Written by: Frank Iacono
Photo By: Ned Jackson Photography
Robert C. Jackson, a resident of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, was born in Kinston, North Carolina. Robert is the oldest of 5 brothers that were each born in different states around and about the Southeast. This transient lifestyle followed Mr. Jackson into his career path as he worked originally as an Electrical Engineer, designing radio systems for Motorola, then as an Assistant Pastor for Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, before settling down to his full-time and fulfilling career as a Contemporary Realist Artist in the mid 1990’s. Since then, all of these life experiences of his past inform and influence his creativity today.
Robert C. Jackson works from life; before he does anything on a canvas he sets up the actual arrangement in his studio. Then, with a pencil he carefully draws on the canvas the skeleton of the future painting. The entire canvas is then coated in a transparent acrylic, which allows him to work on the drawing without smudging. Then, he begins to paint. As Mr. Jackson paints, sometimes he’ll turn his painting upside down to allow his hand to access a certain passage of the painting and also to get a fresh view so that he sees something that might be off. Once he’s at work in the studio, he’s very deliberate about staying on task.
Robert C. Jackson’s artwork is well received across the nation, with gallery shows in Wilmington, DE, Southport, CT, Boston, MA, Denver, CO, New York, NY, and Washington, D.C. A compilation of more than 130 images of Jackson’s paintings can be seen in the book entitled Robert C. Jackson: Paintings by Philip Eliasoph. This beautifully illustrated book includes his paintings with details, photographs of the artist at work, sketchbook reproductions, and an interview with the artist himself.
In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert C. Jackson and asking him a few questions about his influences, his artistic style, his favorite artwork, his career as an artist, his past exhibits, and his upcoming event entitled “Tinkering With Reality” in New York City.
The Creative Spotlight: When did you first become interested in painting? And, who or what influenced you to become an artist?
Robert C. Jackson: I was always a doodler, but never thought about what I was doing or about art in general. In college all of my notebooks were filled with drawings as I sat daydreaming in Electrical Engineering classes. Sketches of the professors, other students, and things about the classrooms cluttered the pages. My girlfriend (who later became my wife, Suzanne) decided that it would be nice to channel this energy and gave me a set of oil paints for a Christmas present during my senior year. Having no idea what to do with them, I enrolled in Painting 101 and discovered a class that I enjoyed more than anything in my previous years of college. I knew right then I was going to find a way to make art a career for me someday. So, I’d have to say Suzanne is really the one who unknowingly influenced me to take up this journey.
TCS: What did you do to gain so much knowledge about art?
RCJ: Once painting, I became somewhat passionate about art in general. I’d visit museums, galleries, art fairs, anything I could find where I could see more. At least 4 times a year I’d run up to New York City and walk as many galleries as I could just taking it all in. I’m actually surprised at how few artists actually do that and basically only look at their own work or a handful of artists that they really like. I also have a pretty impressive art book library and thumb through them constantly. You’d be hard pressed to find me out at lunch without an art book keeping me company.
TCS: For those not too familiar with your work, please describe your specific style of art?
RCJ: I always find this the toughest question to answer. Artists are visual folks; talking and writing are so tough! I often want to say, “let me show you,” as I find my work hard to describe. The easiest thing to say is that I paint realistic still life, but that conjures old stale images in people’s minds. I suppose I could say that I’m trying to paint still life for a 21st century person. My work is colorful, narrative, playful, and attempts to engage the viewer. I like to use objects that speak of our collective nostalgia: balloon dogs, soda crates, grapes, apples, Oreos, donuts, toys, and even iconic art. Right from the start, I was drawn to still life. In a way, it lets the artist be a sculptor, arranging and setting up before immortalizing on canvas. I feel a lot of control in telling my stories using still life.
TCS: Tell us about your upcoming exhibit at Gallery Henoch in New York entitled “Tinkering With Reality” from November 6th through November 29th? And, what other galleries across the country could we go to see your work?
