Gerald Jackson describes life as an African American painter in the Bowery, poetry versus hip hop, and the jazz scene of the 1980s.
I am very pleased to present this short introduction into the world of Gerald Jackson. I think you will find him a very rare and extremely creative human being. I have known Gerald now for over 30 years and continue to find our conversations inspiring, funny and poignant. As an artist, his work goes from video to painting and sculpture to fashion to music and to performance.
— Stanley Whitney
This excerpt is part of an oral history with Jackson conducted for BOMB’s Oral History Project, extended histories with important NYC African-American artists slated for its premiere in 2014 and supported by New York Community Trust, and AG and Dedalus Foundations.
Gerald Jackson is currently exhibiting at Gallery OneTwentyEight. For more information, visit the gallery's website.
Stanley Whitney is a painter living in New York.
This is Part 1 of the transcript of Stanley Whitney's interview with Gerald Jackson.
Stanley Whitney Okay, I’m in Jersey City. It’s Friday, January 13th, and I’m interviewing Gerald Jackson at 11:30 am, at 291 Fifth Street. Jersey City, New Jersey, 07302. So Gerald, I’d like to start with your early life, you’re from Chicago. Can you give us a little background about when you were born, your parents, your history?
Gerald Jackson I was born in Chicago. My family—my father and his brothers ran a numbers racket. And so my earliest memory was, I woke up, and I was in a suit. And men were walkin’ around, guys that had suits. There was a big wheel where they would spin the wheel and they get their numbers. Then they had a printing press. And we were all dressed up, and that’s my earliest memory.
SW What year was that? Would you say?
GJ I was born in ’36. This was my earliest memory before the war. So I guess it’s ... I dunno, maybe I was three years old.
SW Where in Chicago?
GJ Southside of Chicago. We lived on Lafayette Street. We had a limo car too. My uncle had a farm with horses up in Michigan. My father and his brothers were from Lou- New Orl—no, Freeport.
SW Oh, so, Louisiana.
GJ Freeport, Louisiana. They were hunting guys, fishing guys, big guys, strong guys. So my uncle had this farm where he had horses. We all could ride horses you know, they knew horses. I thought I knew horses—I wanted a pony. They took me to the farm though. They put me on top of the horse. And I freaked out. I started screamin’, ’cause the horse was so high off the ground! It was like, damn!
SW How old were you then?
GJ I guess I was five or six years old, something like that. I just remember scenes in my early days. So I was screamin’ and my father and them started laughin’. And they said, “Your son, he’s afraid of horses. He’s not man enough for some of this stuff.” I was like, forget you guys, man. This horse is ugly; it’s big; it’s tall.
SW (laughter) Do you have brothers and sisters?
GJ I have one sister. Irma Jackson.
SW What did she do?
GJ My sister died .... When she was working, she was like a social worker, a person who would get people outta jail if they were drunk or, get them into an apartment. She was like a social worker. She had about fifty clients and stuff like that. My sister was sorta like my father in that my sister was like a dictator. She wanted everybody under her control. She used to make me and my cousin bark, make us bark when she had some popcorn or something. Said, “I’ll give you some popcorn if you bark like a dog ...” She was a control freak, you know.
SW Uh huh.
GJ And my cousins, Felix, Joel, and Barbara Sandford.... We all lived in the same place for a while.
SW Was it a house or was it an apartment?
GJ Well, when my mother and father divorced, my mother’s mother is where she went. My sister always stuck with the women, so she left.
SW So you lived with your father?
GJ She left me and my father there in the house.
SW How old was that?
GJ I was about twelve years old. Coming around twelve.
SW Were you at all involved with the arts at that point?
GJ I was not involved with the arts. I liked model airplanes. That was what I liked to do.
SW Put them together?
GJ Put them together. My father would always finish ’em because it got to be too much. But then he would finish them.
SW How about school?
GJ I went to a regular grammar school, over there. It was kind of a mixed school when I was growin’ up. On Fifty-Seventh Street.
SW Mixed, you mean in terms of black and white?
GJ Well there was a few black kids going there.
SW So, at that point, the Southside wasn’t a huge black neighborhood?
GJ The Southside—this school was across the railroad track. On this side of the railroad track it was all black. Once we got to the railroad track the white kids would stop chasing us, then the black kids would start chasin’ me, and everybody would go their own separate ways.
GJ You know?
SW Yeah, I know what you mean.
GJ Every day, the white kids would chase the black kids back across the tracks.
SW Uh huh.
GJ Everyday, the black kids would chase me back across the tracks.
SW Why, why would they chase you?
GJ Well the black kids and the white kids, they didn’t really like me.
GJ Because my complexion was different. I don’t know. In between this time the Italians actually shut my father and them outta the business. The Italians took over the whole limo business in Chicago. And they killed up a bunch of black people to take over. I think what had been happening is that, when I was jumping in and out of the limos and stuff, the kids in the neighborhood ... because in the black neighborhood everybody’s just thrown in there together, if you have money, if you don’t have money. Everybody on the Southside, they’re all in the ghetto so—
SW Right, right. All the classes, rich, poor ...
GJ Yeah. Everybody. So I figured that they had been watching me jumping in and out of the limo. So when we went down, and then when the Italians moved in, those kids were mad at me. ’Cause they thought I thought I was better than them because of the way we were living.
GJ So I figured they had been storing up some resentment. We were shot down. Then I was just like everybody else in the neighborhood. But they still had this built-up animosity over whatever.
SW How old were you then when that happened?
GJ All I know is that I left after that to live with my mother’s mother, Viola Kidd. And when I was twelve years old, my father, Otis Jackson, and my mother, Daisy Kidd, got divorced.
