Matt Jackson had a dream. He wanted to keep the sculpture of Sacajawea, the abstract depiction of the Marines’ assault on Betio Island and the rest of his father’s work in Wyoming. The late Harry Jackson always thought of the state as home.
That dream looks increasingly fleeting today.
I met Matt Jackson this summer at his father’s Cody studio. It’s an odd place. I remember arriving there and wondering if Star-Tribune photographer Dan Cepeda and I were in the right place. The metal siding, barbed-wire fence and industrial bay doors all said industrial park to me – not home of a world-renowned artist.
But the inside was another world entirely. Eric Wimmer, the curator of the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, later remarked to me that stepping into Harry Jackson’s studio is like stepping into an art history text book. It’s an apt description.
A sculpture of John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the protagonist of "True Grit," which Jackson did for the cover of Time magazine, greets visitors at the door. The six-foot-tall painting “Salvatur Mundi Crucified in Betio Amnion” introduces visitors to Jackson’s abstract work. It shows a green figure, legs crossed and head hung, as the bullets of seven rifles pierce the figure’s body. And in the main gallery hang testaments to the artist’s realist work: the depiction of Italian men at a New York bar, a self-portrait and a Romanesque statue staring toward the sky, to name a few examples.
The work on display would command a hefty price on the market, but Matt Jackson had something else in mind when I met him. His goal: keep his father’s art together as one collection, preserving the work alongside the volumes of journals that chronicle the late artist's life.
To do this, Matt Jackson intended to empower the Harry Jackson Institute, an institution which is presently little more than a name. The institute would buy Jackson’s work from the family estate, which owns the art, turning the studio into a place where young artists could draw inspiration and researchers information on one of the 20th century’s preeminent artists.
I called Matt Jackson a few weeks ago to check in on his progress. In the time since our visit, he convened the movers and shakers of the Wyoming art world and found plenty of interest in his father’s work.
The Nicolaysen will host a major exhibit of Harry Jackson work in May. The Meeteetse Museums will show the art Jackson did as a teenager while working at the nearby Pitchfork Ranch. It opens in the spring. A small exhibit will go up at the State Capitol in Cheyenne during the legislative session in January.
But Matt Jackson found no money.
“We are going to go forward with more modest goals. We are going to be working towards getting some workshops and classes going,” he said this month. “The institute will get some Harry Jackson artwork. It will be a small sampling. But as far as a large overall, comprehensive collection, there just isn’t enough interest in doing that.”
That’s a shame.
Harry Jackson was no ordinary man – or artist. Former President Ronald Regan kept eight Jackson bronzes at the White House. “Tarawa-Betio,” the sketch Jackson did as a combat artist during the Marines’ assault on the island, is in the collection at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia. And he was a prominent member of the second generation Abstract Expressionism movement in New York, before abruptly giving up on the medium and his high-profile acquaintances.
“He is an extraordinary figure because he had so many guises,” Henry Adams, a professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, told me in the summer. “He was a cowboy. He was a Marine. He was an abstract expressionist. He made sculpture very much in the sense of the Renaissance. … He occupied so many mythic roles of American life.”
Adams called the studio’s archives “unique,” saying it would be of interest to a wide swath of curators and art historians. Two researchers called the studio soon after I left, looking for information on Grace Hartigan, the American painter who was married to Jackson for a year. Matt Jackson flipped through his father’s journals, found several passages and sent them along.
“To have that in one place would be really great,” Adams said.
So what’s next?
The family trust has begun selling off pieces. Ultimately Matt Jackson must look after his family’s financial interests. He conceded it is still possible that someone could step forward and make a donation that would keep the collection in Wyoming.
“But at this point nothing has moved forward,” he said.
It’s hard not to feel for Matt Jackson. Looking after your family’s financial interests is hard enough. Add a lifetime of emotional scars to the equation and the burden becomes that much heavier.
Harry Jackson’s temper was infamous. A retired bank teller in Cody told me you could hear him bellowing before he entered the bank. He was married six times. And, as his son tells it, he was a narcissist. The whole world revolved around him. Much of that was because of Jackson’s involvement in World War II, where he saw heavy fighting, but that didn’t make life any easier on his five children.
“Each one of us has a part of us that would like to move on. Our father never reached the status of a nationwide celebrity, but he was well known. We grew up with that,” Matt Jackson said. “There’s part of me that is tired dealing with all this stuff. And there’s part of me that would like to see something happen.”
I would love to see the late artist’s work maintained as one collection. I would love to see it housed at the Harry Jackson Institute in Cody. It could be a tourist attraction, a place of learning and, above all, an incredible testament to the artistic talents of the people who call this state home.
But no matter what happens to Harry Jackson’s art, I hope Matt Jackson finds a modicum of peace. He surely deserves it.