By Glen Mason
Special to the New Journal and Guide
A.B. Jackson believed art transcends race.
So perhaps it was serendipitous that the patrons of fine art in attendance at his retrospective exhibit’s opening reception at Old Dominion University mirrored his belief.
Visions of the Sacred and the Profane and Passerby: An A.B. Jackson Retrospective on exhibit at the university’s Baron and Ellin Gordon’s Art Gallery runs through August 2, 2015. The students and mavens who have seen Jackson’s rare works seem to wallow in a spirit of inner vision, passion and subjective interpretations. Like his book of paintings and photography “The Book People,” the exhibit exudes the emotions visually recorded from capturing his imaginative musing of real life.
His work invokes meaning he spent his life documenting. Rendering. Paining.
Friends, colleagues, artists, students and several of his former students attended the opening reception, many who felt obligated to pay tribute to an adopted native son and art professor who help elevate fine art education in Hampton Roads.
Jackson was the son of an Irish mother and black father. Considered a “gifted intellectual” he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Masters of Fine Arts degrees from Yale in the mid-1950s. When he arrived in the segregated south in 1955 to teach at Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA, it was his path to teach art while battling for civil rights as a quiet paladin of intelligentsia.
Jackson started teaching at Norfolk State a year later. During a dark, narrow-minded period of local history, Jackson was denied entry to the Virginia Beach Boardwalk Art show in 1962. He won Best in Show in 1966. In 1967, after teaching 10 years at Norfolk State, he joined Old Dominion University as a full professor, becoming its first black faculty member when he was hired by ODU president emeritus Dr. Alfred B. Rollins.
“I knew A.B. as an art instructor,” said Maurice Cole, who studied under Jackson at then Norfolk State College, and later joined him on its staff as a professor of African-American History. “As a student I remember that way he walked. It was smooth, cool. I just liked the way he moved, he had a kind of quiet swagger. “He was sort of an avant-garde type, ahead of his time. Even in the way he taught, A.B. was a cool professor. He had that walk. To me he looked like an artist, or what one might imagine a professional artist would look like,” Cole chortled, remembering his friend and colleague. “But don’t mistake that cool look. A.B. had a seriousness about how he went about his work.”
After graduating from Norfolk State Cole joined Jackson as a member of Norfolk State’s faculty 1974-1976 and, after a stint working with the U.S. government, 1994-2012. Cole says he marveled at Jackson’s “great powers of observation,” and in spite of objections Jackson often faced philosophically, he said Jackson would “always point out the proper technique, and stood his ground about teaching the right way.”
In his acrylic paintings one can easily see the profound influence he had on former student and noted Portsmouth artist Ken Wright whose acrylic abstract “Twin Towers” hangs in the White House placed there during the Bush administration. Or, in Wright’s paintings that welcomes you to Norfolk Airport.
Jackson’s mastery of the human form reminds one of some of Michelangelo’s illustrated studies, capturing emotions with simple minimalist yet detailed stokes of charcoal, lead. It’s the same mastery of subtle facial expressions; technique and discipline represented in the government commissioned portraits of Doctor Harrison Benton, a retired graphic artist, illustrator and painter.
“Professor Jackson taught me discipline,” said Dr. Benton, currently preparing a suite of paintings and illustrations of men’s fashion for a new Maryland haberdashery’s décor and grand opening.
“One of the key factors I was able to obtain from Professor Jackson was when I was a student at I.C. Norcom. He gave me access to a lot of his art books he had from Yale, and his notes on how he learned and dealt with illustrating the human form,” added Benton. “I was very much committed to excellence in that area because I saw that it was something important to him.
“One thing about Mr. Jackson is that he had a command of human anatomy far above anyone I have ever seen. He had the ability of painting the human form with near photographic ability. What’s important is that he was able to communicate that discipline to his students. He forced us to deal with the demands of patience to accomplish what, we, as artists, needed to accomplish.”
To Jackson art is capturing the progress of the human condition.When I first met Jackson back in the late sixties he was a man with an artistic spirit that quietly elicited adjectives like genius, brilliant. As an artist he defied artistic restraints as well as the conventional obvious, not to mention commercialism or unabashed exploitation.
That, to me, is Alexander Brooks Jackson and this exhibit.
You don’t interpret Jackson’s work. You immerse yourself into it. You want to take his visual journey to see what he saw, feel what he felt, why he was feeling it. Those thoughts meander about as you attempt to fathom his motivations, albeit, poorly. You look for hints of his muse. Then you notice the subtle stokes of his mastery of the human form. His renderings tell a story with each line of expression, and it may be that one line he drew in a face.
Having written a review, or observed the work of several of his formal students, I see how they pay homage to their professor, what they took from him, and what defines his charges as artists. I know why he tried to remain true to himself.
Now that I’ve had the opportunity to jury exhibits, write and lecture about a myriad of artists since the early eighties, I like to think one sees as much in his work as one would see in works by Michelangelo, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Ernie Barnes, Josef Orsolya, Rembrandt.