Last year I met the artist Oliver Lee Jackson while I was in the cafeteria with one of my lunch buddies, Rod. He chatted with us for a few minutes, just sharing some of the same air for a while. He was at the Gallery because of an exhibition featuring some of his works from the past 15 years. Jackson has an artist’s presence; it’s like he is taking it all in and letting it all go at the same time. He’s inspirational and being inspired simultaneously. It was one of those moments that takes your breath away. When I met Oliver Lee Jackson in the Gallery’s cafeteria, he took my breath away.
That day at lunch Rod and I talked about meeting Jackson. Rod and I come from similar backgrounds. We’re both Black men over 40 who grew up with hip-hop as our soundtrack. Hip-hop gave us lessons in art, politics, and music—specifically jazz. Jazz introduced us to Jackson’s art. Like Jackson, we both went to college and joined the military. After all that we wound up in the National Gallery of Art eating lunch and talking to an amazing artist. What are the chances of that happening?!
One of my favorite things to do on my breaks is to walk through the galleries, listen to music, find inspiration, and catch my breath. Music and art take me to another place. But when I went to see the Oliver Lee Jackson exhibition, I forgot to take music with me, so I went through the show “naked.” Usually music helps me control the journey. The music hits my mind, releases endorphins, and I zone out or tune in. When I saw the Oliver Lee Jackson exhibition, I had the same experience, only without the actual music. During my viewing of his recent works, his art became the music; it was providing its own soundtrack. When I looked at his piece Triptych (3.20.15, 5.21.15, 6.8.15), the figures, which are colored felt cutouts against a white background, came to life and danced before my eyes. I saw myself, my family, my friends, and my coworkers. I saw us having fun, relaxing, releasing, relating; I saw us breathing. We are the living breathing embodiments of Jackson’s figures, and we exist in spite of . . . My inspirations existed in that moment in spite of . . . in spite of hatred, in spite of racism, in spite of white supremacy.
Rod and I have often reflected on how our ancestors could have been sold on the National Mall where we now work, just a short walk from the Capitol where the laws that enslaved and freed our ancestors were drafted, debated, and legislated. My affinity for the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness exists in spite of the nightmare my ancestors endured. I am aware that I am the hope they held onto for change that would one day come. Change has come, and yet the struggle continues, in spite of . . . Perhaps that struggle is why many of our elders refer to the fight for equality as simply “the Movement.” Because we have to constantly continue working toward a better day. The Movement is truly a marathon, and, as the hip-hop artist Nipsey Hussle said, “the marathon continues.”
Oliver Lee Jackson isn’t too keen on biography, because he wants the art to speak directly to the viewer. So I’ll write about the emotions that his images helped me tap into. When I saw his recent works I welled up with emotion; my cup overflowed when I saw the Black bodies as energy in motion. I witnessed that energy in motion and I caught my breath; but it was also breathtaking. So many people have had their breaths violently taken away: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jayne Thompson, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain, and so many more. We all breathed the same air that they did, and I pledge to do my part to make that same air better for the next generations who will need to catch their breath one day. I’m getting my second wind now.