Billy Morrow Jackson: Champaign County and Surrealist Art
By Brittany Leatherman
As a leading modern landscape artist of the Midwest and committed political activist, Billy Morrow Jackson spent a large portion of his life in the Champaign County area. When he began as a student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to acquire his MFA, he could not have known he would spend the next five decades of his life in the town. Here, he would render local land and life in spectacular detail utilizing his own personal style that many have referred to as “representational surrealism.” 1 Although Jackson’s work spanned a wide range of mediums—from woodcut, to painting, to printmaking and more—he is best known for his paintings of vast Champaign-Urbana landscapes, cityscapes, and a series of politically motivated prints known as the Civil Rights Prints. His art can be found in a large number of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, N.Y., the National Museum of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. 2 Champaign-Urbana locals might be familiar with a number of Jackson’s large-scale murals of University of Illinois architecture and throughout the city. His dedication to Champaign County as a local artist, professor, and political activist show through emphatically in his art. Years later, viewers are still able to admire his pieces while relating and reflecting on both the simplicities and complexities of Midwestern land and life.
“Station” By Billy Morrow Jackson. CCHM Archives.
Jackson was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1926, and despite an early tendency toward art, the Great Depression made enrolling in classes and acquiring materials quite difficult for him. During his teens, Jackson became employed and was able to take night classes at Washington University where he studied drawing. At the age of eighteen, he paused his artistic studies to serve in the Marines as a rifleman in Okinawa for almost two years until he was honorably discharged due to extreme combat fatigue.3 After returning and recovering, he completed his undergraduate degree at Washington University, studying studio art with an emphasis on the expressionist style and the nude composition.4
It was shortly after Jackson’s graduation from Washington University in 1949 when he married his first wife, Blanche Trice. As an interracial couple, Jackson and Trice felt the weight of harsh prejudice and racial inequality prevalent in America. Largely due to this, they made the decision to move to Mexico where Jackson would begin a striking series of woodcuts which focus on the daily life of Mexicans, as well as the poverty and oppression that many Mexican citizens suffered from at the time.5 Although these woodcuts may at first appear drastically different from much of Jackson’s oeuvre, they are highly reflective of his style in that they contemplate daily life and environment.
It was in the years of 1951 and 1952 when he, his wife, and their newborn son returned to America and Jackson began his MFA at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.6 As a student at the university, Jackson expressed early thoughts of what would become his primary philosophy behind his future work. This philosophy would signal his turn away from expressionism and eventually dictate Jackson’s trademark style, commonly called representational surrealism. In a brief report, submitted for a graduate school assignment, Jackson stressed that when he created his pieces he was less concerned with the “anatomy of the composition” and more so with the “personality” of the overall painting. Put simply, Jackson was not concerned with portraying land and life in a photographic or perfectly realistic manner, although many of his pieces may seem to be rendered exactly from reality at first glance. Alterations or abstractions of reality such as inaccurate cityscapes or family members costumed as strangers show up often in Jackson’s work, but this tactic is not meant to trick the viewer. Instead, he believed the technique allowed him to express fundamental feelings which could connect us through universal human experience. Whether it was the feeling of a windy summer’s day on a local prairie, or the crowded yet solitary feeling of waiting at a bus station, Jackson’s primary goal was to render shared feelings and experiences of the people in his community.
Shortly after graduating in 1954, Jackson took on a teaching position at the University of Illinois. He would remain a dedicated professor for the next thirty-three years until his retirement in 1987. 7 During his early years of teaching, he expressed a yearning for artists to “return to regionalism”.8 This public call, expressed in a grant application written by Jackson, would only further illustrate how dedicated Jackson had become to depicting daily life and shared feeling. In his statement Jackson said, "regionalism in contemporary art is seemingly being ignored or almost wholly neglected by the painter and print-maker. His personal identity to his immediate environment and his intimate reaction to it are playing a minor role." 9 At the heart of Jackson's technique is that the artist must strive for a "more meaningful and total human experience." 10
A large painting of Jackson’s titled The Greater Downtown, serves as a significant example of the artist’s unique style and celebrates the daily hustle and bustle of downtown Champaign. Painted in 1986, it is one of his more complex and highly accomplished paintings. The theme of the painting is a downtown farmer’s market where scattered groups of people interact and shop. The familiar First National Bank in Champaign, Illinois, towers over the shoppers while just to the right, an American flag (common in Jackson’s work) stands tall and central in the painting. Although at first glance this may look like a simple downtown farmers market, after a second look viewers may notice that Jackson has incorporated a multitude of strange and fantastical details. For instance, Champaign locals would know that, despite the familiar landmarks, the entire landscape is not painted from reality at all. One aspect that gives this away is the set of bank tellers who serve people from behind the counter, yet stand outside under the large open sky. Here, the inside of the bank meshes with the outside where community members gather to shop for fruits, fresh flowers, and more. The ground of the painting takes on a soft green tone which seems to emulate both green carpet and grass simultaneously and makes us question once again whether the environment signifies outside or inside.