RCJ: I didn’t realize it until I saw a press release for this show that I have had 27 solo shows – egads! But maybe it’s because I just turned 50 last week and I always looked up to artists that were 50 that I am really feeling strongly about this show. It’s probably the biggest show I have done, both the size of the work, and having 23 paintings. For the last year I have been focused on that 50 number – so I really think this intense focus on the significance of this year caused me to put together a cohesive show that I am quite proud of. Continuing to ponder, it’s funny to sit back and think for a second of all the places I’ve been represented by that I can remember: Washington DC, Richmond VA, Chapel Hill NC, San Francisco, CA, Santa Fe NM, Scottsdale AZ, Tulsa OK, Knoxville TN, Fort Worth TX, Denver CO, , Chatham MA, Southport CT, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting. Still work with quite a few, but locally one could check out Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, DE. Besides Gallery Henoch in New York City, the other gallery that I primarily count on is Arden Gallery, in Boston MA.
TCS: Describe for us the background behind “The Thinker”
RCJ: I really enjoy conversing with art history. So there are often nods to other artists all throughout my work. This piece certainly fits that category. Maybe it is from being alone in a studio for so long but my apples are always alive. I’ve always had fun with them because they are the quintessential and normative still life props. Before this painting I had done one of apples having a water balloon fight and really enjoyed messing with the water. My mind wandered to ice, and I wondered what I could do with it. That evolution eventually began with apples knocking out Rodin’s “The Thinker.” I suppose it is like the theorem we’ve heard of where a monkey on a typewriter should be able to randomly knock out Shakespeare if given infinite time. Maybe apples could knock out “The Thinker.”
TCS: Can you remember one of the first things you drew/sculpted/painted etc.? And, what makes it so memorable?
RCJ: In that Painting 101 course in college, one of the first things I did was paint a still life of a paint brush, a bottle of solvent, and a paint tube on a piece of gessoed cardboard. I still have that painting tucked away somewhere in my house and I remember being so excited and satisfied working on it. Such dull objects became alive to me and I was hooked from that point on.
TCS: Tell us about how significant the exhibit entitled “Reality Check” held at Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania was for you both personally and professionally?
RCJ: Well, Luke in the Bible said “no prophet is accepted in his hometown” and it is especially hard when you are in the same hometown as Andrew Wyeth. I thought for sure that giant shadow would keep me hidden here. So I was having shows all around the country, museum exhibitions, and somewhat not even trying here. So, when the Curator, Audrey Lewis, asked me to show in the “Reality Check” exhibit that was held in 2010 right there in the heart of the Wyeth legacy I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The museum contacted me right near the end of the exhibit and asked if they could purchase my painting “Target the Artist” for their permanent collection. And not only that, they hung it and it has been on display there for years.
TCS: What is your most favorite artwork that you’ve created? And, can you describe its creation in regards to location, lighting, composition, etc.?
RCJ: Ok, that might be the second hardest question as it is so hard to be objective about one’s own work. They are all my creations, so probably the one I am most excited about is the most recent. I actually hope I keep feeling that way as I would hate to think my best work is behind me. Basically the last piece I created for this show at Gallery Henoch is a piece titled “Props.” I probably saved the toughest for last. “Props” is 72” x 80” and I really wanted a piece that was large enough that you started to feel like you were standing in it. I think the internet and digital imagery has been weird for art. People are used to seeing a painting on their screen. A piece like this suffers as people really can’t imagine the magnitude – that all the objects are life size and it really is a visual feast in person.
But back to explaining the painting. Whenever I go places I get asked about my props all the time. Since I use food items, people ask if I eat them all, how high I actually stack the objects, how long they sit in my studio, etc… So everything becomes fodder for my paintings and I thought it would be funny to paint somewhat of an impossible situation, a collection of my props sitting together just waiting to be used and becoming part of a still life in themselves. I do set up most of my still life’s though of course a painting like this one had to be set up in phases. I work in a rented studio in an American Legion building in Kennett Square PA. The members often peek in and laugh at crazy arrangements like this one. Set ups are against the same wall and my window is to the left. Rarely do I turn on lights as I prefer the shadows from the window. People often tell me they dropped by but didn’t knock because my lights were off. But I’m usually there.
