Stepping into Suzanne Jackson’s Starland District home studio is like stepping into a time machine as a crooning jazz horn cuts through the hanging fog of humidity and the dappled sun rays that make up an early afternoon in Savannah.
“I was just picking out some songs for tonight’s program,” Jackson said, referencing the weekly radio show she co-hosts centered around jazz and conversation, called Listen Hear on WHCJ 90.3 Savannah State University Radio. The show also features hosts Ike Carter, Jerome Meadows, Tom Van de Ven, Lisa Jackson and Carla Curran, PhD.
The 75-year-old Jackson has had many titles and worked in many forms and mediums throughout her life from poetry and ballet to scene and costume design. Her most well-known works are large-scale acrylic paintings that combine elements of both sculpture and painting into textured collages of colors.
When speaking about her larger acrylic based works, Jackson said, “The pieces have living memory in a sense. If they’re rolled up they go back into their original shape and because of Savannah’s climate they fluctuate and move according to the air and I love that because it shows that there’s a sort of memory in the painting.”
Jackson’s commitment to art has been a lifelong pursuit, from set design with the traveling theatre troupe El Teatro Campesino to her work as a professor at Savannah College of Art & Design and exhibitions across the world.
Telfair Museums will present "Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades” beginning June 28 and running through Oct. 13 at the Jepson Center. According to a press release, the exhibition will “explore Jackon’s luminous output over a professional career spanning more than 50 years, highlighting her visual art as well as her relationship with other art forms, including poetry, costume design and dance.”
Telfair’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Rachel Reese expressed her excitement to portray Jackson’s work from a fresh viewpoint.
“One of the big things we’re considering is how do we reinterpret and recontextualize Suzanne’s work through a relevant, contemporary lens?” Reese said. “When dealing with such a long history and professional career, and earlier work that’s been written about, it’s important to ask, how should we present these artists who’s been historicized and are having retrospectives later in life, yet who’re still very contemporary?
“Suzanne has made work throughout her life and still makes work today, so this show is kind of a reintroduction to those who only know her from her work in the ‘70s. When comparing her modern work to the stuff from the ’70s, the pieces look like they’re made by two different people, and we’re especially excited for this retrospective to show that evolution.”
The opening program and reception will be a discussion between Jackson and notable artist and former co-founder of Los Angeles’ Brockman Gallery, Alonzo Davis. Alonzo Davis along with his brother Dale Davis co-owned Brockman Gallery, the first gallery in Los Angeles dedicated to the exhibition and sale of African American art.
Jackson and Davis share a common history when it comes to being gallerists, which is why she chose him to join her for the talk.
“Alonzo and I are both artists who just happened to be put into the category of gallerists,” Jackson said. “The thing about gallerists from our generation is that we were borne from necessity. There were no galleries that would show African American artists or Asian artists or Latino artists. We weren’t just black art galleries; we showed anyone who wasn’t going to be shown other places. I think Alonzo and I both dealt with people in that way.”
“When we were thinking about what the opening for the show would look like we were discussing a lot of different avenues,” Reese added. “We started thinking there are so many overlaps and so many stories we could tell, with her, her life, her work, all of these different contexts, and Alonzo relates and overlaps with all of these different areas connected to Suzanne's’ life and work.
“They’ve known each other since the 1960s and they’re historicized together, so they had that relationship together, and then they’re both artists who are living and working today so they’re bringing all that past with them to where they are now.”
Jackson says her own personal inspiration for the retrospective is to give back to the community and bring attention to an often-ignored community of artists.
“My whole reason for doing this retrospective is I feel that people ignore the artists in Savannah. They don’t take us seriously,” Jackson said. “So many local artists were students that have gone away and come back to live in Savannah, they’re a part of this community.
“They’ve bought property and can afford to live here, but people still act as if Savannah doesn’t exist. For me, the most important thing about this exhibition is bringing attention to the other artists who live here and promoting the idea that Savannah is just as much of a hotspot for culture as it is for history and tourism.
“The tourists should be coming here to see the art just as much as the history. They’re both such a big part of the city’s cultural aesthetics.”
Reese will moderate the June 27 conversation with Jackson and Davis. Topics will include navigating their roles as artists and administrators in the 1960s-1980s West Coast landscape, including the CETA arts program, and ways their own art practices continue to be in dialogue with each other some 50 years later, according to a press release.