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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Earl Jackson

When: February 12, 2024

Earl Jackson, 1997In this episode, AADL Talks To Earl Jackson. Earl talks about his time growing up in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, from his early years to his work at Borders Books and Music where he worked as a framer to the evolution of his career in the visual arts. He also discusses some of the organizations and people who inspired and mentored him, and reflects on the changes in themes and style in his work.

Historical photos and articles about Earl Jackson


  • [00:00:09] AMY CANTU: Hi, this is Amy.
  • [00:00:10] ELIZABETH SMITH: And this is Elizabeth. In this episode, AADL talks to Earl Jackson. Earl talks about his time growing up in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. From his early years to his work at Borders Books and Music, where he worked as a framer, to the evolution of his career in the visual arts. He also discusses some of the organizations and people who inspired and mentored him and reflects on the changes in themes and style in his work.
  • [00:00:31] ELIZABETH SMITH: Where were you born and what brought you to Ann Arbor?
  • [00:00:38] EARL JACKSON: I was born in Ann Arbor at the old Saint Joe Hospital. There on Engle Street in 1948, and then I was raised in Willow Run, a community in Ypsilanti. Then I moved when I married my first wife, I moved to--to Ann Arbor and spent I guess maybe 30 years there and was employed throughout the Ann Arbor area various jobs.
  • [00:01:10] AMY CANTU: I know that you went to WCC and EMU and we're curious about your journey as an artist. When did you know that you wanted to be an artist? What was your first experience with doodling and drawing or painting?
  • [00:01:27] EARL JACKSON: I started drawing in the third grade. I realized I had a talent, one of the boys in our neighborhood, He was fantastic, and he and I had seats next to each other in the third grade. Instead of following along, getting our math problems and assignments, we were drawing. He started drawing first long story short, and I picked my pencil up and started copying what he was doing. His name was Jerry, like I said, he was fantastic. Lost track of Jerry during high school and I knew I had talent then. Some of the times I would have to stay after school in Mrs. Clark's fourth grade class because I was drawing instead of paying attention to the class assignments. But I had various teachers that encouraged my development, knew I was interested in art, and so that's how they engaged me in the classroom. My fifth grade teacher would give me assignments to do for the class, school plays. That kept me engaged. Mr. Reeves in high school, Miss Santusi [?] Along the way, kept me engaged and saw my talent.
  • [00:02:40] ELIZABETH SMITH: When you decided to go to college, were you initially going to study art?
  • [00:02:44] EARL JACKSON: No, I was going to study architecture. But I realized I just like the aesthetics. I love to see things being built. But I knew that was not my lane. I quickly changed when I realized I loved to see things built and I loved to see the finished product, but I didn't want to go through all the steps that the architects go through. My son wound up being an architect, so I changed my direction in '67 and decided to be a fine artist. But it was really tough and complicated because I didn't know how to go about it until I met Jon Lockard and started taking classes from him at WCC.
  • [00:03:27] AMY CANTU: Tell us about him. He was a big influence in your life?
  • [00:03:30] EARL JACKSON: Yes, he was. He gave me discipline, direction. My mother spent $500 back in '64, I think it was, a correspondence course that I took. I didn't finish it, so I felt I wasted her money. For a working class couple with three kids, $500 back then was a ton of money. The person, the instructor that came to my house knew I had talent as well. But still, I needed hands on, I needed to be in a classroom, not a mail correspondence course. When I met Jon Lockard, he gave me a lot of direction. I started working for him and watching him, how he went about his craft and just picking his brains and he would tell me things that I thought as a young man--when you're younger, you think an older person, they don't know what they're talking about. Sometimes I had that attitude. Then when it came to pass, when it came true as what he was telling me, the obstacles and all the hoops that I would be jumping through to become an artist. I really appreciated the discipline, the encouragement, and knowing what I would be faced with trying to be an artist.
  • [00:04:52] AMY CANTU: Just to follow up on that. Did you pick up much of his own technique? I know he was a portrait artist and a muralist.