TCS: One of my favorite from your collection is entitled “The Feast,” so can you share for us the inspiration and story behind it?
RCJ: “The Feast” began as a response to classic Dutch still life with elegant food scattered all over a table. I found it funny to modernize this thought and intermix American junk foods. I continually try and create action in people’s minds from an immobile still life set up. My paintings are always still, but people always come up and describe the action happening. I like that my work becomes a conduit for their daydreaming. “The Feast” is no exception and we are at the moment waiting for the balloon dogs to “dig in.” Maybe they are saying grace or waiting for a host or hostess to come back in. I’ve set up act one of a play and happily let the viewer work out the rest of the story.
TCS: Where do you draw your inspiration from and please describe for us what your typical painting process is like?
RCJ: I think there has to be a marriage between craft and concept in a painting. And leaving either out leaves the painting lacking. Unfortunately a lot of realist painters think so much about their craft they forget to come up with a good idea. So, maybe I am overly sensitive to that and am always thinking of new ideas. I have a stack of sketchbooks full of ideas. Some of my ideas come from whatever environment I am in and I jot ideas down on everything: school programs, church bulletins, the newspaper, etc… Other times it is more purposeful and I set out for a coffee or beer and just sit and brainstorm as much as I possibly can. I’ll go back through my sketchbooks later on and star ideas I think still hold water and are worth pursuing on canvas.
Once underway, since so much time has previously been invested with the idea I can now just have fun painting. During this time, I run Netflix, music, podcasts, anything to keep me company during those 8 hours a day alone with just a brush!
TCS: Why do you think painting became and remains so important to you?
RCJ: It’s funny, I have a bunch of friends that dread it now (though plenty that love it too) so I often wonder if it was good for me that a passionate hobby became my profession instead of it simply being my training and only option for a profession. I feel like I get to do my favorite thing every day. It’s where I feel most myself and where I am most comfortable.
TCS: Share with us the background of the triptych of “Dinosaur Feeding Frenzy”?
RCJ: A couple of times a year I get asked to do a commission where someone missed out on a piece that they wanted or they want to run an idea past me. “Dinosaur Feeding Frenzy” was an ideal scenario where the collector asked me to visit and see their space and wanted to know what I would come up with to fill it. They have adorable sons with a fun sense of family and I decided to go with that vibe. I roughed in a sketch with all of my own son’s dinosaurs attacking a pile of desserts. Fortunately they loved the idea and really gave me free rein. As a nod to the boys I hid a Tauntaun in with the dinosaurs since they were fighting with light sabers on that initial visit. The only constraint I fortunately discovered at the onset was that they live in a condo with an elevator and the painting had to be painted as a triptych and assembled once with the frame in their unit in order to get it there!
TCS: Do you have a favorite artist? If yes, what draws you to that person’s work?
RCJ: That’s an interesting question and I’m going to go real personal with it. Of course there are hundreds of artists from Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh to Wayne Thiebaud and Jasper Johns that I simply adore. But when it comes to what has impacted me the most, it would have to be my closest peer, Scott Fraser. As said, iron sharpening iron, this is that in my life. I laugh and am mesmerized by his work. And I’d like to think we have each pushed each of other to go further, he has certainly done that for me.
TCS: Tell us about the concept of your latest book entitled Behind the Easel: The Unique Voices of 20 Contemporary Representational Painters?
RCJ: Being that I didn’t go to art school, I learned so much on all those visits to NYC. Over the years there have been artists that whenever they had a show, I’d drop my own brush (which is seldom something I like to do) and rush up to see what they had done. In the ensuing years I started showing with some of these artists, or would meet them through various contacts and decided that I’d pick 19 of these artists, interview them and make a coffee table book. I’m thrilled with the result. These are representational painters from all over the country (and Canada) that show with about 15 different NYC galleries and all have uniquely signature work. I signed with a publisher for a 12” x 12” coffee table book and did 12 pages on each artist (and decided to interview myself too!). In effect, out of the hundreds and hundreds of art books I have on my shelves, I was able to create my favorite book. These are the artists that caused me to pursue this career and I’ve had their posters in my studio since the start.
