Lake Norman Magazine

February 24, 2011

Herb Jackson: Man of many layers

Davidson College's new exhibit recounts the artist's life.

Herb Jackson is a Southerner and polite. So when someone in a worried tone asks him what ever will he do now that he’s retiring, he says softly, “I have plenty to do.” What he’s thinking – and is too well-mannered to say – is, “Have you not noticed what I’ve been doing for the last 50 years?” What the Davidson College professor has been doing – and will continue to do after retiring in May – is making art. Disciplined and hardworking, Jackson, 65, is up with the sun for a five-mile walk before a breakfast of green tea and fruit. Then, he spends hours in his studio. All that effort yields paintings that sell for five figures and a comfortable lifestyle. The nationally-known artist drives a silver Jaguar sedan. Sitting in that paint-stained studio behind his house on South Main Street, Jackson says, “Any success I have is because I’ve busted my ass.” Fruits of his labors are on view in March at the Davidson College Gallery in a celebratory exhibit. Curated by gallery director Brad Thomas, “Herb Jackson: Excavations” features 19 paintings made between 1961 and 2011. More a survey than a retrospective, it nonetheless gives a sense of a career notable enough to place works in venues such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the British Museum in London. Icing on the cake, Jackson now has a show at the Claire Oliver Gallery in New York, his first in the art capital in 20 years. Jackson’s energy and commitment have benefited Davidson. When he took what was supposed to be a temporary job in 1969, the art faculty consisted of two people. Now, there are seven. Art classes were taught in one room. Now, the Belk Visual Arts Center at Main and Griffith Streets, opened in 1993, has classrooms, studios and galleries. Jackson fostered the college’s 3,000-piece art collection. And students now can major in art, not a possibility when Jackson (class of ’67) came from his hometown of Raleigh to study at Davidson. He majored in German. Asked about accomplishments, Jackson mentions the human potential developed in individuals before the bricks and mortar. He says he’ll miss the students. “Young minds are exciting to see them come alive.” Jackson is best-known for his large abstract paintings with their colliding forms, bright colors and rich textures. Jackson covers a canvas with layers of paint, sometimes as many as 100 or more. Using tools and even fingernails, he scrapes away part or all of each color, allowing buried layers to emerge. These works serve as a summary of his life story: Editor's note: Refer to the slideshow above to see each work.

“Rock Strata,” 1961 (image 3 above) – Jackson began painting when he was 12, setting up a studio in the basement. He loved the outdoors, digging in the dirt, getting lost in the woods, studying natural surfaces such as tree bark. That love of texture shows in this painting, done when he was 16. Jackson did realistic work early on, portraits to pay for art supplies. But he soon turned to abstraction – and stayed with it long after art currents shifted. During his weekly visits to the N.C. Museum of Art as a teenager, he was drawn not to the Old Master works but to the pre-Renaissance and Modern paintings.

“Oracle II,” 1971 (image 4 above) – When they hired him, Davidson officials stressed it was a two-year commitment. Jackson smiles at how that’s stretched to 42 years. In his second year of teaching, he moved away from textured surfaces. The paint is applied flat and smooth in this shaped canvas. At graduate school in UNC Chapel Hill, he painted a nude that somehow turned into a cumulus cloud. The play of soft and hard, seen here, became a recurring motif.

“Earth,” 1972 (image 5 above) – Jackson’s first extended series was based on the Greek’s universal elements – earth, fire, air, water. The hard edge remains at the top, but the rest is more painterly. Jackson has visited Greece 11 times. “The food, the music, the people – I love it all.” He and his wife Laura Grosch, also an artist, used the elements in naming their sons, Leif Air Fire and Ulysses Water Earth. Leif is a software designer, Ulysses a painter.

“African Violet,” 1976 (image 6 above) – This painting represents another change with its roiling surface of thick paint covering the entire canvas – except for that orange strip at the right, a remnant of the hard-edge paintings. The colors from layers of buried paint peak through, pointing to the technique Jackson became known for.

“Sisyphus,” 1989 (image 7 above) – Jackson’s way of working can be expensive. Once, he applied a layer of orange paint costing $450 and then covered it. “So much of what I do the viewer never sees,” he says. As a boy, Jackson enjoyed getting lost in the woods and finding his way home. The mature artist doesn’t start with a subject. Rather, he attacks the canvas, digging into himself more than mirroring the outside world and so discovers the painting. “I love diving off the deep end,” he says. The result can be big and bold, as in this 6-by-10 foot work.

“Veronica’s Veil C,” 1990 (image 8 above) – In 1980, Jackson began a series called “Veronica’s Veil,” marking each painting with Roman numerals. He was inspired by the legend of St. Veronica, who, when Christ struggled with his cross, mopped his face, leaving his visage on her veil. Jackson was drawn to how the image “was breathed into existence” with no human effort or control. A few years after this work was made, Jackson and his wife attended the family Christmas party at the White House and he gave Hillary Clinton one of his drawings. She already owned a painting by Grosch, a fellow student at Wellesley.

“Veronica’s Veil CC,” 2010 (image 9 above) – Jackson likes to see the dawn every morning, and a sense of luminosity fills this work. Like all the “Veils,” it’s painted on a 5-by-4 foot canvas, a format Jackson loves. “It has the torque of the horizontal and the compact energy of the square.” He didn’t expect the series to last this long. But it continues, represented in the most recent work in the show. When he started out, Jackson wanted to make enough selling one painting to be able to make the next. That, he says, is still his goal.

Want to go?

“Excavations: Herb Jackson” begins at 7:30 p.m. March 10 with a gallery talk by the artist and a public reception at the Belk Visual Arts Center, 315 N. Main St., Davidson. It opens March 11 and runs through April 20. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and noon-4 p.m. weekends. 704-894-2344. An illustrated publication with essays by gallery director Brad Thomas and Roger Manley, director of the Gregg Art Museum at N.C. State University, accompanies the show. For information on Jackson’s art, go to

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