PEORIA — Last week sculptor Preston Jackson got a nice surprise — he was chosen as one of 10 Top Illinois Artists and Architects of all time.
The poll was part of the Illinois Top 200 project to celebrate the state’s 200th birthday. The public is voting on their favorites in a number of categories. Jackson learned of the poll at the same time he was notified about placing sixth.
“We didn’t even know about it,” said Joy Kessler, Jackson’s assistant.
It isn’t the first time the prolific sculptor has been honored during his long career, and at 74, Jackson shows no signs of slowing down. He was on a ladder Tuesday afternoon in his studio at the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria, measuring a sculpture he’s creating for Webster Groves, Mo. It’s one of three commissions he’s currently working on.
“I can make a sculpture a month,” said Jackson, an assertion Kessler confirmed.
“He doesn’t do anything but work,” she said.
It seems like Jackson is constantly creating art. Even as he paused to talk to a reporter Tuesday, he was drawing in a notebook.
“I can hear you better and think better if I am drawing,” he said. Jackson began drawing when he was 5 years old. He would fill the margins of his school papers with fantastic doodles and give his artwork away to anyone he met.
When he’s not making sculpture or painting, Jackson is making music, another lifelong passion and one that helped keep him in Peoria after he was offered a teaching position at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989.
“I had many opportunities to move to Chicago, but I had a lot of connections in Peoria,” he said. “Music was a big part of me being here.”
Raised in Decatur, Jackson moved to Peoria in 1972 with his wife, Melba, not long after completing his masters in fine art at the University of Illinois. He had just gotten a job teaching drawing and sculpture at Western Illinois University in Macomb. The young couple decided Peoria was a better place than Macomb to raise their daughters — Natalie was a toddler at the time, and Alice was born a few years later.
“We moved here and loved it,” he said. “Peoria, to me, was a very beautiful city. And I’ve met a lot of wonderful friends.”
Peoria has proven to be a good home base for Jackson, and the city has profited from the relationship. In 1994, Jackson and fellow sculptor Bob Emser founded the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria in an old warehouse on the Peoria riverfront. They chose the location long before the area became the Warehouse District.
Around that time, the duo decided to create a sculpture walk along the Peoria riverfront. Pieces from that original walk still remain and over the years Jackson has added more. Today, his sculptures can be found all around the Peoria area. While some of the works were commissioned, many are on loan from the artist, who enjoys seeing his work displayed in his hometown.
Jackson’s artwork addresses his concerns about social interactions between various groups of people and is geared toward the betterment of society. His intent is to cause the viewer to examine things they may not have considered before.
His sculptures are typically rendered with both realistic and abstract elements, though he often does life-like works, such as the Korean War soldier recently installed in the new war memorial at the Peoria County Courthouse, or the sculpture of Richard Pryor at the intersection of Washington and State Streets in Downtown Peoria.
“Preston founded CORA, the Committee on Recognizing Achievement, for the purpose of raising funds to make sculpture for people who are not normally considered important,” said Kessler. “It was this group that eventually got the money raised for Richard Pryor.”
The group is currently trying to raise money for sculptures of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, an important figure in the civil rights movement who once lived in Peoria, and Jimmy Binkley, a Peoria musician and philanthropist who died in 2015.
Jackson’s work frequently addresses racial issues. In Peoria, he was commissioned to create a sculpture to memorialize the location where the home of abolitionists Lucy and Moses Pettengill once stood. It is Peoria’s only documented stop on the Underground Railroad. “Knockin’ on Freedom’s Door,” the 30-foot stainless steel and cast bronze sculpture, is mounted on an outside wall of the Peoria Civic Center. Most recently, Jackson was commissioned to create a piece for the city of St. Louis called “Freedom Suit.”
“It’s about lawsuits brought by slaves for their freedom in the 1830s through 1860s,” said Kessler. “About 30 percent of the suits actually won their freedom, which is amazing. People know about Dred Scott, but people don’t know about this, so it’s an important work.”
Though Jackson stopped teaching full time, as professor emeritus of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, about seven years ago he still frequently travels to Chicago where he enjoys meeting with students and other artists. Jackson said the time with other artists helps feed his creativity. He keeps a small studio there where he paints, but when he wants to create large artwork, he comes back home to work at his studio in the Contemporary Art Center, or his larger studio in Bartonville.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.