  • [00:04:59] EARL JACKSON: Good question. Because I wanted to be a portrait artist, but it doesn't flow as easily for me as it did for he and Carl Owens. Carl was out of Detroit also Jon Lockard was from Detroit and they were around the same age and they both could just do portraits unbelievably, I found out I couldn't. It's a struggle. Then I also had to learn my own style and technique, which I did. It's like anyone else in the arts. A good analogy is a musician or a singer. They have this person or persons that they really idolize or worship as a musician. They copy their style. At one point they realized that's their style I need to develop my own, that's what I had to do. It took years. Funny thing about it is still developing. You don't sit still. You don't rest on your laurels. It's really interesting and fun to continue to develop and try new techniques and paint and create different ways instead of the same way I did 20 years ago.
  • [00:06:10] ELIZABETH SMITH: Were you ever involved in any mural projects?
  • [00:06:13] EARL JACKSON: Before I moved here to the Atlanta area, I did a mural for, I think it was Angell Elementary off of Washington, near the campus right there on Michigan's Campus. They had a Harlem Renaissance program, and they had a grant. I went in and had, oh, I think it was maybe 10 kids helped me with the mural. I let them just paint in the mural what they got from the experience, the educational material that the teachers we sharing with them. We did a Harlem Renaissance mural, and then a collaborative, it was a study mural through the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit. About three years ago, now, maybe four years ago, I did a mural for the church I was raised in, Brown Chapel in Ypsilanti. It's on Michigan Ave now. The church had asked me to do something years ago before I moved here, and I finally got around to doing it. It's a historical perspective of the church and it hangs in when you first enter the church, it hangs above the coat rack in the hallway.
  • [00:07:25] AMY CANTU: I'm curious about, I know that you were involved early on with the Ann Arbor Art Fairs. Can you talk a little bit about what your style was then and what it was exhibiting during the fairs, and maybe a little bit about how your style changed in the early years.
  • [00:07:42] EARL JACKSON: I was primarily working from photographs, like a lot of artists worked from photographs or models. I did that for a very long time, until one day in downtown Detroit at an art festival, I had worked from this photograph out of one of the pictorials from an African coffee table book, and so did another artist in Detroit. I had to do some self-critiquing and analysis. I realized then I was a good technician, I was not a creative person at that time. I was looking at someone else through their photography and then working off of what I saw that was not my imagery, that was someone else's. That was in '83-'84. I had a piece in exhibit in Chicago, and I saw an artist out of Chicago who was very creative with pencils and made a porcupine out of different color pencils. Then I went to Senegal in '85, I think it was. I saw more creative artists and textiles, and it dawned on me, if I'm going to move to another level, I'm going to have to create from my own creativity in my mind. I had to stop using the photographs. I had to drop the training wheels, the crutches, and I had to go cold turkey and work out of my own imagination, which is such a relief now. Jumping ahead, I got into reproduction of my work to sell across the country. If you're taking someone else's work and even though you're painting it, you can get sued. Yes, there were some artists getting sued because the photographers were upset rightfully so. But I didn't have to worry about that because my imagery at that time was coming from my own creativity. It was such a relief. But it was it was frightening to even think about working out of my own imagination.
  • [00:09:57] AMY CANTU: Did everything change, was your color palette?
  • [00:10:01] EARL JACKSON: Color change? After I came from Africa, my colors got brighter. I still paint very vivid colors and whole perspective. I started using silk threads in my work. I sew silk threads into certain pieces on board to create three dimensionals. I'm working on a three dimensional series now and I hope to have at least 10 pieces done in two years. It incorporates fabric, silk threads, and textures, and so forth.
  • [00:10:36] ELIZABETH SMITH: Have you ever worked with any other media besides painting?
  • [00:10:40] EARL JACKSON: A few times, only in class. This was ironic, second day of class, Jon had us, Jon Lockard that is, it was a drawing class and we were studying faces, the shape of the face and sculpture.