SW Was your mother from Louisiana, too?
GJ No, she was from Georgia.
SW Georgia? Do you know how your father and mother met?
GJ My father and that set, they were kinda gangsters, and my mother’s brother was his best friend. I had five uncles on my father’s side, and three uncles on my mother’s side.
SW Uh huh.
GJ Who was a kind of gangster guy, too.
SW So were there guns in your house?
GJ There was always guns. Viola Kidd met my father in court. ’Cause he was there on some charges with her son Red Kidd, my mother’s brother. And that’s how they met him. You know, right. Guns were in my first memory. My uncles always had guns. And one of his favorite things—one of my uncles, kind of a crazy guy, Henry Jackson—would line us all up, and pretend he was gonna shoot us with his gun.
GJ Now he had a beautiful, blue, steel .38 pistol. But instead of shooting he would get us all a dollar or something, if he had dollars. He’d be, “Bang, bang, bang, here’s a dollar, here’s a dollar.” My other uncle, Joe Jackson, ran the policy stuff. His gun was a pearl handle .45 with some scrolls and stuff. ’Cause I was lookin’ over the fireplace one day, and this gun was just layin’ up there on the little shelf, and I took it down. And I remember it was a .45, and it was pearl-handled, white and silver, with gold writing in it. All these guys liked to dress up. Well, they did dress up. They looked just like regular gangster guys.
SW Did they tell you any stories?
GJ Oh they had stories. ’Cause the Italians were rough. This story has been written about in Chicago history too. So, the Italians didn’t come in saying, “We want you guys to give over.” They just came in shooting people. There was always violence; and there was always this threat of somebody taking you off or running you outta town. There was always a threat from the outside society. And, my uncle and them were good—they were able to make a living in this kind of environment. Even though there were guns and stuff too. Actually, when I went to the army, the guns in the army, they have a cadre of people like that.
SW Did you go to high school in Chicago?
GJ I didn’t go to a regular high school. Because of my, my, my background, you know. I went to a vocational school, and then I didn’t go to a college.
SW You went to a vocational school, what year? How long were you in vocational school? Teenager?
GJ Yeah, teenager. I didn’t go to college, I—how did I get into art? I was workin’ at the post office. There were two or three different incidents that brought me into the art thing.
SW Is this before the army or after?
GJ Before the army, and sort of after the army, between that time I was twenty, twenty-one.
SW So when did the army come into it?
GJ ’61, ’62. But what I meant before was that in the army they picked ... they select people who they think would be good killers. When I hit the firing range, I was already acquainted with guns. So I could tear up the firing range. I could hit ... from 400 yards I could hit the target. Easily.
SW Mm hm.
GJ But it was just a regular thing, ’cause I was used to the guns, and the guns were always around. I didn’t know that these sergeants were watching to see which person would not flinch or have these reactions to guns so they could put them into some kind of combat.
SW Well, between the late forties, your father and your uncle being gangsters on the Southside, you went to vocational school and then joined the army?
SW Talk a little bit more about what happened between the ’50s and the ’60s.
GJ Everything I can say about the ’50s seems to me like a regular thing. We had rock n’ roll; we dressed up; we tried to sing on the corner. We played a lot of baseball, basketball. I had my team, the Jets, which actually won the championship in basketball.
SW Was it a neighborhood team that you put together?
GJ Our territory was from Fifty-First Street down to Fifty-Fifth Street down to Sixty-Third Street. Everything was called “territories.” And Jet’s territory was here. So and so’s territory was there. The white people’s territory was over here. You couldn’t go into the white people territory. We cannot go in certain parts of the beach over there. We can go near the University of Chicago at the beach. But Jackson Park and places like that, we could not go. So ...
SW This is the ’50s.
GJ Yeah, that’s like, you know, goin’ to parties and meeting girls, goin’ out. Dressing up, just regular stuff.
SW Was music ever part of your life at that part?
GJ Well, music is a part of Chicago because they have the blues. My mother and them, they liked Muddy Waters and, they really liked Howlin' Wolf. On the weekends, people got off from work, they came back to the Southside. It was mad. They were crazy. There was these bars that they would go in doin’ the blues. At that time I would leave though. I would just leave the neighborhood till things quieted down that night or come back Sunday when they quieted down.
SW Where would you go?
GJ I’d go to some friend’s place. My name at that time was the Mad Traipser, ’cause I would traipse all over Chicago. I’d be over here, over there. I’d be over the University of Chicago. I’d be all over the place.
SW You’re name was the Mad Traipser?
GJ Because this guy, Benny, kept saying, “Where’s Gerald going man? He goes everywhere, he’s like a mad traipser, man, he goes here, he goes there ...” But I was just in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is like a crazy neighborhood it wasn’t like my father and them. My father and them were kinda cool guys. These guys were crazy guys getting off from work. They were mad, they were drinkin’. They were not like my father and them.
SW What kind of work were they getting off of? Do you remember?
GJ Any kind of dirty work. Like one job was out where I was supposed to get a job, loading starch on the railroad, trains. Digging graves, cleaning, sanitation people, all kinds of manual labor stuff.
GJ Sometimes. They did a lot of work out there at the steel mill, out in Gary, where Michael Jackson’s from.
SW What did you study at vocational school?
GJ I studied machine shop for a while. And then I went to shoe shop for a while. I was into foundry. I had some friends that I could go with to different shops. Again, I was traipsing around. I’d go to different shops ’cause I had buddies there and I would just go and find how out in there in that shop. There was a certain amount of jobs that were gonna be given out to the graduating class. Everything was a certain amount. So, if you were not up on your homework—my family wasn’t this kind of environment where you could sit down and do your studies. It was all active; it was all acted out. It was a story that they were writing. What I think the best part is, is everybody was themselves. There was no room for phony stuff or trying to be something. You had to really be yourself or you would be confronted ... somebody would challenge you. So, in this type of environment, it wasn’t like a place where you would sit down and study math or anything like that. I had to carry a gun when I went to school. That’s what I carried with me.