The book can be purchased at:
- Barnes & Nobles
- My Website (since I can’t sell it as cheaply as they do so I try to personalize the ones I send out!)
What was the inspiration behind “Icons”? And, what was the selection process in determining which legends would be included?
RCJ: This one is kind of interesting. I painted a piece called “Looking at Art” first in which I tacked up bunches of paintings that have inspired me. Serious art – works that are all over a million dollars with artists like Auerbach, Basquiat and Freud. But I found people looking at the piece and thinking it was cool but wondering who the artists were or if I made them up. Made me realize what a small niche art is, and especially what is familiar or have become written in our minds and have become icons. So I did a 2nd piece that I titled “Icons” of the images that people know, that have been etched into the public consciousness. Along with these I threw in other “icons” such as the Nike and McDonalds logos, as well as an Oreo. I find it interesting that these images or reproductions are probably even more well-known than the paintings themselves. They were chose simply by being the most famous or recognizable. Whereas with “Looking At Art” I chose work that I’ve been taken by personally.
TCS: How do you market your artwork, public appearances, and books?
RCJ: I value more than anything good relationships with my galleries. They have space to show my work, advertise, take work to art fairs, etc… Art is still a very tactile experience. Collectors need to see the work in person – at least initially. Once they know your work, they are probably safe buying off an image from an ad or on the internet. But that initial purchase comes because they stood in front of it. I find that a necessity. Like I mentioned before, unless you stand in front of “Props” you just won’t get it. I’ve found that I enjoy painting way more than selling, so I am happy to let galleries do that for me. Social media and a good website let me keep those collectors informed with what I am up to but rarely does a new contact come from those. I’ll also do print ads, but those too are in association with my individual galleries.
To stay connected with Robert C. Jackson, please visit:
TCS: As you’ve developed your skills over the years, how has your perspective as an artist changed?
RCJ: This might hearken back to what I said before about craft and concept. Early on I was just concerned with honing my craft and really wasn’t too sure what to paint. I just wanted to do it well. In those days I’d just grab something from an antique shop and paint it. Over the years the idea behind or contained within the painting has become much more important to me. I’ve also become way more comfortable in just painting what I feel like painting as opposed to what I thought others wanted or expected me to paint. Fortunately people have walked that path with me and have enjoyed where my work has gone.
TCS: What qualities do you think all great artists should possess?
RCJ: Focused determination with a strong work ethic. The notion of an artist laying down a paint stroke then sitting back with a cigarette and staring at it for four hours just doesn’t cut mustard. One has to work hard at this. It is also important to have a signature that your work can be recognized from across a room. There are lots of painters out there; it is invaluable to have a unique voice.
TCS: For you, what is the best and worst part of being an artist?
RCJ: The best part is being my own boss and just painting whatever I feel like at the moment. I get such satisfaction in completing a painting. The worst part is that in working for oneself as an artist, there is no regular paycheck on Friday. Could be that you get nothing for many many Fridays in a row, and then it can turn the other way and you feel like you are on top of the world. I guess that is a way of saying that the business side is the stress of it. Would be nice to just paint and not have to think of that, but that is simply a pipe dream.
TCS: What, in your opinion, role does the artist have in our society?
RCJ: Darn, I know some people speak really magnificently about a question like this. I, on the other hand, see it a little less so. I’m pleased if my art can bring a little smile to someone else’s life and make their journey a little more enjoyable. I’m not sure what else I can expect. I do like that people tell me my work dialogs with them and demand conversation. I hope the conversations are enriching.
TCS: If you weren’t an artist what would you be doing instead?
RCJ: I suppose I’ve already been there and done that – I’m set with this. I originally was an Engineer for Motorola designing radio systems for 5 years, and then went into the Ministry for 5 years at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland before becoming an artist. This is a hobby and passion that became my career so there is nothing that anyone could do to pry me from it now.
Robert C. Jackson Books
Behind the Easel: The Unique Voices of 20 Contemporary Representational Painters
Hardcover– October 29, 2014
Robert C. Jackson: Paintings
Hardcover– March 28, 2012
About Frank Iacono
Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.
Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.