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Majestic heroines of the antebellum South:
Beauty and pain in Preston Jackson’s sculpture

by Bridgitte Montgomery

Fresh from Julieanne’s Garden, the current exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, is reminiscent of a gospel song sung slowly and melodiously from deep within one’s soul. The words from the old blues song “Strange Fruit” come to mind: “Southern trees bare strange fruit/blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” The exhibition is a combination of profound beauty and dramatic pain. The garden is a mystical place that contains 28 figurative bronze sculptures that border on surreal. The garden also includes a sculpture of Jackson’s gallant grandmother and muse, Julieanne, for whom the exhibiton is named. Accompanying each sculpture are historical and mythological narratives through which Jackson explores his Southern forebears. Personal accounts of the practice of voodoo, the influence of Native American folklore, the debauchery of slavery, survival and hope, fill Julieanne’s garden. Each narrative is written in the Southern dialect of the time and serves as a guide through Julienne’s life and environment before and shortly after the Civil War.

Jackson’s sculpted women are beautiful and proud. “Claire Michelle” (2005) is a tall woman with a strong and bold demeanor. It was said that she was the most striking woman in Kentucky. She has wild hair and a protruding bustle that transforms into collard greens. Her umbrella has a sharp tip that survived the middle passage and is a constant reminder of her family’s perseverance. Meanwhile, “Queen Ester” (2005) bears the wood that she carries atop her head like a crown. Her dress devolves into twigs and emptiness, as does her truly majestic purpose. An animal skull lies at her feet. There is also “Corrine Nitel” (2004) who stands proudly in a small boat floating on the mighty Mississippi which burst the levee. Her torn dress and gaunt legs are overshadowed by her elevated bust. Her commanding demeanor exemplifies her optimism in rowing her infant to safety while the corn at her feet symbolizes her faith and hope for the future.

“Emerald Tree Boa” (2005) portrays Aunt Neppie, a profound and mystical woman. After many years of worshiping in the African Methodist Church, she returned to the religion of her ancestors and became a voodoo priestess. She holds a circle of thorns above her head. On top sit a boa and a magpie; the predator and prey relationship reaffirm the natural way of life. Even though her dress is made of ropes and chains, Aunt Neppie’s devotion transcends her turbulent world and penetrates the world of spirit.

Similar to African Benin sculpture and Wobe ceremonial masks, Jackson’s earth mothers embody an air of unseen forces while his personal narratives speak of passages to ethereal worlds. Around the turn of the century, African art provoked the European modern art movement and redefined art at the time. Jackson draws on both African and European styles, yet he has created new shapes and forms that intermingle with stirring emotional content in a unique style of his own. With the African-based lost wax process, by which modeling and casting is complimented by blowing air into the form, Jackson transforms the figurative works into extraordinary elongated and distended shapes that make each individual bronze a one-of-a-kind sculpture.

Jackson’s master works have a distinct honesty and emotional content that speaks to the unique character of the individual. His sculptures also have universal appeal based on the supposition that there is a certain congruity in human consciousness and experience.

It was like a church inside the Cultural Center’s galleries as viewers observed and connected with Jackson’s artwork. Brian Cetnick, a former SAIC student who was leading a tour through the exhibition said, “He forces you into a relationship with these sculptures in a way that you are not used to. It is a strategy.” As the viewer is drawn in to observe every unnatural detail, typical objects shape-shift into something remarkably unexpected. This is the genius of Jackson’s work.
I have heard Jackson speak many times about his work and the personal experiences that have influenced his artwork. I am left with the impression that he is one of those gifted people who have had the courage to turn inward and dig deep within the reservoir of self. From this place, Jackson’s gracious touch modeled 28 sculptures of the most moving and intense nature. We the viewers admire the higher truth that has emerged and graced everything with which he comes in contact.

Preston Jackson’s sculptures are at the Chicago Cultural Center through March 26. Jackson also has larger public works in Bronzeville and at the McCormick Place West Expansion.

MARCH 2006