SW You’re like seventeen, sixteen?
GJ Right. So, that’s pretty much—and I was also racking balls at the poolroom. That’s the way I was, but at the same time there was another guy racking balls, Lawrence Taylor, who was into art. And my mother kept saying to me, “You should try to do some kinda artwork because you’re not big enough to handle what these heavy guys have to do. You can’t dig a big grave like that. You can’t carry those hundred pound sacks.” ’Cause at the post office, those sacks, they do get heavy. And I was working at the post office. You know?
SW That’s funny, ’Cause when I was a kid, working at the post office was always a great job.
GJ Me, too. My uncle was a postman, and everybody said he lost ... and me too, people said he gave up a good job. Emphasized good.
GJ It was a good job. My uncle, he was a guy who actually qualified to go to this technical high school. Which was with all the white kids and they were smart. But again, the background, the environment, doesn’t allow for that. So he did try, and he did shoot a pretty good game of pool, too. But he would lose and he would start drinkin’. And he would lose and he would go all the way up and go all the way down. It was a thing that—
SW Up where?
GJ Like he would win—
SW Oh, at the pool game.
GJ The money ... all the way up. And then he would lose, all the way back down.
GJ It was a common thing that people in that neighborhood ... some would go away, the scholarship.
SW Who went to college and what colleges?
GJ Athletes. Athletic people. There were guys in our neighborhood who were superior athletes. But, they could not adjust to the college. It was the same thing for all of us; none of us could adjust to this kind of college atmosphere.
SW Yeah, that in my neighborhood, too.
GJ They would come back. And they would be all messed up.
GJ But they still would break ballplayers. They could get out on the court drunk and foul play everybody on the court. That was, my uncle’s tragedy. All their tragedy was the same thing.
SW When you say all those tragedies were the same thing, tell me more about what you mean by that?
GJ The neighborhood, the Southside, has all of its own stuff: cleaners, doctors, dentists, clubs. Before the projects, when people moved in on the Westside, it kinda destroyed all the infrastructure and the social life of the Southside. The Southside really didn’t have to go outside of the Southside to have fun, or do what it wanted to do. But along with that, is, you had the feeling that you could not go outside of that. Like we didn’t feel like we could go to the Northside—
GJ —because the police or the people would chase us outta there. And so that head—no matter how talented you were—you still had to adjust to that environment. And the college environment. It’s a little slower and it’s really the beat, the body language. On the Southside, everybody could tell you from a half a block away or more, just by the way that you walked. Everybody had a distinct kinda personality, but it all had a rhythm that fit in with the way you dressed. It was just a whole art form in itself. So, that does not fit into the college environment.
SW Of the ’50s?
GJ Well to me, today too. If you go to Princeton, your family name means something. If you go to y-y-y- there, your family connections mean stuff, ’cause their fathers went to Yale, their fathers went. There’s a whole history of their family being able to adjust to this curriculum. Today too. If your family is from the art world—all of it’s still—money, family name, background, neighborhood—all this still counts today, just like it did then.
SW You said you did vocational school, and then you joined the army, or were you drafted?
GJ I was drafted.
SW You were drafted for the Vietnam War?
GJ No, that’s before Vietnam.
SW ’61 you said? Were people then trying to get out of the draft or did people just go?
GJ The people just went, but I, I needed to go. The police was after me. My cousin was goin’ to—they were putting him in jail. They said we robbed a bus. We never robbed a bus. My cousin just wanted me to catch it with my father who was out at Morgan Park with his brothers and them. But, my cousin had about fifty offers to go to college for his basketball ’cause he was a star basketball player. And when they put him in the jail, he lost most all of his offers. Man, and he was mad at me.
GJ ’Cause he had to go with me to catch it with my father. But it was really my father’s fault ’cause he was a troublemaker. So, my cousin Felix Sanford lost all of his—
GJ Scholarships. But he did get a couple of scholarships in Oklahoma. He told me he used to hang out with the Indians out there. And also that in the basketball games people would stick pins in him. When you start playing in the big time basketball, they have a lot of different stuff that you don’t do when you’re high school. They’re dirty; they can put all kinds of stuff in you. They’ll stick a needle in you; they’ll pull any kind of thing. Step on your foot, punch you in the jaw ...
GJ My cousin could shoot from half court. And he was a star, but he could shoot because we always was acquainted with guns. And that sight, the line up mentality anyway. But he went wit’ me. And then he was mad at me because he said, “I went out there with you.” I said, “But it wasn’t me. It was my father, Crow, he was the one who caused all the trouble.”
SW Your father’s name was Crow?
GJ We called him Crow. Because they said he could sit for long periods of time without talkin’. Like a crow, sitting there, watching people. But I said, “Crow is the one who caused the trouble because I had to come to try to get money from him to go to school and your mother told you to go with me.” (laughter) “It wasn’t me.” But I had to leave town to get—
SW So that’s why you went in the army?
GJ There were two or three things going [on] at one time. I had to leave out of Chicago. The army came along just in time. I didn’t really wanna get out of the army, I wanted to get out of Chicago.
GJ ’Cause we had T-shirts on and Levi’s. There was nowhere for a shotgun to be, and we would just leave from his house to go catch up with my father. And when they got through with it—we had shotguns, we stuck up the bus—
SW Oh, the police said that’s what you did. Yeah. You mentioned earlier that your mother brought up art to you. Was she involved with the arts?
