Cedar Rapids artist Thomas Jackson offers a distinct vision of the 21st century

Thomas C. Jackson works from a rural studio in Mount Vernon, Iowa. — photo by Kirsten Kumpf Baele

With his aesthetic breadth and varying use of media, Cedar Rapids-based artist Thomas C. Jackson’s work has gained an audience across the state and the country. His photo-realistic oil paintings and photographic montages have been featured in Des Moines’ Moberg Gallery, and a recent joint exhibit with Priscilla Steele at the Waterloo Center for the Arts showcased the artist’s depth, touting moody and slightly surreal figure drawings and gestures.

“What astonishes me is how Thomas can be so good at so many different media—photography, oil on canvas, ink brush, charcoal, watercolor and bronze sculpture—I probably left something out too,” said TJ Moberg, Jackson’s gallery representative in Des Moines. “The amazing thing is it’s all of the highest quality.”

As an artist, Jackson is as prolific as he is versatile. He has exhibited in 100 shows since 1980, on both coasts and in many states between them. And he has accomplished his work without a staff or even an artist’s assistant.

Jackson works in a rural Mount Vernon studio that overlooks 50 acres of virgin prairie; provides natural light from northern, southern and overhead windows; and occupies some 1,500 square feet on a hilltop above a four car garage and a kitchen. Three rooms provide different kinds of light and considerable room for storing his art books—which range from the classics to 21st century art—and just about every art magazine available. For him, this is his dream studio.

Jackson’s studio is big enough to archive much of his decades worth of artwork, including a collection of 1,400 drawings all done in the last six years. Jackson draws directly from life without any preliminary pencil sketching. His single lines are final: There is no layering or erasure, which he refers to as “working without a net.”

Thomas Jackson
Photo by Kirsten Kumpf Baele

His drawings scuttle nervously between control and spontaneity, as well as between light and shadow. Sometimes he randomly adds color to emphasize the abstract quality of his observations.

A montage of watercolors based on Thomas Eakins’ portraits of Walt Whitman hang in the studio’s entrance. Jackson began these paintings in the 1970s and explains that he continues to work on them to this day. For Jackson, Whitman is a perfect role model as he feels they both wandered about, “looking for America.”

Jackson’s unique vision of America was captured in the 2009 exhibit, American Narratives, at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (CRMA). The show consisted mostly of photographic images that Jackson took throughout the United States and then sliced and spliced over, under and between other images of contrary subject matter—a style that has been his trademark for many years now.

CRMA Executive Director Sean Ulmer, who curated American Narratives, thinks Jackson is a modern version of Robert Frank, the mid-20th century French photographer whose seminal work, The Americans, chronicled everyday life.

Jackson’s subjects are often ragged people and things and can be darkly funny and cynical.

“Peeled billboards, bleached-out bones, dried-up creek beds—these things speak to me,” he explains. “So does lost Iowa: century-old meat markets gone with floods, abandoned gas stations and faded signs.”

Jackon’s work can often be found in Des Moines’ Moberg Gallery. — photo by Kirsten Kumpf Baele

Ulmer admires the way Jackson presents different images together. Some subjects explored in the images have clear thematic connections: a tree’s exposed root system with an image of a Washington D.C. underground subway station; an abused motel room bed and the torso of the Virgin Mary; a dilapidated parking ramp with abandoned toys and an armchair left roadside in a soybean field; guns and playing children, two subjects that Jackson has explored extensively alongside each other.

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In some of his other images, the connections between Jackson’s subjects are less obvious. This spring, a photographic triptych included in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition displayed Jackson’s more subtle connections. Jackson was one of 14 (out of 1,400) finalists whose work was selected for inclusion in the exhibit, and his triptych, “American Slice 37,” contrasted a beach shot with the hood of a car.

For Jackson, he leaves the interpretation of his subjects to each viewer.

“I love it when different people see different things in my art,” he said. These differences in perception are integral to both the artwork’s appeal and the artist’s intentions.

“Jackson evokes certain times and places. Exactly what those are depends upon the viewer’s involvement in the process. He understands that each viewer brings with him or her the sum total of their remembered life experiences,” Ulmer wrote in the museum catalogue for American Narratives.

Jackson’s prolific portfolio and success as an artist working with various media points to his endless drive to depict America today.

“I think that I try to reflect a sense of time,” he said.

Artist Thomas Jackson
Photo by Kirsten Kumpf Baele