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Gone to look for America



Losing gamblers like to say it’s “better to be lucky than good.” Actuarial scientists, who have refined the business of odds making, prefer saying “luck is short term.” It’s best to be lucky AND good. Thomas Jackson is both. Before the Cedar River flooded Cedar Rapids in 2008, Jackson moved his studio and archives to rural Mount Vernon.

His studio there was the kind that most artists only dream about. It overlooked 50 acres of virgin prairie, provided natural light from northern, southern and overhead windows and occupied some 1,500 square feet on a hilltop. Three rooms provided different kinds of light plus considerable room for storage. Despite all those advantages, Jackson decided a few months ago that it was time to relocate again. Months later, that rural building burned to the ground. He’s foreseen fire and he’s foreseen rain.


Thomas Jackson’s “American Cipher 64.”

The last time I visited Jackson’s studio, I recalled a montage of watercolors based on Thomas Eakins’ portraits of Walt Whitman. Jackson explained that he began that series in the 1970s and continues to work on them. Whitman is a perfect role model for Jackson. Both men wander about, “looking for America,” in Jackson’s words. A 2009 Jackson exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (CRMA) was titled “American Narratives.” It consisted of images — mostly photographic — that Jackson took across the country and then sliced and spliced over, under and between other images of contrary subject matter. That style has become a Jackson trademark.

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Sometimes the images have obvious connections. He has mixed a tree’s exposed root system with an image of a Washington, D.C., underground subway station; an abused motel room bed with the torso of the Virgin Mary; a dilapidated parking ramp with abandoned toys; an abandoned armchair with a soybean field; and guns with children at play. That latter combination is a theme that Jackson used in an entire exhibition a few years ago at Moberg Gallery.

In other combined images, the connections are more ambiguous. Jackson has juxtaposed a beach shot with the rusted hood of a car for a show in New York City. In a 2007 exhibition at Davenport’s Figge Museum of Art, he paired off state fair images with those from political conventions, dramatizing both the carnival atmosphere of politics and the way patriotism is exploited to market deep-fried junk foods.

Jackson prefers the less obvious connections.

“I love it when different people see different things in my art,” he admits.

That’s integral to both the art’s appeal and the artist’s intentions.

Jackson’s versatility amazes TJ Moberg, his gallery representative in Des Moines.

“It astonishes me that Thomas can be so good at so many different media — photography, oil on canvas, ink brush, charcoal, watercolor and bronze sculpture. It’s all of the highest quality,” Moberg said.

Jackson is as prolific as he is versatile. He has exhibited in more than 100 shows since 1980, on both coasts and in many states between them. He accomplished all that without a staff or an assistant. This year, he has three drawings in different national juried competitions across America.

CRMA Director Sean Ulmer, curator of the “American Narratives” show, compares Jackson to Robert Frank, the mid-20th-century French photographer whose seminal work chronicled the everyday life of “The Americans.” Jackson’s photos and paintings can be darkly funny like a bride in a bridal gown shown above elbow length rubber gloves or Virgin Mary statues above an outdoor flower shop above a gun.

Jackson brings oil and canvas state fair images, Americana photo  montages and water color collages on rice paper to Moberg’s “Four Solos” exhibition beginning April 22. He will be joined by Rob Stephens’ cartoons of “sexual adventures gone bad,” plus large abstract paintings by Pam Staker and Robert Hoerlein. CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.


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