GJ My mother was saying, “You’re not goin’ to be able to get a job, in these heavy—” Although, I was workin’ at the post office loading trucks. The bags were at least a hundred pounds. I was weighing 118 pounds. So I said, “Okay, you’re right about that, for once.” So she said, “Why don’t you go to a school and see where you could apply.” I said, “Okay, you might be right about this. These bags are pretty heavy.”
SW Did you do any artwork before that or did you draw before that? Your mother thought of it just because of the heavy work?
GJ “You’re only 118 pounds. These guys throwing them 100 pound sacks around.” I said, “You got a point there, ’cause I don’t like to throw those sacks around anyway.” You know?
GJ I said I’d go down there. So I did. I went down to the Art Institute. And I went in there and I was walking around. I went down to the school section, and I saw those artists down in there. There was models, artists drawing. I said, “That’s my mom. Finally she got on something here.”
SW Was this before the army? Were you seventeen, sixteen?
GJ Right, so, I said, “I can’t believe that she came up with this.” Maybe I could do this. This is much better. At the same time, my girlfriend was saying, “Gerald, you should be an artist.” ’Cause she was into the arts and poetry. I was into the poolroom. I was into dressin’ up and I was tryin’ to save my life, ’cause people were after me all the time, you know? I mean I had to carry a gun to keep these fucking assholes—
SW You were a hoodlum. (laughter)
GJ I didn’t mess with anybody; just don’t mess with me. You know what I mean? But people were after me. Every time I went alone downtown, across town, over to the lake, they would chase me, over and over. All kinds of different things—I had to keep them off me. I wasn’t after them; they were after me.
SW Were they after you because of your father, Crow, being a numbers runner or after you because everyone’s after everybody else in the neighborhood?
GJ I thought it was because we did have money at one time and then we were poor. And maybe my attitude, although I was very quiet, and my reputation was that I could not, or would not lie to people. I just told people exactly what I thought. Everybody had to have your own personality; otherwise you’d get run over.
GJ So I had my own personality from the time I woke up with that suit and my little shoulder-holster pistol on. And when they say, “Gerald,” I say, “That’s me.” And that’s who I was, from that, until today, the same thing.
SW Interesting, interesting. Your girlfriend—
GJ —my girlfriend read. When I met her I was like thinkin’, What is she reading? She was reading though; she was reading every kind of thing. She was into the arts. Our first date was at the Art Institute. But she kept sayin’, “You should be an artist.”
SW So who was your girlfriend at that point?
GJ Well, Hannah, her mother was a schoolteacher. She was into jazz. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. I was trying to get away from Muddy Waters, those blues guys. She was into Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and all that stuff. Edgar Allen Poe was one of her favorite writers. In fact, I talked to her not too long ago. I told her they got all these poets’ houses over here in the Village. Maybe we should go sometime. So, she was going to these art fairs and stuff like that. And then one day I’m going to work down at the post office. And when the train is leavin’ the Southside, the people—they called them Negroes at that time—
GJ I was brought up as a Negro. They made a lot of noise. And on the train this particular day, everybody was—’cause the train went straight downtown but then it stopped in the post office. And all those people from the Southside got off there at the post office. And [then] they got on the train and back to the Southside.
GJ They were makin’ so much noise, and I was sittin’ in there with a friend of mine from grammar school, we called him Chief, because he talked like an Indian. And when we were outside cold, he would dance around like an Indian. So Chief was there and I was saying to him, “Chief—somebody threw a bottle that hit the train.” I said, “Chief I cannot take this no more.” You know, he says, “Now hold on, Gerald, now. Do you have a talent?” I said, “Man do you see what’s goin’ on here? They’re throwing bottles at me—what is talent?” He said, “Gerald, do you know what a talent is?” I said, “No, what is a talent?” He said, “Talent is something that you can do easily.” When he said the word “easily,” I thought of the post office and throwing them 100 pound bags. I said, “What I’m doin’ certainly ain’t easy, but, well, I can draw easily.” He said, “Well, that’s your talent.” I said, “That’s my talent?” He said, “Yeah, that’s your talent.” I went down to the post office, I kept thinking: That’s my talent! Okay, now! That’s my talent! Then I started thinking about it at the Art Institute. But when I came back to my mother, she said, “I wasn’t talking about that kind of art. I was talking ’bout commercial art. Where all you lift is a pencil and it won’t be anything heavy.” I said, “But still, you hit on a good idea.” And so, when those three elements came together, that’s when I got interested in art. Though mainly because Chief, when he said talent. ’Cause a lot of guys, like I said, would leave the Southside and go to college and stuff, ’cause they had talent. That’s why they went.
GJ But I never thought of myself as having a talent. I don’t even know if those guys thought of themselves as having a talent. It was just something that we could do. When he said “That’s your talent,” and he was talking like an Indian ... if Chief says it like that, then that’s true. That’s how I got into it.
SW At the Art Institute, where they very open arms? Were they very welcoming to you? At the museum when you went down there?
GJ No, ’cause I didn’t have any kind of academic record. You had to have a certain amount of grades and you had to have a certain level of scholarship.
SW What year was this, Gerald? What were you thinking about, when you—
GJ ’60s, ‘60s.
SW But did you take courses there? Or did you—
GJ I couldn’t do the day school; I could go at night. So I did go at night for a little while.
SW And what courses did you take?
