Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
Presented with the choice between wholly committing my pen to writing about current waves of shock and awe stemming from political shenanigans on the world stage, or sticking to processes for meeting specific goals, I chose the latter. My choice should not be taken as indifference to what many have interpreted as pow-wows between world dictators leading to accusations of treason against at least one of them whose full name currently begins with POTUS. It is in fact a way of responding to those history-making upheavals in a manner which hopefully will last much longer than a 24-hour news cycle.
As promised early in 2018, I have increased the number of images in my online art galleries, continued communication with publishing industry reps about publication of recently-completed manuscripts, furthered development of plays in progress, and extended promotion of observances related to the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.
Reflecting on all these plans at this moment, I have to admit the get-it-done list assigned to me by me is quite a handful. Even for a workaholic. However, a little pressure can sometimes inspire a lot of rewarding productivity.
Harlem Renaissance Deja Vu
The visual arts component of my cultural labors took over in the inspiration department this summer of 2018 as I found myself immersed in an abundance of visual works--some halting at the first-draft stage, others completed--for different projects. The creative intensity has been comparable to the experience which produced my books, The Bridge of Silver Wings and The River of Winged Dreams, in 2008 and 2010. The obvious difference is the previous results of the creative energy were literary.
But in some ways a number of the new visual pieces are also literary because they have been created as important parts of one of my in-progress plays (those cannot be sold at this time). Creating images for inclusion in a play has prompted me to revise the definition of a literary artist previously applied to myself. Whereas I formerly considered the term as indicating someone producing notable written works within different genres, in the current instance an accurate description would be: an author who is also a visual artist.
One of the new prints, Song of Love and Compassion, marks a divergence in style which surprised me and put a smile on my face. Another, Harlem Renaissance Deja Vu Number 1, is part of the 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance Initiative. Inspiration for it came from several sources, including works by Romare Bearden and Lois Mailou Jones, as well as from old photographs of the model. As indicated by the descriptive "Number 1" in the artwork's title, this is the first of a series.
Whether new prints from the series will also be offered through Fine Art America and Pixels.com has yet to be determined. However, a new blog series titled Art-Notes, which collectors, journalists, bloggers, and readers in general might appreciate has launched on the sites to share background info on images as they are posted. You can check them out by clicking the image below:
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.