Profile: Suzanne Jackson (1944-)

Suzanne Jackson is an American visual artist, gallery owner, poet, dancer, and set designer with a career spanning five decades. Her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, including the Studio Museum in Harlem and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Since the late 1960s, Jackson has dedicated her life to studio art with additional participation in theatre, teaching, arts administration, community life, and social activism. Jackson’s oeuvre includes poetry, dance, theater, costume design, paintings (both two- and three-dimensional), prints, and drawings.

Jackson has spent time throughout her career teaching students and influencing future generations of artists and culture creators, as well as building and participating in close-knit art communities with peer artists and thinkers. She worked in San Francisco through San Francisco State University with Bay Area artists and teachers including Charles White. She worked in Los Angeles during the 1960s-80s, founding Gallery 32, and exhibiting additional work at the Ankrum Gallery. During the 1980s she lived in Idyllwild, California teaching and creating art. She also worked at Yale University, and in New York and Philadelphia in the 1990s. She has worked in the Savannah, Georgia art community since 1996.

Early life

Jackson was born in Saint Louis, Missouri and her family moved to San Francisco, California when she was nine months old. Jackson lived in San Francisco until she was eight years old, after which she was raised in the city of Fairbanks, Alaska from 1952 to 1961, graduating from Monroe High School in 1961. As a teenager in Alaska, she became a member of the National Audubon Society which influenced some of the content of her work from a young age. She was also the first African American to attend the National 4-H Congress in Chicago in 1960, which helped her receive scholarships and allowed her to attend college. She received the World Peace, Humane Society, and Kindness to Animals scholarship from The International Latham Foundation, the Banff School of Fine Arts Scholarship, the Standard Oil Scholarship, and National Home Study Art Course.

Education

Jackson moved to the Bay Area in 1961 to attend San Francisco State University, where she studied both art and ballet, eventually receiving a BA in painting. She later completed an MFA from the School of Drama, Yale University, in 1990, specializing in theater design. While at SFSU, Jackson installed exhibitions at the campus art gallery and taught art at Saint Stephen’s School.

After college Jackson toured South America with a modern dance company and later returned to California to settle in Echo Park. In 1968, she opened Gallery 32, which operated for two years and which Jackson funded herself.  Jackson held several solo exhibitions during the 1970s at Ankrum Gallery, which was run by actress-turned-gallerist Joan Wheeler Ankrum and actor William Challee. Jackson produced artists books of poetry and painting, “What I Love” (1972) and “Animals” (1978).

In 1981, Jackson was first introduced to Savannah, Georgia, through an invitation to be a visiting artist with Savannah College of Art and Design through the recommendation of Bernie Casey. Additionally, in 1981, Jackson’s work was included in the exhibition “Forever Free: African American Women” which traveled to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Jackson lived in Idyllwild, California, from 1981 to 1985 and was on faculty as a Visiting Artist at the Idyllwild School of Music and Arts (1981–82), and chair of the Fine and Performing Arts at the Elliott-Pope Preparatory School (formerly Desert Sun School) (1982–85). In 1987, Jackson relocated to New Haven, Connecticut to attend Yale University, pursuing a master’s degree under the tutelage of Ming Cho Lee for scenography. She worked as a freelance scenic and costume designer moving throughout the region until taking a post at St. Mary’s College of Maryland as a scenographer and assistant professor from 1994 to 1996. In 1996, Jackson moved full-time to Savannah, Georgia, to teach at Savannah College of Art and Design as professor of painting, where she taught full-time until 2009.

Jackson officially retired from SCAD in 2009, but Jackson remained as a part-time and adjunct professor until 2013. Additionally, Jackson taught introductory art history courses, including African American Art History at Savannah State University in 2013–2014 school year. Jackson has remained an active member of the Savannah artistic community and continues to create and exhibit her work. Jackson co-hosts a weekly radio show featuring jazz and conversation, called Listen Hear on WHCJ 90.3 Savannah State University Radio, alongside Ike Carter, Jerome Meadows, Tom Van de Ven, Lisa Jackson and Carla Curran, PhD. In 2019 Jackson was the recipient of a Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant.

Artistic practice

Suzanne Jackson has had an extensive career an emphasized the importance of living the lifestyle of an artist, in her words, to be an artist is to solve problems as opposed to create images. She states, “I’m not an artist yet. I’m a painter. And I draw, and I work in theater as an “artist person,” in quotes. But to become an artist takes a whole lifetime.” Throughout her career, Jackson has looked to nature for inspiration, she has consistently related blackness to nature. Her work has celebrated blackness through the representation of black bodies without an overtly political message.

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