GJ Painting. I started painting. Actually Chief was right ’cause it was kinda easy. And it, it was almost like shooting ’cause shooting you have to line up, you know, you have to be a little ahead of the target. But a little bit behind it. It’s all lining up. And pool is the same way. Pool is mathematical; it’s dots you hit between. It’s all kind of mathematical. And, painting is sort of mathematical too. Anatomy. All that to me is mathematical. Like music, is, to me, mathematical too. But when you’re painting, it’s just going faster, and you really have to have a talent to go that fast putting those pieces together with a human touch, and not look mathematical but actually the structure is mathematical. And pool, which I was pretty good in pool, it’s the same thing to me. A green pool table to me is the same as the canvas.
SW Oh, interesting. When you were in school, was there a particular type of painting that you were struck with there? Or were there teachers there that you were mentored by?
GJ Well, I went in at night. I had been going to the Art Institute with Hannah actually before any of this, because—
SW With your girlfriend?
GJ Yeah, she had sorta been. And she was known to be a very smart person too, in school. I mean she would have some kind of mental spells ... and people knew that she—but she was very smart in these arts. So I was acquainted with it from when Hannah would show me her books and things like that. I was also thinkin’ about it in terms of what my mother was sayin’ too because my mother’s original idea was, get outta this heavy labor stuff. Try to get into somethin’ where you can make it. So, it was more or less two factors always: my mother’s—my mother had the wrong intention. She had the right idea but for the wrong reason.
GJ So. When I got to the Art Institute, I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to get in. I know who I am in the sense that I knew I was not going to be able to get in in terms of scholarship, ’cause I’d been turned down in every high school in Chicago already.
SW Mm hm.
GJ But I did go at night. And I did get the sense of well, maybe Chief was right. It was something I could line up. You line up the pieces in a certain kind of way. The canvas, like Cubism. It’s sort of like that in a way.
SW Right. Did you have a class where you painted from the model, or?
GJ Yeah. I had the model thing. That was part of it.
SW Do you remember any of your teachers from those days?
GJ No. There was just a regular but I only went a year, at the Art Institute at night.
SW Did you take anatomy, painting ...?
GJ No, I just took painting. I think it was some, it was some European guy from, uh, Poland or someplace.
GJ Just studies, uh, you know, you, um, campus board. You know you get the little stuff there and they give you a project and you just do—that to me is not what art— it’s like shooting in a way. You have to line up. You can’t just take classes and shoot in a way. It’s something that’s just a natural kind of thing, like shooting. ’Cause you see the target, you have to put it on that little point. And that point has to hit that little point. But you have to know how to do it. Because they had this flinch thing where at the moment of truth, the average guy will flinch to pull the trigger. But guys who had been raised in this kind of environment, they don’t flinch. ’Cause it’s all a natural thing to them. And that’s what they’re looking for in a soldier.
SW So after the Art Institute, you were there for a year?
GJ I went there at night. I was still working at the post office. But I was getting the idea that talent is something that you could do easily. Like you don’t have to kill yourself. You don’t have to drag all this stuff around. Bags, starch—just like Chief said, something you could do easily.
SW And then you were drafted in the army after that? So you got drafted when you turned eighteen?
SW And can you talk a little bit about that army experience?
GJ The army experience. There were forty or fifty guys in the barracks together. They were all men. And what men appreciate is valor, honor, and courage. And if you can exhibit those qualities, you can be with the men. That’s what men do. And all those qualities were the same qualities that you had to have in Chicago if you was in the rackets or anything. You had to have courage, and you had to have valor in that you were looking out for your family. And you were providing for them in an environment where they said that you couldn’t do that. That’s what soldiers are confronted with.
SW Did the art take a backseat then? Were you still thinking about the art? Or ...
GJ They have what they called a club. In the social places where soldiers go ... libraries, and they had a painting table in there, wood shop and stuff like that. I wasn’t really able to put my emotional content into the artwork ’cause I was listening to what Chief said about it comin’ easily to you. So I did complete projects. Like I could draw a face or a model. I could do a complete project. But I wasn’t able to put my complete emotional content into the artwork. But it did have the quality that it was somebody doin’ it that could do it easily. Like a person, if you’re playin’ baseball. A lotta the kids would be tryin’ to hit but one or two kids could really hit the baseball.
GJ We were playin’, there was some big guys in our class too. They were playin’ minor league baseball. We were still there in high school but these guys were bigger and they were stronger. They had actually got into the minor league baseball. The thing about the minor league baseball is that they would go out with us sometimes too. They’re throwing that ball so fast that we would just be shakin’. ’Cause that ball was comin’. And I was thinking, I don’t want that ball to hit me man. And one time one of my buddies got hit by a pitch. We dropped everything, we wanted to get him outta there, we gotta get the hell outta there. Now.
GJ I mean the ball is comin’ so fast! And boom! What? If it hit you on the leg, man ... I was like, Oh no! But we did go out to Kaminsky Park. We played, I mean we had a good team. It’s just that when you go to the big league, they’re hittin’ harder.
SW We were talking about the army, now we’re talking about baseball.
GJ Because the baseball, all the qualities that you have to have in the army, you have to have to have, to be a good athlete, a baseball player.
SW But in the army, did anyone recognize your art talent? Did they realize you could paint, a person or a sign?
GJ Not really.
GJ I would go to the club, and what they did, ’cause our company team was the championship team.
SW In the army.
GJ I mean, we beat everybody.
SW Was that baseball?
GJ Basketball. I like basketball. And so a lot of our time was taken up with the basketball. And plus there were not many other guys in there that were into art in my company.
GJ So I, it kinda was in there, but once I left the army to come back to Chicago, I still had the same problem. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna go back to the post office? Well, then I had to get into it full speed and I had to leave to come to New York.
SW Where were you stationed in the army? Or where did you do your training in the army?
