Art is a safe place. One that allows us to step outside of ourselves, to find that we are stranger than we believed. The artist has an inherent desire to be understood, to make an indelible impression in the mind. Some believe art changes the world, albeit very slowly. Jeff Jackson finds art is especially useful when masquerading as entertainment, in order to create a desire and hunger within someone they have yet to discover or even understand.
To describe Jeff’s writing career as diverse is an understatement – a disservice. Over the years he has partnered with Jim Findlay and the Collapsable Giraffe Theatre Company to author seven productions, all of which critics have raved for the shear audacity. A recent play, The Dream of the Red Chamber, is an immersive experience. The show last for hours overnight, the audience is lulled to sleep, individuals can come and go as they please, and is ultimately theatrical experimentation.
Hosted by the Times Square Art Alliance in one of the world’s most iconic urban places, the play was presented in the basement of The Brill Building. Entering directly from the chaos of Broadway in the heart of Times Square, the entire first floor appears to be a vacant construction zone punctuated by a long red carpet lined with televisions displaying nothing but static and white noise. At the rear of the desolate space, a set of stairs descends into a dimly light dungeon with beds scattered among an elegantly designed space. Audience members settle into slumber among actors, chanting, large projections, somber music, and an ever-present red hue.
As a novelist, Jeff wrestles with his work. He explains, “I want to make something that is alive, something that has a chance to live.” The process of writing Mira Corpora, his first novel, required five years of Jeff’s attention, a true labor of love. He says he made the typical first novel’s mistake — trying to fit everything into one book. The artistic skills required for his first attempt demanded refinement. As he honed that dexterity, he radically re-envisioned the entire book: cut over a hundred pages, restructured the chapters and their length, and created a simplified version which many still view as exceptionally complicated. “I really had to trim it out, and determine what the book wanted to be and what I could actually pull off as an artist.”
Jeff was able to draw on his theatre experience where they would spend years developing a play, then radically rework the play toward the end, and in one case the night before opening curtain. “Sometimes that’s for the best. And you can’t be afraid of that.” The hard work paid off. The novel was turned down by a number of publishers — the book was too esoteric, too literary. It never made it past the marketing department. In the end however, the novel was published and widely received by many, many critics. The reviews were positive, and more importantly, the novel connected with readers in a real and unique manner.
For Jeff, the work is his passion — the narrative, characters, tonal elements, interludes, tension, relief, balance, and so much more. The challenge is getting it right. As he works on his second novel, he continues to create new problems that demand ever-stronger solutions. In some ways, the artist is his own worst enemy. Therein lies the pressure, the desire to get it right. “It’s frustrating to get it right,” Jeff says. The longer the artist works, the stronger his work becomes. To breathe life into a work of art requires sacrifice, suffering to find the beauty in the work. One measure of success for fiction is how long can you etch the experience of your book or play in a strangers mind? However, getting it right does not guarantee that others will appreciate it in the time the artist desires.
Creativity and the arts have a broad set of challenges as our world evolves and economics shift. The role of the artist, the creative, must innovate to stay a step ahead. Jeff’s career proves the point. His work is highly varied, radically experimental, and always carry’s a significant element of risk. Over the last decade we have collaborated with Jeff on a number of personal and professional projects: a film festival, a jazz concert series at Salt Space, two novels, brand strategy for a variety of clients, website overhauls, and much more. While traveling this summer, we had the opportunity to catch up with Jeff at a cafe in the arts district north of downtown Charlotte.
After more than a decade in New York City, Jeff decided it was time to move on. A hard decision for any New Yorker. It was not an issue of priority. It was binary. “I could either be a New Yorker, or an artist. One was going to be erased.” Jeff moved to the city in the very early 90s when it was cheap to live in the raw, beleaguered neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. There was so much to take in, so much to inspire, so much culture to absorb. The city became a distraction. Seeking out the greatest inspiration in the world is generally more intriguing than “reworking the same five paragraphs in a short story that no one may ever read.” In that light, New York became more of a distraction than an inspiration. In one’s youth, soaking up culture is wonderfully valuable, which might be better than doing one’s own work. As time passes, it becomes unhealthy. “If I stayed in New York, I could map my future and it was moving farther and farther away from writing, theatre and producing. I realized something had to change. I tried everything.” The financial and time requirements of engaging in inspiration and high culture of New York was going to erase Jeff’s identity as an artist. Ultimately, the Writer won the battle and defeated the New Yorker.
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