publication of the International Sculpture Center
Martha Jackson-Jarvis: The Process of Discovery
by Curtia James
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Music of the
Spheres, 2003. Glass, carnelian, jade, mortar, and steel, 7 spheres,
10 x 40 x 40 ft. Work installed at Fannie Mae, Washington, DC.
The obsessions that
awaken mixed-media artist Martha Jackson-Jarvis each day emanate from
her love of family, her passion for cooking, and, shes the first
to admit, from her unabashed fascination with the elastic dimensions of
clay. For years, the material has served as the basis for her site-specific
floor mosaics and installations, for landscape projects, for her complex
coterie of sculptural objects, and, these days in particular, for three
large-scale commissioned installations by this Washington, DC-based artist.
Music of the Spheres
and River Spirits of the Anacostia are two recent projects in the District
of Columbia, and Techno 368 will be installed in the Bronx. Each installation
tempers its urban setting, contrasting the architectural with the ethereal,
physicality with myth. The projects not only reference years of study
and aesthetic development, they also, through their erudittion and elegance,
offer glimpses into the essence of the woman herself.
The challenge, Jarvis
says, has been to manage the expanses of time that each project demands:
It takes being able to see the big picture and at the same time
to see all of the many minute details along the way. So theres a
vision of the microscopic and the macroscopic at all times. She
admits, The days of solace and solitude in the studio are over.
Today when I arrive at the studio, I must be prepared to do the work conceptually
of seven people. I must be the eyes that see the subtleties of the moment
and the ears that hear the call of the next step.
Each work is encoded
with layers of identity-based and universal messages, touchstones open
to interpretation at each viewers level of understanding. Densely
textured references accompany the abstract in the vivid palette she employs.
Through imagery that reflects the African American and human experience
and found objects with personal and general resonance, Jackson-Jarvis
provides a readable amalgamation of painting and sculpture. Her inclusion
of family remnants alone, from objects broken in her own household to
plates she received from her mother or grandmother, as independent curator
John Beardsley has written, has served an incantatory purpose, bringing
forth the benevolence of those who had possessed them.
Music of the Spheres, 2003. Glass, carnelian, jade, mortar, and
steel, 7 spheres, 10 x 40 x 40 ft.
conversation, like her art, is peppered with references to the mores,
art, and deities of Africa, whose art she admires for its immediacy
and humanity. The African concept of ashe or energy courses like
a pulse through her early works and informs her public artworks, albeit
on a grander scale. Im interested in those kinds of in-between
places where light, reflection, texture, and form all merge to make this
unknown thing happen. This unknown thing has to do with energy and life
and force, and it speaks to each of us in a different way, she says.
Its something I grasp for.
work, regardless of its venue, is reflective of such energy, spontaneity,
light, death, and life. Such an eclectic formula is detected in the luminous
jewel tones of the stones and glass in the spheres, the fluidity of the
river depictions in the Anacostia work, and in the mathematical references
in Techno 368. The ceramic bird abstractions that she began to form three
decades ago served as a catalyst for such patterning and imagery, particularly
through their emphasis on freedom, motion, otherness, flight, and possibility.
Explaining the progression, she explains, The bird spirit, that
notion of flight, was a strand or thread that tended to weave itself through
the work through the years. It would change in its physical manifestation,
but certainly that energy was always there.
(a project of the Fairmount Park Art Association) in 1999, Jackson-Jarvis
worked with fellow sculptor and landscape designer JoAnna Viudez to redress
West Philadelphias neglected Malcolm X Memorial Park, achieving
a fluid integration of concrete obelisks, bird houses, ground cover, spiral
railings, performance space, flora, and river stones. On trips to Ravenna
and Carrara in 1992 (through a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Foundation
Arts International grant), she studied Italian mosaic techniques, stone,
and tesserae cutting, all of which she used to enlarge her repertoire.
In 1996, her work was celebrated with a 20-year survey at the Corcoran
Gallery of Art. She was the artist/designer for Daughters of the Dust,
the 1989 Julie Dash film based on a South Carolina island family, and
her site-specific sculpture Rice, Rattlesnakes and Rainwater proved to
be a highlight of Charlestons Spoleto Festival in 1997.
