by Nancy Cooper
Stefanie Jackson is a contradiction. In person, you see an up-beat woman with a 500-watt grin. And then you see her art.
Instead of serene landscapes or true-to-life portraits, the UGA art professor tackles deeply emotional and often troubling subjects -- the generational conflicts in rural Georgia families, the disheartening deterioration of inner-city urban neighborhoods or the loneliness people mask from friends, family and the world.
"A lot of times, the public doesn't appreciate my art because they say they get a feeling of sadness from it," Jackson said. "My biggest challenge is trying to get them to understand that there are many facets of life, and artists don't have to show only the good side."
Jackson's work in oil paintings, lithographs, drawings and etchings has been described as introspective, multidimensional and "occasionally sinister." Jackson herself describes her work as figurative social expression, generally depicting African Americans in urban environments or places she's lived, such as New Orleans, New York or Detroit.
"My work usually features more than one person, complex images in an environment that people can somehow relate to," Jackson said. "I like to have a subjective point of view I'm trying to get across. The viewers may not get the same idea, but that's OK, as long as they see something deeper."
For example, the "Desolate City" series, her current project, is a range of paintings of African Americans migrating from the South to the North. In it, Jackson said she will show young people left stranded in industrial belts because of the lack of jobs to support their dreams.
Jackson started planning the "Desolate City" series more than a year ago. She spent days driving around Detroit taking photo after photo of empty lots and abandoned buildings in the neighborhoods where she grew up. She also combed through the old photos in Detroit's Ford library, looking for visual images that relate to the hopelessness and lack of focus she wants to portray.
With a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Foundation, Jackson will travel to Europe next spring to work as an artist-in-residence in Giverney, France.
"Monet's old stomping grounds," she said. "I'll be able to do research for a series of oils showing the African-American influence in France, and then the French presence in New Orleans."
While Jackson says she doesn't always have the images she needs at her beck and call, her work reflects experiences she's encountered in life combined with scenes from her imagination, such as New Orleans during the jazz age.
Her lithograph "Dark Madonna of Desire" is a case in point.
"The name is a take-off on `A Streetcar Named Desire,'" she said. "There is a street in New Orleans called Desire and there's a housing project on it called Desire Projects. I decided to place a mother trying to raise her child there, looking lovingly at her son in a difficult place. There's a rat in the background that represents an evil presence threatening the family."
Jackson's work has been shown in many exhibits and galleries around the country, most recently at the African American Museum in Dallas. She also has received numerous grants and fellowships, including the prestigious Pollock/Krasner Foundation Grant that is enabling her to renovate her art studio.
Her work is influenced by Picasso and the Cubist school, with what she calls a sense of continuity with African-American imagery. Her subject is often the relationship of people to their environment, reflecting the philosophy that people are born into a certain existence.
In the lithograph "I Cried for You!", for example, Jackson shows a world-weary Billie Holiday. The title is taken from one of Holiday's songs, and the lyrics, "Now it's your time to cry over me," are reflected in Holiday's face.
"Billie Holiday had a lot of talent, and she gave so much that I feel a sense of loss that she had to live such a painful life," Jackson said. "People are faced with certain difficulties they can't overcome. For my subjects, things are not particularly pleasant, and I show the stress and heartache of trying to overcome those circumstances.
"I just paint life, and sometimes life is difficult," she said with a smile.