This year since June, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder our national and local media have been reporting demonstrations and featuring conversational articles on issues of racism and African American experiences in our country.

Some local people told their stories and shared their frustrations about this continuing situation in local newspapers — for example UIUC Chancellor Robert Jones and UIUC instructor of music production Lamont Holden, just to mention a couple.   

Additionally, and more frustratingly, in reviewing my art collections, I noticed that more than half a century ago UI art Professor Billy Morrow Jackson also tried to use his art to wake people up about this same issue happening in America then.

I first met Prof. Jackson in 1996 at his retrospective solo art exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum and had been a very close friend of him ever since until he passed away in 2006. In early 2004 I worked with my friends Billy Jackson and his wife, Siti Jackson, for their joint art exhibition at the Verdi Art Gallery in downtown Champaign.

Jackson art

Billy Morrow Jackson's work entitled "Stars and Bars": "A startling irony: the cause, the effect, the solution. A man looks like he is struggling to escape but is being oppressed behind the stars and bars as a result of racism that goes on even to this day." This art work was created 50 years ago.

While working on the exhibition and reviewing his artwork, I was drawn to his pen and ink drawing series of political social commentary in the 1960s. Since this series was not for sale, Prof. Jackson offered me a set of eight lithograph reproductions of this pen and ink civil rights drawings with his personal notes and information about them.  Among this set of lithographs was his well-known “Stars and Bars.”

In the note Prof. Jackson wrote, “ …they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.” Micah 11.2

“Stars and Bars”: “A startling irony: the cause, the effect, the solution. A man looks like he is struggling to escape but being oppressed behind the stars and bars as a result of racism that goes on even to this day.”

Also as the UI Distributed Museum official website describes: “Jackson found great success in his art throughout his life with an endless amount of awards given for his artwork. Many of his pieces are still on display in museums. He did not stray away from sensitive issues or controversy; in fact, he often used his artistic fame to create and circulate famous posters that were loaded with political commentary. In one such political poster, entitled ‘Stars and Bars,’ Jackson uses both the title, which is the name for the original Confederate flag, and the imagery of the American flag to symbolize how African Americans are still oppressed and confined within America. He painted this piece during the Civil Rights Movement. He also had an unquestionable love of nature and humanity and a strong hatred of those who encouraged their destruction.”

According to the UI Distributed Museum official website, Jackson’s evolution as an artist was closely connected to his ability to take in the world around him and capture both the good and bad. We can see this in his early works, which hearken back to his days in Mexico, and through the end of his life in his commentary on the social environment of America. Jackson was a radical social thinker, never apologizing for stating his ideas through his work making him an inspiration to many.

Billy Morrow Jackson was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1926, and at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Marines, serving as a rifle man stationed in Okinawa during World War II. Once back from his service, his higher education began, and he received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Washington University in 1949 and his masters degree in fine arts from UIUC in 1954.

He was regarded an influential artist who impacted the lives of students as a professor of art at the University of Illinois from 1957-87. He had a wide variety of artistic talents ranging from watercolor paintings to woodblock paintings and mural creation. He is most known for his unique style of realism, when many of his contemporaries were moving towards abstract painting.

He is also known for his ability to capture the everyday activities, both indoors and outdoors, of people living in the Midwest. The “Billy Morrow Jackson” book author Howard E. Wooden regarded him as a contemporary American realist and one of the leading landscape artists of the Midwest.

Jackson’s art work is in national, regional and private collections, such as, the National Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Said Jackson: “The love of what the artist is doing, actually doing, is coming through to the person looking at it.” (Quoted from an interview of him by then-Krannert Art Museum Director Maarten van de Guchte in 1996.)

Jackson also said:  “Hopefully, I create unforgettable paintings — paintings that appeal disquietly — that give the viewer something more lasting than a momentary visual titillation, that arrest him and draw him into many levels of experience and appreciation.” (Billy Morrow Jackson Paintings and Drawings, 1968).

Though I appreciate a great artist like Jackson tried to make his artwork last forever and become immortal, I wished the fundamental reason for him to make this “Stars and Bars” political commentary had never existed or at least was certainly was not continuing today in America.   

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contacted by email at wangyu@illinois.edu