GJ I was down at Fort Lindenwood, then I went to Korea. I was in Japan ... Guam. Left out of California. I was a clerk. I worked at headquarters. You know, the commanding officer, the lawyers, headquarters was where everything goes down at.
SW Right, right.
GJ The Red Cross, the MPs, all of the engineers. So at headquarters, again, all of my suits, army uniforms, uh, were tailored. Every day my shoes were spit-shined. All of my summer suits, my army uniforms was tailored, everything was tailored. I went to my office everyday.
SW Well, how did you get that job? Was it an easy one to get in the army? Before you were saying how you were a sharp shooter.
GJ Well, shooting is natural.
GJ They want people who can shoot straight. You don’t want to be with somebody who cannot shoot straight.
SW Right, that’s what you said.
GJ Stanley, one time coming off the range, and I go to the target, right? I’m standing there. I hear some boys behind me. There’s about eight white guys standing behind me. And they said, “Jackson, you really tore that fucking target up.” They were Southern boys. They said, “If we get into any stuff, we wanna be wit’ you.” And I was lookin’ at these guys like, What? You don’t wanna be—They said, “No, man, you got it.”
SW Now, how’d you get the job working in the uh—
GJ You take tests. Everybody, they take tests. And Chief, again, was comin’ outta the test, for a typist.
SW Was he in the army with you?
GJ Round the same time. He was comin’ down the line, I was comin’ into the room. He had all the answers. He just gave me the answers. I, that passed my thing. That’s how I got to be a clerk.
GJ ’Cause you had to type at least forty words a minute. But, again, Chief was there, man, when I got there.
SW And you were in the army two years?
SW Japan, Guam, Asia, California .... They have any effect in terms of your art? Traveling like that? Did that sort of get you thinking more about your art?
GJ The army has a saying: "Ours is not the reason why, ours is to do or die."
GJ And art is the same thing. Every one of these things to me fit into art. Except, not music. Jazz had a higher level. And Miles and them had a higher level of communication. It was a different kind of time. There’s a time element involved.
SW What you mean by that?
GJ The time element of music is, every note is indicating a particular moment in space and time. Whereas in a painting, the color’s not really doin’ that. It’s movin’ faster. And it’s comin’ at you optically faster, so it’s not mixing the way that music and those time intervals.
SW Right. Mm.
GJ Or, when it’s like the blues, the emotional content is stronger than the musical content. But again, you could paint blues in a painting without getting that blues emotional content in it. So painting actually fits easily into the way my mind works. It was quicker, and it’s sorta like when you pull the trigger too. It’s not something that’s gonna take a long time. An interval between when you flinch and when you pull the trigger, is what they call "the moment of truth." And that’s what the matador faces, that’s what men face when they hit the field. The field of honor. Like Van Gogh died in the field. That to me was really the field of honor. And he sacrificed himself. That’s what men do in the army or like Van Gogh in their painting. They’re confronting the same honor. These same kinda criteria. To come through with a clean keel.
SW So after the army you were back to Chicago?
GJ I went back to Chicago.
SW This is now, what, this is now the early ’60s.
GJ This is the early ’60s.
SW ’63? ’64?
GJ Exactly. Uh, broke up with my girlfriend.
SW You broke up with, when you came back?
GJ Well, we didn’t break up, but it was different. Everybody says you’re different when you come back so it was different in that way. And I started hanging out with people over by the University of Chicago. They had some bars over there. There was a movie house where we saw the foreign movies and stuff. And we were very much up on the French aesthetic, French philosophy. I mean, it was beatniks; it was bohemians. There was French with the berets on and in the café. We already knew all this kind of information, me and my little group.
SW Is this a new group since you’ve come back, or are people coming back from the army at the same time?
GJ Some of them, others went to grammar school together. Like Margie, who then came with me to New York. We went to grammar school together. And Margie was always on the scene at the University of Chicago. Margie was a very hip person around Chicago. So we said, “Let’s go to New York, and see what that’s all about. Do you think you’re talented?” And I said, “Well, talent is what you know.” Everything seemed to check down the line that talent is something that you could do easily. To my way of thinking.
SW You said, earlier, your sister died?
GJ She died three or four years ago.
SW Oh, just recently. I’m sorry to hear that. So you came to New York, what year?
GJ I think it was around ’63.
SW This with Margie ... Margie?
GJ Margie and I came. She was modeling for a while. I had met some army people who knew this guy Michael Monk who was livin’ in the Village, who was a Socialist guy who was workin’ for one of the Socialist newspapers. He said he could get me a job there at the newspaper. I could stay at his place. So he did. I came back and I got the job at the newspaper.
SW Were, were you thinking about art now?
GJ Yeah, because then this guy Mike was living with a Japanese woman. Noriko Ito. And she was going to Brooklyn Museum School.
SW I remember the Brooklyn Museum School, yeah.
GJ And this guy, Arthur Coppedge, that’s where I met him at. Noriko got me on a work scholarship in the Brooklyn Museum. So that’s where I went to study drawing and painting.
SW And this is ’63?
GJ Between ’63 and ’64.
SW And you were living in the Village.
GJ Yeah, I was living on Charles Street with Michael and Noriko. Margie stayed for a while but then she went back to Chicago. I went over to a party at Arthur’s place. It was a big loft on Fourteenth Street. And I said, That’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna stay here and get a loft and paint.
SW Was there something about New York that struck you more than Chicago?
GJ I was doin’ the same thing. New York to me is like Chicago—it’s a big city. In the big city, in Chicago, would be no different for me to be here. If I wasn’t painting, it would just be pretty much the same thing. You know, down at the projects on State Street, they had to put up—
SW In Chicago?