Music of the Spheres,
commissioned by Fannie Mae, is lyrically choreographed in the northwest
quadrant of Washington, DC, just outside the Van Ness-UDC station of Washingtons
Metro system, at the entrance to one of the companys headquarters
buildings. Based on ancient theories of the harmony of universal order,
the installation encompasses the transitory and the landmark, providing
a setting conducive to purposeful contemplation for the students, commuters,
and neighbors who pass by. It consists of seven orbs: one measuring 10
feet, one measuring eight feet, two at seven feet, and three at four feet
in diameter. The spheres, which were installed in July 2003, are composed
of concrete evocatively and singularly encrusted with Indonesian jade
pebbles, cobalt blue vitreous glass tesserae, and carnelian. Through their
combination of myth, lore, and science, the orbs inject a sense of the
other into the visual clash of signage, steel, glass, and
heavy pedestrian traffic that surrounds them.
Spirits of the Anacostia, 2003. Glass and mortar. Conceptual rendering
of Anacostia Metro Station mosaic, Washington, DC.
The selection committee
for the commission included visual arts professionals, residents from
the surrounding community, and Fannie Mae officials. I think what
people liked about her plan, Alfred King, director of Fannie Maes
public affairs division, observes, was that it was accessible without
being imposing, that it was going to serve as a focal point for the area
that wouldnt overwhelm the community. It seemed to have the right
combination of scale and interesting materials and was something that
could be appreciated by a wide range of people.
One of the artists
favorite aspects of the spheres is that theyre huge, so you
get to walk in between them. Their positioning incites an easy interaction
between object and human that art historian David Driskell commented on
in Jackson-Jarviss earlier series, Path of the Avatar
(1987), which was completed for Contemporary Visual Expressions,
the Smithsonian Anacostia Museums inaugural exhibition. These
works, Driskell wrote in the shows catalogue, function
as an environment and as installations made more lively with people milling
around and into their space. Though totally different in physical format
and appearance, these sculptural works are closer to African art, that
is, in motion and ceremonial use, than they are to totems and sculpture
in the round.
Across town from
the Fannie Mae plaza, in the southeastern quadrant of DC, is the Anacostia
community and the river of the same name, both of which Jackson-Jarvis
and her family have found to be real treasures. When she first discovered
that the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities had launched a national
competition for an artist to complete a mosaic in the communitys
planned subway station, she knew she had to be the one to win the commission.
Her concept for the lush, visually tactile, 400-foot glass mosaic, which
ultimately won the commission, will wrap around the top four and a half
feet of all four sides of the stations entrance.
2000. Red clay, river sand, cement, ferns, and plant materials,
work installed at the South Carolina Botanical Garden, Clemson.
She credits Rice,
Rain and Rattlesnakes for Spoleto, a three-story atrium mosaic at the
Prince Georges County Courthouse in Maryland, as well as other public
art projects with having helped her to prepare for such an initiative.
The Anacostia mosaic is as figurative and narrative as the courthouse
work, and both are decidedly more representational than her previous mosaics.
River Spirits synthesizes her attempts to forge new concepts and, through
them, to meld past, present, and future. This piece is really about
the energy of the river and the indigenous plants that grow along the
shore and some of the life formsthe salamanders, the tortoisesthat
live there, she says, pointing to an image on one of the 52 panels.
The mosaic, which
is scheduled for installation in 2004, also pays homage to the slaves
who were once brought to these shores along the river, as well as to the
African cosmogram, providing figurations, which had been largely removed
from her work throughout the 80s. And everywhere there are effervescent
references to the river itself. Im trying, if you can imagine,
to catch the energy of the river thats just flowing around this
building and spilling out parts of its story as it travels around. And
I really wanted it to be a centerpiece, a gem, a jewel for this community,
In the heart of the
Bronx, miles away from Anacostia, a glass mosaic, Techno 368, is slated
for unveiling in 2005. Commissioned by New York Citys Department
of Education, School Construction Authority, and Department of Cultural
Affairs Percent for Art Program, the mosaic will be installed on a wall
facing the inner courtyard of the boroughs science and technology
high school, MS/HS 368. Michele Cohen, program director for the Public
Art for Public Schools program for the Department of Education, says that
Jackson-Jarvis was a natural choice for the mosaic, not just because of
her public art achievements, but also because of the rich iconography
that she weaves into her work and her original approach to the fabrication
of mosaic art.
Rattlesnakes, and Rainwater, 1997. Shell, glass, clay, cement, and
steel, work installed in Charleston, South Carolina, for Spoleto
The opportunity will
enable Jackson-Jarvis, who has taught and served as an artist-in-residence
with various institutions for decades, to impact both educators and the
educated and ultimately also to teach perpetually, albeit indirectly,
about life, hope, calculation, and art. There is an element of teaching
that is really precious to me, she says, because I love teaching,
and I love the energy of young people making discoveries for the first
time. I keep a cadre of really interested young people who work as studio
assistants, so Im teaching, but its really at a very intimate
level. And thats something that I saw as I traveled to Italy. The
notion of the apprentice is still alive there.
