Initially, it appears to be another beautiful Rocky Mountain landscape, with its stately granite peaks, snow fields, rolling meadows, placid blue lake and puffy clouds. But walk your eyes back a few steps to take in the entire canvas, and you realize it’s actually a painting of a canvas tacked onto a wall that’s the actual canvas. In the lower right corner of this painting within a painting, there’s an orange balloon dog, his palette and brush at the ready, contemplating the next canine stroke. Said balloon dog is standing atop four overturned wooden soda cartons from drink manufacturers who’ve likely gone out of business a long time ago.
Three more balloon dogs are gathered at the foot of the painting, looking on in approval. And at the very bottom of the canvas are yet-to-be-painted sketches of depleted paint tubes and what looks like a crumpled towel. “I don’t want my art to be just another beautiful painting hanging on the wall,” says Robert Cole Jackson, the real artist behind the brush, at his studio in Kennett Square. “I want my work to be conversational.”
So we start that conversation.
“How much are you charging for this painting when it’s finished?” I ask.
“It’s for $50,000,” Jackson says of “Maroon Bells.” “It’s a commission for a client in Colorado, who initially wanted just a landscape of the mountains. While giving her that, I talked her into adding the balloon dogs.”
That qualifies as a conversation starter.
“At first glance, Bob’s paintings are fun and lighthearted. But upon further inspection, and nostalgia involved,” says Rebecca Moore, director of Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, which represents Jackson locally. “The color and text of the vintage crates are often related on some level to the subject matter. That sometimes acts as a puzzle for viewers, which some collectors love.”
The 58-year-old Jackson is a study in contrasts. He’s one of the most talented and frequently collected local painters not named Wyeth, but his name seldom comes up in conversations about Brandywine Valley artists. That’s because most of the people who buy his paintings live elsewhere, as do many of the fellow artists he corresponds with and occasionally collects. When you look at one of his paintings, as Moore notes, it may come across like a sight gag for a New Yorker cartoon. But that’s not how Jackson’s mind runs. “I appreciate cartoons, but I’ve never wanted to do one,” he says.
At rest, the affable 6-foot-2 painter’s face is as placid as a blank canvas. In person, Jackson is approachable, open and forthcoming. He loves one-on-one conversation but doesn’t care much for small talk at parties. Perhaps that’s why he hates going to openings of his own shows.
And while he’s wanted to be a painter since he took an art class his senior year in college, it was a couple of career moves before he got there. “Fame never occurred to me,” he says. “I just wanted to make a living for my family. Everything else is gravy.”
Jackson’s studio is also a study in contrasts. Though it’s closed to the public, Jackson has arranged the display window to blend in with the ambiance of Kennett Square’s State Street shopping and restaurant district. Its whimsical displays currently include full-scale caricatures of famous painters—mostly short ones like Picasso—with Jackson towering above them. “It has great north light, and I wanted the tall ceilings,” he says of the space.
Jackson’s brightly colored paintings hang on the walls. Some are still in progress. Others await shipment or a new showing. A smaller room in back is lined with art books Jackson often takes with him to lunch as reading material. Small canvases and sketches by other artists also hang on the wall back there. His ever-present sketchbook lies open on a table.
Like most artists, Jackson is conflicted by commissions. After all, they begin as someone else’s inspiration, not his. But they’re also a steady source of income. “This is my 12th commission this year,” says Jackson, referring to the painting described earlier. And that’s significant, considering that Jackson’s average annual output is about 30 works.
Most paintings are sold through the several galleries that represent him: Somerville Manning locally, Arden Gallery in Boston; Gallery Henoch in New York City; Zenith Gallery in Washington, D.C.; M.A. Doran Gallery in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Samuel Owen Gallery in Nantucket, Massachusetts. His most recent show at Zenith Gallery ended this past June. He has another solo show in November at Canton Museum of Art in Ohio.
Jackson has a devoted coterie of collectors, some with over a dozen of his works. He’s become friends with some of them. Others seem to share Jackson’s dislike for chit-chat. Jackson tells the story of being at one opening in New York and asking the gallery director about a gentleman who’d suddenly left the show. “Oh,” she said, “he’s one of your collectors.”
Robert Jackson was born in 1964 in Kinston, North Carolina, one of five sons born to Nan and Ned Jackson, the latter a former DuPont plant manager and later vice president in charge of fibers. Those who became VPs at the once massive chemical company were transferred from location to location. “Each of the five brothers was born in a different place,” Jackson says.
Jackson attended Brandywine High School, where he met his wife, Suzanne, who sang for 25 years with the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. She now teaches voice, dance, acting and yoga at her Kennett Square studio, The Awakening Arts.
Both attended the University of Delaware, where Jackson studied to be an engineer like his father. When he turned to painting his senior year, his professor encouraged him to get a master’s degree. “He said I’d have to teach or find another way to make a living if I wanted to be a painter,” Jackson recalls. “I was very naïve. I didn’t realize that most artists have day jobs or a trust fund or a spouse to support them and their families.”
He decided that if he had to have a day job, it would be as an engineer—and he’d paint on the side. That took him and Suzanne to Hanover, Maryland, where he got a job with Motorola. But his painting suffered, and he quit in 1996 after five years. “I couldn’t imagine a whole life in the corporate environment,” he says. “Suzanne was terrified of what that meant for us, as we were getting ready to have a kid.”
A pastor at his local church presented him with an alternative: a job as assistant pastor. “I decided I’d go into the ministry for a year,” Jackson says.
He ended up staying on for five, painting in his free time. “I hate what Christianity seems to represent today,” he says. “I’m thinking about taking that off my resume.”
Jackson gradually began earning a living as a traditional artist painting traditional scenes. “The first few years were hand to mouth,” he recalls. “But it paid the bills. I painted traditionally for seven or eight years. Then I started to put a little fun into my paintings.”
There was pushback from some of his galleries, but he persisted in pursuing art that “demands the viewer to have a conversation.” It was what collectors wanted. “People noticed,” Jackson says. “I had this one painting that didn’t sell. Suzanne liked it, so I took it home and gave it to her, and we hung it. Then someone who’d seen it wanted to buy it. ‘No way,’ she said. ‘You gave it to me. It’s mine.’ Then she asked how much they were willing to pay for it. I told her $26,000. She immediately said, ‘Oh, then it’s out of here.’”
All in all, times are good for the Jackson family. There was a near disaster a few years ago, when Jackson fell off a ladder while working on his display window, fracturing vertebrae. Now he’s walking six miles a day, two miles at a time. On one of those walks, he talks about his children. Luke, the youngest, a senior at Unionville High School, wants to become a professional photographer. Tessa is a science teacher preparing to marry an artist just launching his career. And Becca, the oldest, is an actress and a singer. Ever the supportive father, Jackson is pleased the apples haven’t fallen very far from the tree.
Jackson knows many of the local painters in Wyeth country. He respects their work, but is happy to have his own style. He relates a conversation he had with one museum director, who asked what style he’d really like to paint if money wasn’t an issue. It isn’t an issue, of course. Jackson’s career has flourished because he paints the way he wants to. “In many ways I may seem laid back, but I’m driven by my art,” he says. “I want to have a distinctive voice. If someone has to look at the name tag beside one of my paintings to see who painted it, then I’m lost.”
Those balloon dogs aren’t likely to let that happen.