  • [00:10:57] EARL JACKSON: I'm thinking to myself, I signed up for a drawing class. I didn't sign up for sculpture but little did I know what he was trying to get us to understand the shape, the three dimensional shape of the face. Because if you're just working on paper or canvas, two dimensional, it's hard to understand or I should say, it's more easily to understand the face, the body, so you can create shadow and light to give that illusion that it's three dimensional. We did plaster of Paris sculpture in the class. I still have mine from the early 80s.
  • [00:11:38] ELIZABETH SMITH: I was also curious about you mentioned you went to Senegal and that you produced the, Following the Path piece that took off and got you some fame. Could you talk about that a little bit?
  • [00:11:48] EARL JACKSON: Yes, That trip was so rewarding. At the banquet, this was through the National Conference of Artists, the Michigan Chapter. We had a large membership that went on the trip. This was to Dakar, Senegal, and so at every conference, at the end, they have a banquet. The African Americans were dressed in African garb, the Senegalese, most of them, some of them had on Western style suits and dresses. It's so powerful to see all these colors and regal figures walking around. I said, I wanted to do a piece on African American women. At first it was going to be a vertical piece, and then it started changing over the years, in my mind, I painted it in my mind over a year before I even made an attempt on paper. So it changed from just more of a vertical portrait piece. This was a process of me changing, working out of my own creativity. I wanted to tell a story about African American women connecting them to their African heritage. Following the Path was at piece. It was very intimidating to do that because I'm working in oil. No models, no photographs, just out of my head. I was really pleased with the piece and I just wanted to show the beauty and regalness of African American women. Because in this culture, when I was growing up and even now, African American women are not considered the standard of beauty, or even in the world, they're not used as a standard of beauty. Hair is important, skin color, shape, size, anatomy, the whole thing. I wanted to uplift and show how proud and regal they are and how strong they are. I did that piece and I put them in African type garb. But African fabrics textiles, there's a lot of pattern work, geometric design and shapes to the clothing. I did solids because I was very intimidated. I knew I could get away doing solids for myself, but whenever I would show it to people from the continent, from Africa, they would look at me. Nobody said anything to me but they gave me a look like, this is so plain. Where's the design? Where's the patterns? Where's the shapes?
  • [00:14:42] ELIZABETH SMITH: But it still got really good reception.
  • [00:14:45] EARL JACKSON: It did. It really did. But the funny thing about it, when I printed it, I was framing a Borders Bookstore. I was the last framer at the Borders Bookstore on State Street. I took my bonus money, and I had that printed, and I spent all my money. When I took delivery on the prints, I was sitting in my living room and I thought, what have I done? I've spent all my money on this stack of paper that I'll probably have the rest of my life. And long story short, they start selling. Then that scared me and I thought, oh my goodness, how do I handle this?
  • [00:15:24] ELIZABETH SMITH: Where were you selling them?
  • [00:15:26] EARL JACKSON: First, at Borders, I was allowed to put them in the upstairs where they had the gallery at one time and poster bins. They were selling there and then I took out ads. Well, I was sending them to the organization that I belonged to, the members that were gallery owners or frame shop owners. I would send them a complimentary copy and then word of mouth through them, framing it, putting it up in their store that was advertisement for me. Then I started advertising in Decor Magazine. It just took off the second year. It took off to the point where I could quit my job. I was given the assurance that if things didn't work out, I could always come back to borders. That was a big relief. A dream come true.
  • [00:16:20] AMY CANTU: You had said earlier that you thought about it for a long time before you painted it. Is this typical of your process that you'll spend a long time thinking about what you want to do before you even put anything on a canvas?
  • [00:16:34] EARL JACKSON: Sometimes, yes. That piece, the three dimensional piece that I'm working on now, took even longer and two things. I wanted a bigger space to work on this new series and time's running out on me and I didn't know quite how to do it. I got to the point where my creative skills were at the point where I knew the materials and what I was going to do with it. But that turned over in my mind off and on for a good 40 years. Close to 40 years. It was because of I went to my roommate from college, went to visit him and he took me into the Air and Space Museum. Carl Sagan, Power of Ten, I think that's what it was called, how minuscule we are in the bigger scheme of things in the universe. When I saw that film, that footage, it just blew my mind. Then I'm sitting on a plane coming fast forward again. Maybe 10 years later, I'm coming from D. C. again on the plane. I started thinking about how there are systems within systems. We are part of a much larger system. We are cells on this bigger cell. Earth to me is a cell with a bigger system. That system is in the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way is part of a bigger system. I started thinking about people and families and how you have the mother and father. If they have offsprings, those offsprings are like the Earth, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars. We're all in this harmony, this rotation around the sun, which represents the center and the source. I've been thinking about that off and on for 30, 40 years. How was I going to create it so it's understood?
