"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Ariston Jacks is a Pine Bluff native who served six years in the U.S. Navy before returning to Arkansas and earning an art degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 2002. Jacks creates multimedia collages that combine imagery from ancient African cultures, Americana and social phenomena of the 21st century. With an Afrofuturist influence, he references mathematical equations, cultural icons and philosophy in creations that meld luminescent powder with acrylic paint, images he calls "alter images" that cause "blackness to become a positive visual element."
In 2008 Jacks earned a master's degree in studio painting from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Since then he's taught art classes at UA- Pine Bluff and conducted community art workshops as the co-founder of the V.I.T.A.L. Artist's Collective. Most recently he served as the art coordinator for the Creative Expressions Program at the Arkansas State Hospital. With exhibits from Dallas to Louisville and across the Atlantic in Paris, Jacks has made a name for himself and his artistic style. You can see his work at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center at Ninth Street and Broadway.
How did you get your start in drawing and painting?
Art is something I've always done. I wasn't one of those kids with a bunch of friends, so I kept myself occupied. I played with my toys and drew. My mom had always encouraged me, and after she died when I was in the seventh grade I became more serious about my art. I took my drawings with me everywhere I went, even working on them when I was supposed to be doing classwork. In seventh or eighth grade I started drawing pictures for people for 50 cents to a dollar.
In high school I was a nerd. I didn't really fit in anywhere, so I hung out in the art room with my art teacher Mrs. Hymes. Mrs. Hymes thought I was talented, went out on a limb and introduced me to the chair of the art department at UAPB. They offered me a scholarship to go to school for art, and I've been doing it ever since.
Art probably saved my life. All of my other friends that I grew up with — I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood in Pine Bluff — a couple of them passed on, some have been to jail, and I'm one of the few who escaped and was able to travel the world because of art. I thank God for that ability. Well, I believe everyone has the ability to create, so I thank God for the stubbornness to stick to it and not be drawn away from it because of pop culture. But art is coming back into popular culture because of social justice movements. I think art is going to be one of the major careers of the future.
Where have you traveled recently?
A few years ago I went to Sierra Leone with a suitcase full of art supplies to teach a workshop for a non-profit out of New Jersey at the local university. The schedule got mixed up and the workshop was canceled, so I ended up teaching a class at an amputee camp instead. Many of these people had their hands, feet and legs cut off during the revolution. I initially didn't plan to give away all of the art supplies, as these were supplies I had used to do all of my workshops over the years. Interestingly enough, everyone didn't speak English. So when I opened the suitcase and started handing out art supplies for people to use during the workshop — one of the school teachers was my translator — the kids got the supplies and they were happy and excited, some took off running, some left the room, and in less than 10 minutes all the art supplies in the suitcase were gone. Afterward there were only three or four people left in the room who were ready to work. I taught a class with the help of my translator to the few children who stuck around. That night the children who had stayed in class taught those who had left earlier with the supplies.
When I came back the next day, I had a full class of students with half-completed pieces of artwork. I communicated through my translator that I wanted them to draw from their own culture to create, and their drawings started to change. They chose subjects from their environment as opposed to the first days' pieces — of white Jesus, rappers with big gold chains, things that they perceived that I would identify with as an American. It blew me away, after I had explained how important it is for them to express their own culture and not get caught up in American pop culture. I told them, "I'm here to learn from you and I don't think that I can teach you anything but how important it is to look within yourselves to create and not outside your community. What's going on with you is important." At the end of the week, with almost no instruction, I saw some of the most magnificent artwork I had ever seen. All I had done was demonstrations on different supplies and how to use them and they created works that looked like they had been drawing and painting for years! It was amazing what they were able to create in a four-day workshop.
I brought back a couple of the pieces that they had asked to be shared and photographed some of the others. The experience showed me that all people need is the opportunity and the resources and the ability that they have will come through. Opportunity and resources are important for any young person that is aspiring to create, and many of them don't get it. I didn't get it as a young black child and I see plenty of other children that don't. I didn't start to have these opportunities until I started my career at 32. I'm now 42 and people tell me I'm doing well, but I don't think so, only because I know I could do more if I had the resources and the opportunities.
What about photography?
Photography is not my main medium; I think of it as more of a support medium. I capture images that are meaningful, documentarian, photojournalistic — they tell a story — those are the pictures I tend to keep as photographs [as opposed to mixed media pieces]. The only photography instruction I've had was a one-semester course at UAPB. That's why I say, if you're just given the opportunity, you can do something great.
I was given the opportunity to go to Africa for the first time and shoot photographs in exchange for one of my paintings, actually. The director of a nonprofit had seen my work online, and a painting that she just had to have. She called me up and at the time the painting was listed at $4,000. She said, "That's a lot of money. I have all of my money tied up in this Africa trip right now." And I told her I had always wanted to go to Africa, I wish I could go. And she responded, "Really? My photographer bailed on me. Would you want to go?" Of course I said yes. I gladly gave her that painting and that's how I went to Africa for the first time. We traveled to Germany, Swaziland and Namibia. That first trip opened my eyes to so much. It made me realize how much I didn't know about the world. Now I focus my attention on what's happening in the world and not just what's happening right around me. My direct experiences are my family — my nucleus — who inform me, but coupled with my view of the big picture, life itself and my global experiences help to shape my work. My work has changed as the result of my travels and become more Afrofuturist in nature as opposed to my earlier works.
What is your goal as an artist?
My ultimate goal as an artist is to have a private foundation that generates millions of dollars to make a place for the people in underserved communities to experience art. To create a center, a huge complex that allows people of all ages who have a desire to create to come free of charge and create. I'd like to have a team in place that can help these new artists find ways to build their talent, find local clients, venues to showcase their work and sell to collectors around the world. Imagine a painting done by a kid from Pine Bluff, hanging on the walls of a collector's home in Berlin, Switzerland, London or Cape Town. That would be amazing. That's what I want to do. I want to change lives.
What are you working on right now?
I'm going back to Namibia next month to reconnect with some of those people I met on my first trip, for a few cultural photoshoots and an artist residency. I'm excited. I'm in a place now where I'm working on my art, starting a company that's centered around art and looking forward to a career steeped in truth.
Congratulations Tara, beautifully written!