Piece by Peace–Celebrating John Jackson

John Jackson, Danceline

Helen Zakin rewinds to her brother’s death and abrupt ending to his career as an artist known for organic, architectural forms and drawings. John Jackson was a sculptor, draftsman, printmaker and painter. In 2006, he was shot and killed in front of his Near West studio. It was just before his fiftieth birthday.

Judson, where Helen lives and volunteers for the Art Committee, will feature an exhibition of his works, John Jackson for Posterity. The show runs from March 25 to August 31 and was a labor of love for Helen, who is tremendously pleased to show his works at “home” at the Judson Park Howson Gallery. This is the first exhibit in the gallery since the pandemic’s onset.

Preparing for the exhibit, “meant learning more about John than I ever had before,” she says, relating the hours spent in the Cleveland Museum of Art reading his notebooks and journals.

While the project did not necessarily provide closure, it did offer a rich opportunity to learn more about her brother’s life and works. The labor of researching and essentially building the show allowed Helen to explore Jackson’s career in new ways. “What I have always said and what is really important about John is that he was a very peaceful person, and of course his death had nothing to do with peace,” Helen relates. “But I hope [viewers] get a sense of his commitment to his work and a sense of his personality, which was really relaxed.”

Although, Helen adds, “he was very funny—I have to say that. He loved jokes and puns.”

John Jackson, Cathedral

Working on the show brought back memories of Helen and her husband spending time with John as they often did, whether dining or attending exhibits. “We went to galleries, out for dinner, and when I spent a summer in Philadelphia studying medieval paleography, I saw him often,” Helen recalls.

Helen’s research uncovered his mentors like Edwin Mieczkowski, his adoration of Europe and a love for artist Antoni Gaudí’s works.

When Zygote Press featured the exhibition John Jackson: Works and Processes soon after John’s murder in 2006, Helen’s friends at Judson attended with her. Now, Judson can bring his works in house, thanks to the Art Committee and particularly Helen and Nina Gibans, who suggested the idea.

Nina adds, “I talked to someone yesterday who as an artist, collector and someone who really cares about John, his work and mentors can’t wait to experience the exhibit. And it’s extraordinary to share this information—it will never happen again in the same way.”

John was a renowned sculptor and member of the Cleveland art scene. He graduated from Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) in 1977 with a painting major and drawing minor and moved on to live and work in Philadelphia in a studio in a nineteenth century row house. He developed a business in historical carpentry and grew an interest in sculpture. When he returned to Cleveland’s west side in 1991, he was inspired by the industrial landscape, calling it “fertile ground” as a subject and for materials. In a 1996 artist statement, he wrote, “As an artist, I hope to create—with the viewers’ complicity—a new culture certainly connected to the larger imperfect one but also functioning with a degree of autonomy from it.”

John and Edwin Mieczkowski formed the NewCelle group with Bea Mitchell and created collaborative tondo drawings.

In a piece published in 2006 in the Free Times about John’s show Unfinished Business at Zygote Press, critic and painter Douglas Max Utter stated that Jackson’s art “achieves its high sense of liveliness by careful feats of balance and small, telling gestures of defiance.” He describes a tall sculpture that reaches the ceiling like a ramshackle Brancusi: “it’s poised unsteadily on a small stool and a tiny pyramid perches just to one side, on a platform at the very top, like a sparrow.” His works are “large and small, Modernist, Postmodernist, and something nameless that is Jackson’s alone.”

For the Judson John Jackson for Posterity show, most works belong to the personal collections of Helen and her sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and George Cannon. Liz Maugans at Worthington Yards loaned a number of prints and drawings. To secure a reproduction of Green Goddess for the show—one of Helen’s favorites—James Kohler at the museum provided a high-resolution digital image that was printed to the original size. Achala Wali gave the original Green Goddess to the museum in 2007. She provided photographs for this exhibition. Helen also would like to thank Emily Peters and Britany Salsbury for their efforts.

“All in all, there are about twenty prints and drawings, plus the replica of the Green Goddess and a lithograph by John’s mentor, Ed Mieczkowski,” Helen says. Other favorites on display will include Untitled, No. 2, a brown ink and pencil drawing on ecru paper; Filet and Puree, a monoprint; and Forge, also a monoprint.

Quoting a remark Jackson made in 1976 while still at CIA, Helen began an essay about her brother with these words: “Art is the most important thing to me.”

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