  • [00:18:45] ELIZABETH SMITH: What are some other themes that you talk about in your work or address in your work visually?
  • [00:18:50] EARL JACKSON: Music, lot of times it's easy for me to do a musical theme because they're hand in glove. Everything in the arts I think fits together. They're like a puzzle. All come, I think, from the same creative source of the human spirit.
  • [00:19:14] EARL JACKSON: Doing a musical theme is very easy.
  • [00:19:21] AMY CANTU: What particular type of music is an influence in your life?
  • [00:19:26] EARL JACKSON: Jazz and blues. I did a series back after Following the Path came out and I think it was '89 or '90, I did a Journey With the Blues Gods. It was at Pierre Paul Gallery. At that time, it was a Great Frame Up on Washington. I did a series, I used silk threads to create that series, the Blues series. That idea came from Edsel Reid, who was a radio host for the FM public radio station in Detroit. He would sign on in the evening when he did his show. Come and Journey With the Blues Gods. One day, it just struck me, I thought that is a good body of work there to be created. I took the idea from that, saying that's how sometimes the process works. For me just to say some poetry, a line in a book, or someone playing music, it might trigger an image.
  • [00:20:36] AMY CANTU: Earl, how do you feel I'm curious about your time in Ann Arbor and what you think about Ann Arbor might have influenced your work. Obviously, you worked at Borders and I know you worked at Anderson Paint as well.
  • [00:20:50] EARL JACKSON: Yeah. Yes.
  • [00:20:52] AMY CANTU: Can you talk a little bit about your time here? I know that you had Morris Lawrence and the WCC connection and the Jon Lockard connection were big influences. But what else about the city in Ann Arbor helped propel you on your journey?
  • [00:21:11] EARL JACKSON: The Anderson Paint Company was my first professional picture-framing job. I learned how to frame and present my work professionally, which is a big component of painters. Framing is expensive and a lot of artists can't afford to put a decent frame around their work to display. By me working in frame shops, most of my adult life you get a discount. Then I had the knowledge of how it works. I was always able to present my work on a professional level. That was a big help. I learned a lot about framing, how to stretch canvases, even though I had books that showed you how to stretch canvas, how to do watercolors, framing other people's works, and having to stretch other people's canvases. You learn how to take care of the work and how to do it professionally. I worked there for four years. Then after that, they were closing the frame shop there. I wound up at Borders as the framer there. But I did the Ann Arbor Street Fair off and on for several years. That was very eye-opening and rewarding because you see other people's artwork. You get inspiration, you get ideas, and you share knowledge. It's important to get out and circulate and see what other people, how they use materials and colors.
  • [00:22:52] AMY CANTU: What was your experience like at Borders? I'm just curious what the store was like and the culture was like for you back then.
  • [00:23:00] EARL JACKSON: I love Borders. It was great. Even though the frame shop was downstairs. When I first started working there, I was claustrophobic. I didn't have any windows. I was down in the basement. But later on I was isolated and they left me alone because I did a good job. I had great co-workers. It was a pleasure to work there. I worked there 11 years. Jon Lockard told me at one time when I was working for him, build your library. You need to build a library. While at Borders, we got discounts. I was in the process of buying books while I was working there too. I was able to build my library while working there and learned a lot about the book industry. Just having another world opened up through working in the bookstore. They had a gallery up on the second floor at one time, a full-fledged gallery, which they closed because books were really selling. They closed the art gallery down and brought in more books.
  • [00:24:11] ELIZABETH SMITH: I was curious, where has some of your work ended up and is there anything in museum collections?
