Suzanne Jackson was born on January 30, 1944, in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her early childhood was nomadic, first moving to San Francisco at only nine months old, followed by pre-statehood Alaska, where the Jackson family settled in Fairbanks in 1952, remaining there throughout the rest of Jackson’s childhood. In her teenage years, Jackson would receive her first oil paints, become a member of the National Audubon Society, and begin to study ballet professionally. These three influences would leave indelible marks on the rest of her life. She received her BA in painting from San Francisco State in 1966, with a minor in drama.
Following graduation, Jackson traveled to Mexico and South America with a modern dance troupe. Upon her return to North America in 1967, she settled into the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where her career in the art world began to solidify. She soon enrolled in a drawing class taught by Charles White at the Otis Art Institute. Through White, she met other artists such as David Hammons, Alonzo Davis, and Timothy Washington, who would form the foundation of her circle in Los Angeles.
From 1968-1970, Jackson ran Gallery 32, a space dedicated to fostering a supportive artist community. Inspired by White’s philosophy that art can be a vehicle for community activism and change, the gallery acted as a place to exchange ideas and philosophies, hosting discussions, poetry readings, and fundraisers for the likes of the Black Arts Council and the Black Panther Party. The gallery was the first to exhibit David Hammons’ iconic body prints and was host to the 1970 “Sapphire Show.” Organized by Betye Saar, "The Sapphire Show" is believed to be the first group show to feature solely Black women.
While running Gallery 32, Jackson was simultaneously making her own work. These paintings used acrylic paint almost like watercolor, with sometimes up to 150 layers of washy pigment set on top of one another to build up dreamy and lyrical images of Black figures, birds, flowers, and other natural elements. Nature has always been at the center of her work: appreciating it, understanding its history, and finding her place within it. In these motifs, one sees the impact of her time in Alaska and participation in the National Audubon Society. As she states, “I love nature, animals, children, spirit, love, and myself as a woman. If within my work the symbols reflect my culture, my upbringing, my environment, and especially my femininity, that is simply in everything of beauty and value that I want to do.” (S. Jackson, quoted in R. Reese, “The Things Around Me: Art Life, and Nature in the Work of Suzanne Jackson, Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades, exh. cat., Telfair Museums, 2019, p. 108).
As the decades progressed, Jackson’s practice evolved from layering colored washes to layering acrylic in a more sculptural fashion. In 1990, she received an MFA in theater design from Yale University and moved to Savannah, Georgia, shortly thereafter. Her degree from Yale, bolstered by her years studying dance and drama, greatly informs the sculptural nature of these later works, begun over the last decade and a half. Known as the “anti-canvases,” these works are highly abstracted, contrasting with her early figurative paintings. To make these, Jackson piles layers of acrylic paint directly onto a table covered in plastic, then peels it off and hangs the drying paint like a canvas, allowing her to layer acrylic on acrylic without the need for traditional support. She then imbues these works with found objects and detritus from her studio—a nod to her love of nature and desire to positively impact the environment through upcycling—including netting, old ballet costumes, peanut shells, bells, loquat seeds, and leather string. Made to look like theater scrims, these “anti-canvases” will sometimes also incorporate bogus paper, a type of material used during set building, which she pinches and crimps to lend an even more lyrical aura to her work.
Jackson was a professor in the Savannah College of Art and Design painting department from 1996 until 2014. In 2019, she was the recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant and the subject of a major career retrospective, Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades, organized by the Jepson Center for the Arts, Telfair Museums, Savannah. Her first solo exhibition in New York, Suzanne Jackson: NEWS!, was held at Ortuzar Projects from November 2019-January 2020. Jackson has also been included in significant group shows, including Life Model: Charles White and His Students, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2019); West by Midwest, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2018-2019); and Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, Crystal Bridges, and Brooklyn Museum (2018-2019). Her work with Gallery 32 has been featured in exhibitions such as Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2011-2013); and Gallery 32 & Its Circle, Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles (2009). She lives and works in Savannah, Georgia.