A Celebrated Artist, a Common Thread

Jan Wright Vergon

I have a sincere appreciation for music and the performing arts—but when it comes to genuine artistic talent, my genes come up a bit on the short side.

My piano playing is more painful to these ears than it is enjoyable, as I just cannot seem to hit the right keys consistently in rhythm. I love to sing, but here too, it is a struggle for me to hit the right notes. And my “illustrations” are as difficult to understand as my handwriting. I was always told to practice, and practice I did, but I’ve discovered that the performing arts are just not my forte.

As we began to develop ideas for this issue, a common thread soon made itself quite clear. Through no conscious effort on our part, the majority of our articles seemed to, in some way, involve local artist Preston Jackson.

First was the article on the Underground Railroad Sculpture—an installation to be located at the Civic Center that will celebrate the Pettengill family and Peoria’s critical role in the Underground Railroad movement (see page 8). With his great appreciation for Peoria’s history, Jackson was the obvious candidate to take on this commission, and our city will be extraordinarily proud when it is completed.

Then we set out to discover jazz in Peoria…both what’s going on today, as well as the rich history of this old stop on the vaudeville circuit. We found that, for a town of our size, the jazz scene is doing pretty well. In the thick of it all was Preston Jackson—a magnificent jazz guitarist who plays regularly in Peoria and frequently hosts shows and events, such as Mood Indigo (pages 20 and 41), at the Contemporary Art Center.

Next, we heard about the Peoria Ballet’s production of Wings, a unique, one-time collaboration among artists of various mediums set to hit the stage of the Civic Center Theater on March 1st (see page 34). Featuring a dynamic score by composer and Peoria native Greg Ward II, choreography by the Peoria Ballet’s artistic director, Erich Yetter, and set design by—you guessed it—Preston Jackson, Wings promises to be an event to remember!

Finally, have you heard of the Aesthetic Underground? The goal of this group is to discover “undercover artists” and provide an open forum in which they can express their creativity. They meet regularly in the Preston Jackson Gallery at the Contemporary Art Center. Read more about them on page 22.

Thus, in a variety of ways, the stories in this issue are connected by the many talents and gifts of Preston Jackson, who many of us, myself included, have referred to as a “Renaissance Man.” The label makes for a convenient shorthand reflecting Jackson’s diverse web of activities—music, sculpture, painting, martial arts and more—but he is far too modest to feel very comfortable with such accolades. “I just have a strong desire and passion for what I’m doing, and I’m consistent at it,” he said simply.

The 1996 unveiling of From Bronzeville to Harlem, Jackson’s sculptural interpretation of the Harlem Renaissance period, remains a warm memory for me. That evening—like last October’s Mood Indigo event—was a step back in time to an era quite different from today. The photograph of the two of us above was taken earlier this year in his studio at the CAC.

While reading this issue, you may be inspired to dust off your old instrument and strike up a few chords—or, if you’re artistically challenged like me, seek out a jazz show and soak up the area’s musical talent! Perhaps it’s time to pick up your brush and paints or read that novel you’ve never had time for. Whatever you do, take advantage of a snow day and let your imagination run free! a&s