel and bronze.
A mix of the abstract and narrative, it features images of civil-rights scenes, among them a bus, civil-rights protestors in relief, and the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. — site of the "Bloody Sunday" conflict in 1965, where armed officers attacked peaceful demonstrators marching to Montgomery, the state capitol.
The sculpture on a mound the east side of King Park, along Lincoln Avenue, is part of the Urbana Public Arts Program.