Art That Brings Fruit and Balloon Animals to Life
By Erich Engel
March 8, 2013
Still-life paintings aren’t always of a bowl of fruit or beautiful flowers in a vase on a nice dining room table.
Robert C. Jackson’s contemporary still-life art is filled with fruit and balloon animals, caught up in fantastical, playful situations. One of his more popular pieces, “Target the Artist,” is owned by the Brandywine River Museum and has been hanging there for the last two and a half years. Jackson is a popular artist across the nation and lives in Kennett Square in the Brandywine area.
For Jackson, the painting process begins with an idea from one of his sketch notebooks full of scattered ideas. Jackson frequently takes the time to go get coffee or a beer and sit for an hour and brainstorm and plot out future projects. The drawings aren’t masterpieces, but are rough sketches of ideas that interest him. Jackson’s ideas come from anything and everything.
“My kids laugh at everything I draw on my church bulletin. If there’s a word in the sermon that sparks an idea, I jot something down.”
A key point in embarking on an idea is just getting the ideas together and keeping them fresh.
“I’ve made a deal with myself. I never work on a painting that doesn’t have a reason. It needs a narrative and needs a story,” said Jackson.
He also sees the importance of the audience’s view of a still-life painting and seeks to separate his work from the norm.
“Why would you buy a $1000 painting of an apple, when you could just as easily buy a $5 painting of an apple for cheaper?” Jackson explained. “My work adds a story to the still life, and doesn’t just make it an apple sitting on the table. It adds another reason for people to want to buy my artwork.”
Jackson works from life; before he does anything on a canvas he sets up the actual arrangement in his studio. With pencil he 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 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. Jackson is deliberate about staying on task once he’s at work in the studio. He works in his studio every day from 7:30am until 6:00pm, which is an unusually long time for an artist; most spend about four hours at a time in their studio.
The length of time spent working on one painting depends on the size of the painting. Jackson’s average amount of time is about two weeks on a single painting while a large canvas might take closer to a month. He produces nearly 30 paintings a year.
Jackson’s paintings often depict either balloon animals, “balloon dogs” as he refers to them, or different types of fruit doing human activities, from having a meal together to jumping off a diving board to parachuting off of a crate tower. When asked if he’d ever consider painting people doing the activities he depicts, Jackson responded, “I love being a still-life painter. I love setting the ideas up and building up and working from them.”
Jackson believes it is stronger working with inanimate objects and using them as a form of metaphor, rather than stating messages outright, almost to the point of being blunt, by using people. Rather than telling people, he uses these objects to show people. The artist said, “It’s like Star Trek addresses racism, but the audience doesn’t realize that until after the show is over. I have a couple of apples fighting and it’s not until a couple minutes after looking, that the viewer realizes that ‘Oh! This is talking about war.’ ”
The balloon dogs and apples in his work allow people to see these things, these objects, as alive and expand their imagination. The viewer initially just sees the work as an activity but eventually starts to realize that it’s the apples or the balloon dogs doing these activities, which is exciting and different from people doing the activities. Suddenly, the static, the inanimate and lifeless object, becomes alive. “I’m turning people into daydreamers, too. Maybe I spend too long working with apples? Maybe they speak to me?” Jackson said with a laugh.
Another interesting feature of Jackson’s works is his use of colorful crates. Most still-lifes are set up on a table, but Jackson wanted to do away with this idea. Instead, he reaches out to American nostalgia, by using crates from the 1930s to 1970s that are all primary and secondary colors, adding vibrancy and life to the paintings. The crates also allow Jackson to put a form of text into a painting; many of them read “Pepsi” or “Pop Kola” or “Orange Crush.”
The path that brought the artist to this full-time and fulfilling career is somewhat unusual. Jackson graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1986.
Jackson explained how he arrived at this point in his career. “When you’re in college, you’re so young and not really sure what you want to do. I figured, let me try and get into the toughest major and with that you can do anything.”
His girlfriend at the time, now Jackson’s wife, bought him an introductory painting set his senior year of college and he took Painting 101, as well as courses at a nearby community center. Although Jackson loved the courses and was passionate enough about painting to consider a professional career, his professor told him he would have to get a second day job and paint at night.
After debating a master’s degree in painting, Jackson decided that he would pursue being an engineer first. Jackson graduated with an engineering degree and worked as a Systems Engineer designing radio systems for Motorola for the next five years.
Jackson left engineering, not for painting, but for the ministry, working at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., as an Assistant Pastor for the next six years.
“I had told my Pastor about my plan to paint, and he said great, but how about you come work for me for a year? It really was a field I accidentally stumbled into. Then six years later, I said to him, ‘Hey remember that time I wanted to be a full time painter?’ ” he said with a chuckle. In 1997 Robert left his ministry work, and he has been painting full time and exhibiting his work in various galleries from coast to coast.
Jackson’s previous fields of work don’t have much influence on his work as an artist.
“Engineering for me wasn’t craftsmanship and drawing. I was a Radio Engineer.” The one thing that does cross over is the strategy plan.”
Jackson’s work is well received in many cities across the states, with recent gallery shows in New York City, Wilmington, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. He is eagerly preparing for a solo show at the Arden Gallery in Boston, Mass., from November 5-30, 2013. Also, a compilation of more than 130 images of Jackson’s paintings can be seen in the book Robert C. Jackson: Paintings by Philip Eliasoph and published by Schiffer Books, which is available from most major retailers. The illustrated book also includes photographs of the artist at work, sketchbook reproductions, and an interview with Jackson himself.