  • [00:24:17] EARL JACKSON: Ypsilanti Library, they have one big original of mine and I just did another one for them, the Willow Run branch out where I grew up. They have one I just completed for them, Brown Chapel. No museums outside of that. Even though I just I exhibited in Charles H. Wright Museum and the University of Michigan Museum and here in Marietta, I exhibited and had an exhibit in the Marietta Cobb Museum, the Chicago Science and Industry Museum, but none of them purchased any original work from me. I'm not in any museum's collection. We have to correct that.
  • [00:25:07] ELIZABETH SMITH: Absolutely.
  • [00:25:08] AMY CANTU: I know that you started out or at one point early on, you did miniature paintings, and then your canvas got bigger. Can you talk a little bit about the size, the formats, and maybe a few of the themes that have changed over the years?
  • [00:25:24] EARL JACKSON: Yes. I was working on series before I went to visit Africa because my older sister lived in Kenya for 18 years. Before I went to visit her I used to romanticize about African history, culture, and so forth, and about a visit there, I created this body of work called The Rainbow Makers while I was working at Anderson Paint Company, and I would display them during the Ann Arbor Art Festival. They were small, 4 by 7, 5 by 7. But as I got older and my eyes started to [LAUGHTER] Now the smallest I can do of those are 8 by 10. I've created 24 by 36 that image and what it is, is Africans in clouds pouring rainbows down out of gourds. I called them the Rainbow Makers. Some people think the people that have passed on died. I have to explain to them know their spirits, myth, mystical and fantasy. They're pouring down good vibrations from the sky.
  • [00:26:35] AMY CANTU: We have interviewed and talked with Bev Willis and I understand she had a little bit of influence on at least one of the names of your paint.
  • [00:26:45] EARL JACKSON: Yeah. I still have that piece too. I was working on a piece and it was for a guy here in Atlanta before I moved here, he started collecting my work and he told me he wanted some big pieces for this new home he was building. I was working on this piece. Bev Willis came over. She was my graphic artist. She came by and I was working on it downstairs because it's a pouring technique where I take acrylic paint, mix it, and then I just pour it on the canvas while it's on the floor. She came down, and I didn't have a title for it. She looked down at it and she said that's magical, mystical. I think she said journey and I loved it. That's so poetic and so I've had several people who wanted to buy it, but I still haven't. No one's come through with the cash yet. But I think that's my favorite piece because it just it's got this abstract flow to it. I just let the paint do what it wanted to do, and then I painted the image over the top. It's of boys from the age of maybe four, five to 18. And it harps back to me growing up out in Willow Run. My older brother, he loved being out in the woods and he would bring home all these wild pets. Well, he'd bring home wild animals and make them pets. I put in these African animals, few tortoise, very large tortoise that three boys are riding. Then there's one boy, he's got a bird of prey on his arm, which symbolizes my brother because he had a pet hawk growing up. Then there's some zebra.
  • [00:28:40] EARL JACKSON: There's a boy playing the talking drum and then there's a boy throwing stars into the heavens out of a bag. That's where the magic comes in. They're going to this place where boys go at that age, and they were going into the woods too like my oldest brother used to go with his friends. I was too young to tag along and never could go. There's this aura about going into the wood. Something magical about it. Bev, she nailed it. She didn't know all that when she gave me the title and I thanked her, I thought, my goodness, this is great but I still have the piece.
  • [00:29:17] ELIZABETH SMITH: I'm curious if there are any other pieces that stand out as really representative of you as a person, or just your favorites that you've created.
  • [00:29:25] EARL JACKSON: Following the Path where we discussed that and then Summer Serenade, which is a couple in a large canoe on a lake. It's a romantic piece. The man's playing the guitar, the woman's reading poetry. It's a summer day, she's in white and a big summer hat and he's playing the guitar. That's one of my popular pieces that sold quite well in print form. Then I did a jazz series, four or five different pieces showing musicians and vocalists in different settings. Summer Serenade, Following the Path and Magical Mystical Journey.
  • [00:30:11] AMY CANTU: I'm curious about how long, on average, you would say it takes you to finish a work of art, to start, and then once after you've finished thinking about it and you start putting something on canvas, what's the time length?