“The Greater Downtown” (1986) by Billy Morrow Jackson. 2020-010-001
Jackson almost always painted his human figures from reality and it is known that each person in the painting is based on someone from the Champaign community.11 The bank tellers behind the counter are said to have been the actual individuals employed at the bank in the 80s and the woman to the right whose striking red dress stands out from the more neutral colors in the picture is said to be Siti Mariah, Jackson’s second wife. 12 Sitting inconspicuously at the center of the painting is a man selling apples. He stares out, making eye contact with viewers of the painting and seems somewhat out of place in his suit and bow-tie. The out of place figure is Benjamin F. Harris, the founder of the bank. Finally, Jackson would often include himself in his pieces. In this one, his face appears as a barely noticeable stone antefix on the white building to the far right. The entirety of the Greater Downtown functions as a carefully executed dreamlike window onto the daily life of modern downtown Champaign. 12
Jackson as a stone antefix in “The Greater Downtown”. CCHM Artifact.
Throughout his career and especially his time as a professor at the university, Jackson had been highly politically active and outspoken. He was an active member of the Support Fair Housing project, which functioned to provide housing to anyone in need, regardless of race, identity, nationality, etc. 13 He was most passionate about issues of racial injustice in America and in 1962-64, Jackson executed a series of protest statements that deal with this topic. They were published as posters and also circulated throughout the community through various newspapers and magazines. These prints, which address the ongoing racial violence perpetrated in modern America, stirred up considerable controversy. The painter, mostly known to the public for celebrating Midwestern American land and life, now openly criticized the behaviors of American government and society. Some of the prints are complex and intricately woven into the political events of the 60s, while others, such as Stars and Bars, portray a message of racial injustice that viewers today could still easily comprehend and relate to. After the initial display and circulation of the prints, Jackson gave comments that won strong support. In his message, he expressed that:
“being concerned and feeling deeply involved as an American: shocked and angry at the garish and often bloody crescendo of injustice and atrocities: irritated at the casual acceptance of this insult by so many Americans as a permanent part of our social fiber: appalled at the apathy of a nation in the face of overt inhumanity: … I was stricken by all this … stricken because in this dark mirror I saw my own reflection and was not pleased. I was stricken at my own apathy … as a human person, as an artist, as an American.” 14
Jackson’s consistent activism regarding racism in America is still celebrated and discussed today and his Civil Rights Prints are often considered a pinnacle in his artistic oeuvre. The artist would dedicate himself to various other socially conscious topics—some which still hold true in today’s time, such as pieces on climate catastrophe or economic issues. Other works of Jackson’s have come under scrutiny from his peers in recent years, such as his celebratory works regarding the historic land-grant mission. His work titled We The People: The Land-Grant College Heritage (1987) celebrates the Morrill Act of 1862 which, while initiating the creation of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, many historians, such as Margaret A. Nash, now view as a component in the forced removal of indigenous Americans from local land. 15
A photograph of Jackson from his later years. From the Article "I Can't Paint Any Harder, I Can Only Paint Longer" by Kirby Pringle. The News Gazette. Published on 09/06/1996. CCHM Archives.
Jackson died in 2006, leaving behind a massive collection of works which span a wide range of artistic mediums and sociopolitical concepts. As a product of passionately situating himself in time and space in the city of Champaign, the complexities of his pieces deserve careful consideration and operate as depictions of local history. Viewers are encouraged to take a longer look at Jackson’s work to allow themselves to contemplate and feel more deeply about what is often overlooked as simple Midwestern daily life.
Brittany Leatherman is a guest contributor to the Champaign County History Museum blog. She is currently a graduate student studying Art History at the University of Illinois: Urbana-Champaign. She previously received a B.A. in Art History from Michigan State University where she served as President of the Art History Association.
Interpretations of Time and Light, p. 2.
Interpretations of Time and Light, p. 142.
Interview with Jackson, p. 8.
Expressionist style and the nude composition.
Interview with Jackson, p. 14.
Interpretations of Time and Light, p. 5.
Interpretations of Time and Light, p. 144.
Interview with Jackson, p. 29
Interpretations of Time and Light, p.13-14.
Interview with Yu (Ian) Wang
Interview with Yu (Ian) Wang
Support fair housing
Interpretations of Time and Light, p.111.
Nash, Margaret A. “Entangled Pasts: Land-Grant Colleges and American Indian Dispossession.” History of Education Quarterly 59, no. 4 (2019): 437–67. doi:10.1017/heq.2019.31.