Despite her success
with commissions, grants have sustained Jackson-Jarvis through the years.
Grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities have been instrumental
in her professional development and have provided the resources for her
to secure proper studio space, materials, and equipment. I could
not have engaged in the level of investigation that I have without grants,
Her research into
various subjects and the resultant urge to stretch the parameters of contemporary
art have proven as tireless as her pursuit of the funding necessary to
realize her creative aspirations. This is not something I can just
fold up and do in the corner of an apartment. That will never happen.
You need a studio. You need serious backing. So I forced myself to develop
the writing skills for grants, articulating what it is I am thinking,
no matter how obscure it is, she says. For an artist thats
a valuable choice, finding how to communicate what youre doing to
other people. Of course, the greatest communicator is the work itself,
but first youve got to convince others of its importance, of its
worth before it can really manifest itself in sculpture.
She has always worked
in the round, initially by employing a combination of traditional African
dung firing and Japanese raku. In time, she has come to value clays
infinite potential for surprise. For her, for example, the common disaster
of a kiln explosion offers an opportunity in disguise. The results of
the tension that leads up to a works conception has for years fascinated
her enough for her to allow their remnants to become part of various mosaic
works and a step along her aesthetic journey. She links the shards,
the little modules that happen by hitting fragments together to
the African and African American tradition of burial fragments and crockery.
It leads you from shards and broken things to old dishes and crockery
to more formal venture, because now Im working with glass mosaics.
Its a metamorphosis that happens along the way. Its all part
of the process of discovery.
One work has informed
another like the call and response of African ritual, improvisation, or
jazz. Individual bird forms led to abstract multiples that she used to
structure space rather than focus on individual forms. In time, her work
progressed to include installations that embrace the notion of transcendence
from one dimension to the next.
Rattlesnakes, and Rainwater, 1997. Shell, glass, clay, cement, and
steel, work installed in Charleston, South Carolina, for Spoleto
In 1989, at the urging
of a former student, she secured a cache of antique Venetian glass, which
she began to incorporate into mosaics. Through experimentation with the
glass, she began to infuse a denser, more sculptural quality in her work,
melding recurrent environmental references with the notion of objecthood.
Over time, in addition to the glass, she began to broaden her use of materials,
enriching her options to include coal, copper, slate, wood, and stone
that she would anchor with cement or raked acrylic gels.
By painting and sculpting
simultaneously, first at Howard University and later at the Tyler School
of Art and Antioch University, Jackson-Jarvis learned to develop the surface
of her sculpture. In ceramics to deal with color takes years, because
youre really talking about chemistry more than about direct color,
Her earliest artistic
impulses can be traced to her childhood in Lynchburg, Virginia, where
she would dig for clay and spend time exploring its various guises while
on her way to draw water from her familys spring. It was her grandfathers
ability to design various gadgets and his willingness to let her join
him in the process that inspired in her an acute awareness that
with the human hand you could manifest whatever.
She credits these
roots with fostering an inventiveness that has enriched her work process.
For example, moving these boards, she says, running her hand
along the surface of one of the 300-pound, four-by-seven-foot panels that
will compose River Spirits of the Anacostia. Along with a carpenter friend,
she designed a cantilevered structure that enables her to remove, move,
lower, and stack each panel on completion. Along the way you come
up with all these systems that work for you and hopefully not against
you, she asserts.
2000. Steel, concrete, stone, and plants, 4 x 40 x 40 ft. Work installed
at the Montpelier slave graveyard, Orange, Virginia.
she and her husband Bernard have raised four children, has offered her
opportunities that for the past three decades have consistently served
to fuel her vision. The architecture of what she describes as this quintessential
classical city has served as a constant source of intrigue.
Its like walking through history. And there are also stipulations
on the limits of the building heights, she says. Theres
something about the human scale and the natural environment that is still
possible here. You can still see the sky here.
It was at Howard
that she first encountered people who knew that art could be a lifelong
endeavor. She has since come to believe that art can and should edify
the human experience, the environment as well as the lives of artists
themselves. Theres a momentum to study and investigation and
inquiry, so at the beginning you couldnt begin to say just where
this is going to take you, she says. Youre always on
the trail and on the journey. And Im not bored yet.
Curtia James is
a writer living in Maryland.