GJ In Chicago—they had to put up that cyclone fence to keep people from throwing other people off the balconies. So, this whole sweep down State Street, of all these projects and stuff changed up the whole picture. For a person like me, no education, no money, no background, just throwing 100-pound bags around at the post office at that time, that was it. It would be the same if I was here. I coulda’ gotten a job workin’ at the post office, I coulda’ been, as a matter of fact I did, have a silver service rating. So I could be there, plus, I could be workin’ on this art at the same time where it was gonna be possible for me to do that in Chicago. ’Cause there were gonna be people saying, Why don’t you get a job here? Why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that? And then the family—they weren’t acquainted with this type of thing. So, to me to move to New York was no different from me staying in Chicago. It’s just another big city. Same kinda problems for Negroes or black people or African Americans as in Chicago. In fact, Chicago might’ve been better. Because all the stuff was right there on the Southside. The movies houses and everything was right there. And it’s bigger. It’s more spread out.
SW But you made the choice to come to New York.
GJ Because the art thing was the additional bait or lever to say, Yes you could stay and make it in Chicago. But in New York, don’t forget what Chief said, You got a talent. Do you think your talent’s gonna be big enough? Well, what’d the Chief say? He said, You have a talent. He said it was easy, right? Right, right. You stay here you’re gonna be down there throwing those bags. You gonna get married to somebody. You gonna be stuck in here, and you’re never gonna be able to ever do somethin’ easy.
SW So, New York.
GJ Yeah, because that was easy and it turns out my art was the best idea. My mother’s idea was good because it got me started, but my mother, she was talking about, Look, you are skinny, you are little. No, you can’t hang out there with your daddy and them big guys. (laughter) Everything was negative. And then these people—I had a background of people chasing me and stuff too, you know. And black folks was getting on my case all the time. You know? And I had to carry a gun!
SW Right. So when you came to New York did you drop the gun?
GJ Well, it wasn’t really anything that you would just drop. It was just protection.
SW But when, when you lived in the Village did you have a gun?
GJ No, ’cause—after I left the army I knew I could shoot. I knew I could hit any target at 400 yards. I’d done that already. I’d never had to prove—the men, they never had to prove anything like this to anybody.
SW No, I understand that. But I’m saying, in terms of lifestyle, now it seems like you’re in a big shift. All of the sudden you’re getting more into a bohemian, as you say, beatnik, lifestyle. That seemed to be a big shift.
SW Like up until the army, Chicago, the family, the neighborhood, all your friends. Then you come back from the army and you get involved with the Southside.
GJ Well, everybody was also doing their own thing too. I mean everybody was goin’ there own way. It was like this: You either go here, or you go there.
GJ You see all your boys over here getting jobs and stuff. Most of my guys joined the marines. They were all kinda hard driving guys ... but what are you gonna do? You can’t handle those bags at the post office but you kept pushing back the other way. So you gonna have to make a move. Can you do this here? Are you gonna make it in the pool room? Trying to beat junkies out of their junkie money so you could win the game? Then you take their money. You know, it’s like ...
SW But you made that move to—and you said you’d go to the University of Chicago, all of a sudden, you said, there were the beatniks, bohemians.
GJ Well, there was a period of time. Plus, Hannah was already into poetry and had a lot of exposure to this kind of stuff before these later events took place. We would all sit down and read poetry to each other all the time. It wasn’t like I was just jumpin’ off into somethin’ that I had no idea about. Plus, I think too, your mind, certain minds, like art. I see it more like a psychic reconstruction, the period you’re talking about. The psychic reconstruction. I had to deconstruct all of that previous construction as a black person—
SW Mm hm.
GJ —living on the Southside. I had to deconstruct all of that out of my mind, and then replace it with something.
GJ Whereas the problem with most of these programs is that they take away the drugs, but they don’t give you anything in return.
SW Mm hm.
GJ Then, that’s when Chief comes in. Instead of me asking them for something in return, I had my talent, as he told me—
GJ And it’s gonna be easier than what they gonna do. So my psychic reconstruction, I had to reconstruct .... Later after I went to the psychiatrist and people like that, they explained to me that my previous self that you’re talking about ...
GJ My history in Chicago and growing up—all that stuff had deconstructed me as a person of my potential. The only way to correct that would be to reconstruct, but you have to have a plan. Just like a drug addict would have to have a plan for their life after they quit the drugs.
SW Right, right.
GJ Because all that negative stuff, that’s you. We’re talking ’bout up to this point, I don’t really see that as me. I see my reconstruction as me as I am today.
SW Is that reconstruction still happening, or did that reconstruction happen because you moved to New York? Did moving to New York allow you to deconstruct?
GJ I never would have thought about any of this deconstruction, reconstruction, any way. But when I went to the doctor, this woman, Emily O’Brien, said, “I’m gonna send you to a psychiatrist.” ’Cause I was drinkin’ and goin’ crazy.
SW Was this in New York?
GJ Yeah, this was in New York. And up until that point I was still just like Gerald, I wasn’t—I imitated the role models I grew up with in a certain kind of way. The role model of carrying a gun. It just meant self-protection, self-survival, if you don’t keep these people off you they gonna hurt you.
