Jonathan Mark Jackson is a student currently enrolled at Amherst College, pursuing a Bachelors of Art degree in within the Art & The History of Art department. Since moving to Amherst in 2014, photography has situated itself at the head of Jackson’s creative practice. Using self-portraiture as a base system of measurement, Jackson’s work seeks to engage with historical facts through objects, landscape, and the human form to produce pieces that acknowledge the reality of the past. While also calling attention to the mysterious forces that cloud, torment, and stall the formation of a Black American identity. In April 2017, Jackson received the Athanasios Demetrios Skouras prize from the department of Art & The History of Art at Amherst, and the Wise Award for Studio Art from the Mead Art Museum. In 2019, Jackson received the Student Award for Innovations in Imaging from the Society for Photographic Education.
The House Servant's Directory
Over the past year, I have begun developing a body of work around my fifth Great Grandfather Robert Roberts, his book, The House Servants Directory (published 1827) and the influence of the past. I am interested in addressing the broad conceptual questions surrounding Roberts life. The works presented here summarize a movement from my previous internally driven self-portrait work to images that embody Robert Roberts and further engage with the history of New England life. While compiling the book, Roberts was employed in the home of Federalist politician Christopher Gore in Waltham, Massachusetts. Gore Place – Christopher Gore’s home - now stands as a preserved landmark and museum. I have used Gore Place as a site to activate the history Roberts.
I aim to build images that circulate around multiple tiers of thought. So far, I have transmuted these thoughts into three subsequent photographic prompts to work within: First, there are images that visualize Robert Roberts and the history of domestic service in the United States. These works then lead to photographs that call attention to the efforts of peoples within the African diaspora to either retain or dismiss a cultural identity. How has identity been preserved through folklore, music, religion, spiritualty, objects, or professions? What exists for people who come from nowhere or people who exist solely as a product of displacement? Finally, I produce material that situates this history into my contemporary life. Is New England my home? Is this the true land where I am supposed to be? Does this land present the same possibilities to me, as it did to my ancestors? The broader my historical research grows, the broader my working methods become. While the work is all primarily lens-based, through constant exploration I have branched into working within film and video, installation, and performance.
The first phase exhibition of The House Servants Directory opens this Monday at the Eli Marsh Gallery at Amherst College. The exhibition runs from April 22nd to May 26th.
Q&A: AMHERST COLLEGE
Why Amherst College?
I attend Amherst College, a private, four-year liberal arts institution. I matriculated to Amherst College from a new public-charter high school in Detroit, Michigan. During my secondary education, I was dual enrolled at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and I was able to travel to Massachusetts twice through the Harvard Summer School Program. My high school had a very focused institutional goal of having every member of their inaugural class graduate and matriculate to a college or university, there being 92 of us within the class. We were put through a heavy academic curriculum, tested constantly, and became little sharpened machines. Amherst came to me through a family member who had just started their first year here. I was attracted to the school for its open curriculum, renowned faculty, and while on a visit to the campus through the Diversity Open House, I fell in love with the campus and its studio arts facility. I knew that I wanted to study art (and specifically photography), but I hadn’t the opportunity to pursue anything in a creative field during my secondary education. Amherst presented the opportunity to study a multitude of things and possibly double major with another field. Upon getting here though, I bit hard into the Art & The History of Art department and never let go. I was also eager to return to the Northeast and have an educational experience outside of my known environment. I wanted to challenge myself both inside and outside the classroom.
How has your experience at your school informed or shaped your work?
As I noted, the open curriculum at Amherst has allowed me to build an academic experience that is completely my own. While my focus centered around Photography, I have been able to take introductory and advanced courses in the other five tenants of the department: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and film/video. The department is small in population, but large in resources. While I can sometimes feel isolated from a broader artistic community, I generally have enjoyed and benefitted from the quiet-intense focus of working by myself. While many students will not become Studio Art majors at Amherst, certain classes tend to retain a pool of people with a specific interest outside their major. The Photography classes at Amherst definitely create this type of sub-group. I work and coordinate our wet darkroom, and over time a series of regulars have begun to reappear in courses. In addition to this, I too have also really enjoyed branching into research based courses and seminars outside the Art department. I have enjoyed classed within the Black Studies department, the Sexuality, Women’s & Gender studies department, the English department, and the Theater & Dance department. Within my recent project, I have seen the interdisciplinary nature and structure of my studies translate into my working methods. I have also greatly appreciated meeting artists through the Art & History of Art department’s professional artist residency. Each year an artist is brought to campus to work our studios, teach classes, and have a solo exhibition in our gallery. I have taken life altering courses with previous resident Cullen Washington Jr., now tenured Professor Sonya Clark, and most recently, installation-based artist Macon Reed. Overall, Amherst has taught me how to conduct research – within the methods I see fit - and has given me the space to expand those ideas into broader work.
What kind of exhibition or arts-related job opportunities exist in the area for current students and recent graduates?
Amherst is neighbored by four other institutions which make up the Pioneer Valley Five College Consortium. These schools are: Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Each institution holds its own art museum, resulting in an extremely broad strata of art work and arts related events in the community. Within this community there is the great opportunity for cultural and artistic exchange. I have experienced this through taking classes within the other colleges. While there are also local galleries and art focused spaces nearby – namely the Northampton Center for the Arts and the School for Contemporary Dance and Thought – I have rarely seen students access these spaces. It is often said that rural campuses like Amherst create a “bubble” that students rarely have to exit from. I have been fortunate enough, through Amherst and other connections, to meet exhibition and internship opportunities in Detroit, Boston, and New York.
The college houses the Mead Art Museum, which holds a quite stunning collection of 19th and 20th century American art, and also works to bring contemporary artists to campus. Either through the acquisition of work, special projects, or artist talks. I’ve been able to study the work of some of my favorite artists – Lorna Simpson, Maria Magdalena Campos-pons, and more – in the museums public study rooms. In terms of employment, most students do leave the area and flock to larger cities across the U.S.
What’s the most memorable piece of advice you've received from a mentor?
Justin Kimball, my mentor and photography teacher, is an incredible educator. In his Photography 1 class – which I took my first year – me and Justin had many conversations around risk-taking and how to push yourself past the limits that are either placed upon by others or yourself. Justin described this process as being brave, and being able to commit to the boldest decision. Since then it’s been my internal mantra to be brave, within my work and life, and to think about how to break through both the real and unreal structures that operate around my identity.
What advice do you have for prospective students looking to attend your school?
I feel that Amherst can benefit both students with specific intentions and those who would like to take more time to float through or combine multiple interests into a field of study. Either way, I have urged some prospective students to begin getting situated in the environment where they’d like to be as early as possible. Get to know your educators, learn fully what the resources are in the department, and then build goals within those. If someone is interested in studying photography (or any creative field here) know that this place carries with it an institutional presence from its founders. Over time this has transformed into different things, and Amherst has definitely grown in terms of what is offered on campus, but this has never been an institution where the creative arts are central to the school’s identity. Artists here must advocate for themselves, and must be clear with what they want and need. I am eager to see how the institution continues to grow over time, and what opportunities for artists develop in the near future.
Where can we keep up with your photo department online?
What other artists should we be keeping an eye on?
I'll shout out my thesis-mates Joanna Booth and Mika Obayashi. I am consistently inspired by my partner Jeremy Geragotelis, who is a playwright. As well as my close friends Irisdelia Garcia, a poet and performance artist, and Day Rickett, a musician.
I'd also point people to some photo friends: Jen Morris, Shterna Goldbloom, Genesis Báez, and Steph Foster.