  • [00:30:26] EARL JACKSON: It depends the small pieces I used to be able to I could sit down and do in a few hours. The bigger pieces sometimes I get too fussy and try to perfect them to the degree I get bogged down, and sometimes you have to talk to myself and just say, let it go. It's fine. You're making too much of a fuss on something which could, in terms of color or positioning of a figure or something but the bigger pieces can take a month to two months. I just finished a piece for my youngest granddaughter. She wanted something dealing with water, so I did her three mermaids and then a couple of kids on a big fish take off on the Ypsilanti mural painting for them. Then a young woman further in the background, she's a butterfly. She has butterfly wings, so it's this magical thing that I got bogged down because of the tail on the center mermaid, and I couldn't get it right. It took an extra week or two because I got real fussy. I kept changing things out, and finally I had to paint it the way that it worked, as opposed to how the first sketch was rendered, which always happens. Every time I have an idea, I see one thing, I'll sketch it out, and then when I start doing the actual painting, it changes. It never fails. It changes, it takes control.
  • [00:32:07] ELIZABETH SMITH: I was just going to ask if you had any advice for people who are interested in the arts or pursuing a career in the arts?
  • [00:32:14] EARL JACKSON: Yes. Be patient, but nowadays with the internet and all these platforms, you can get your work out worldwide in no time. But if they're really in it for the long haul, be patient, develop your art, take classes, study. If you have someone that take classes from people that have already developed their skills and you feel comfortable with whether that's through universities, community colleges, art organizations, or just weekend obvious because it helps to sit with other people who have the same interests and bounce ideas and information, but be patient and make sure if you're in it for the long haul that you develop your work, and don't put money first because you're always chase the money instead of developing your skill. If you develop your skill first to the highest level possible that you're constantly trying to develop and hone your abilities and talent, you do the right things success will follow. If you get into, like I did reproductions, which back in the '90s a lot of artists did, make sure you cover yourself legally with copyright and so forth. Because people steal in the arts, just like any other place. They are unethical people in the creative arts, and they will steal your ideas and be off to the races, so protect yourself legally.
  • [00:33:57] AMY CANTU: What do you want people to take away from your work? When they see your work what do you want them to feel?
  • [00:34:06] EARL JACKSON: I hope that I was able to educate and teach that my imagery that I created was positive and uplifting. That comes from Jon Lockard and my mother. The way she raised me and so how I approached my always tried to be ethical positive and to help others. Whether it's through teaching them, sharing, showing interest, giving some pointers, and pointing someone else in the right direction, and just hoping I made a difference.
  • [00:34:57] AMY CANTU: You did some teaching or help with Maxey Boys Training and some other organizations. Can you talk a little bit about that?
  • [00:35:05] EARL JACKSON: First, I worked out there part time. Before I tried going back to school again to finish my degree, I had a part time job and I worked for a occupational therapist that was her class with these really troubled kids. I didn't do any artwork. I wasn't there as an artist, but I shared some artwork with the boys, not a lot because it wasn't my job. I was very young then at the time. I think I was in mid 20s. Mid to late 20s. Then 15 years later, when my art did take off, I was asked to go back out and talk to the boys and share my art with them. I had gone throughout the Ann Arbor Ypsilanti area as far as Dexter. I went to Dexter to share my art. I was invited there to talk to the school about art after one of my African trips, and as far as into Detroit, to share my art. You go into a classroom and you have this idea of what your presentation is going to be, if you let the kids take over, they will ask the questions and really become interested instead of standing before them with this dry talk that turns them off. I found out if I introduce myself, show my work, they will take the ball and they will run with it, and they become very interested in how you become an artist and one of the big things they want to know how much money you make. I would go around to a number of schools in the area and just talk with the kids about it, whether they're interested or not. But because it pulls people who are learned. People are so fascinated how you can take something and create nothing from just a blank sheet of paper or some clay stone steel, and you create an image or a work of art, abstract or whatever, it fascinates people.
  • [00:37:38] AMY CANTU: AADL Talks To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.