GJ It wasn’t going to get money or anything like that it was just keeping people .... But, all of that stuff, made up this person, who was at that time a Negro. And who made decisions based on that preconstructed psyche. All my decisions were— except the decisions I made about art. Those decisions became my new, or ... when the psychiatrist told me, “You’re dead.” They wrote a paper about it. I’ve got the paper here. There’s no medication, nothing that we can say—medical, mental—that, for you. You’re dead. You don’t have a job, you don’t have an education. To society, you don’t exist anymore. But, this psychiatrist guy, Dr. Viller says, “You have developed a sixth sense. Like when your other senses shut down, if you don’t die or go crazy or something, your mind starts to make a new set of rules,” he said. And those rules will be the rules that you will follow to survive. If you try to go back, you will not survive. You can only survive by making up your total psychic from where you are now. And creativity is one of the best ways to do that. ’Cause whenever you add creativity to somethin’, it always gets better. Plus, I didn’t have any choice. They said on the code, This person is dead. So since that time, I saw myself as being dead.
SW When was that time?
GJ The time was ’77? And then recently I went with Jonathan maybe two, three years ago to the Social Security office, and we asked them, what was my code? And this printout came out, and it said: “There is no help for this person. There’s no medication. Permanently disabled.”
SW We’re jumping ahead a little bit. ’Cause I want to talk a little bit more about when you came to New York. Maybe we’ll save this for the next session.
GJ Well, we get this section outta the way. Then we could talk more about the psychic reconstruction which I think this person has to go through—
SW To be Gerald Jackson.
GJ Yeah, you can’t leave. Like I said, there used to be a lot of star baseketball players, people coming back to the neighborhood. But they were completely destroyed. You know, they were completely destroyed. They still had the talent though, you could see. ’Cause they could run over everybody.
SW Yeah, that happened in my neighborhood, too.
GJ You know what I mean? I’m sure it happened in your neighborhood, too. ’Cause there was nobody there to reconstruct. But since my girlfriend was already into it, I started partially deconstructing.
SW Right, right. I’m curious. I understand that New York’s the place to go. New York is the center of the art world. I mean Chicago does have the museum. But it seems like what your talking about is getting away from the neighborhood, getting out of that environment—
GJ Certain people you have to take them out of their environment, but you can’t take the environment outta them.
SW Yeah, I understand. Well, that seems to be the thing. So you come to New York. And you’re out of the environment but at the same time, all your habits, or all your ideas are based on Southside Chicago.
GJ I started to reconstruct this psyche into another personality, another person.
SW But it seems that you’re also getting involved with a more bohemian life. Would that be a fair thing to say?
GJ You know, the hippies came—but I was always painting. I wasn’t really painting because—
SW So you were painting in New York.
GJ Yeah, that’s when I came to New York. I went to school over there at the Brooklyn Museum and then I started ... one day I just got up and I started painting.
SW Who was your teacher there?
GJ One of my teachers was—I studied sculpture. He’s a figurative guy, died recently. I’ll think of his name in a minute. And then I studied sculpture with the Japanese guy, Toshio Odate. And what’s the other guy’s name? I can’t think of it. I studied painting with him.
SW And that’s like ’67?
GJ ’65. Sometime right around there.
SW So you, you’re going to the Brooklyn Museum School, you’re studying art, you’re living in the Village—
GJ Yeah, I’m living in the Village with social, radical, and Japanese, and crazy people.
SW So, and you, and you have a job or no?
GJ I had a job painting paintings for a man who took these paintings to Paris to sell them. They were scenes of flowers and fruit and landscape. I painted them; he took them to Paris to sell to tourists. He left for a couple of weeks one time. And when he came back, I had already painted up all these paintings: bananas, apples and all this stuff. And he looked and said, “Your stuff is better than mine!”
SW What did you think was the main differences between being in New York as say, being in Chicago at that point?
GJ In New York, they already had, two or three things. Jazz musicians were already—that period of time ... the ’60s and stuff. There were a lot of really great black artists in town.
SW In New York?
GJ In New York. Already. There were, like those major league football players—they’re throwing the ball so hard they’ll knock your helmet off. These guys was hitting hard. That is one difference right there. It was like the major leagues. And Chicago still, there was a lot of racial stuff going on. So even if you were a champion, you still would have to, just like those other guys that left, you still would have to be a Negro or a black person when you got back.
SW Right, right.
GJ You would have to go back to your old neighborhood ’cause you weren’t allowed to live any other places there. So it was like a closed shop. It was certain amounts you could do. Whereas what I was saying before is that they had said to me, jazz musicians already cleaved or cut away or made an imprint in the New York scene ... The cultural, creative place. So they had already had this done. I mean. ’Cause you could just be taken as an artist seriously because these jazz people already said jazz was an art form. And they were all right here at the same time.
SW Mm hm. Mm hm.
GJ So, that was different from Chicago. And me, as a artist. That was different from Chicago, too. Because later on some guys was found dead. Later on some guys was robbing somebody. Later on this guy killed. Later on everybody started to react to the ghetto, to the Southside in the similar way that history had dictated for my father and my grandfather and those people. And they had played the same role of the so-called black man. Who’s over-sexed, who’s over—all this sexual things that were added on.
GJ Which I didn’t think that black women agreed with all the time, that black men were so sexy. Because in my time, the black women said the black man was not sexy.
(laughter) And that was as far as I know. (laughter) “He ain’t nothin’ man! Are you kidding?” Yeah, yeah they would say that.
SW (laughter) Well, I sort of get a sense that you’re saying that, New York, because the jazz people were here, already, it was a place for you.
GJ There was some creative dialogue already established by these jazz musicians. Not so much by the painters although.
SW Did you meet other painters? Other Afro-American, or ...
GJ Well ...
SW I don’t know. Well, I guess, race, we’re going back to race.
GJ So you were brought up as a Negro. Now all of a sudden you come over here—That’s why I couldn’t understand—I just met this Negro—(laughter)
SW Did you meet any other Afro-American painters?
GJ Well I was talkin’ the other day with Jonathan about Ellsworth Ausby and that—
SW That was my phone, sorry.