Each year, the Gibbes Museum of Art and Society 1858, a young Gibbes patrons fundraising group, award the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art to an artist living and working south of the Mason-Dixon line. This year, seven artists made the short list: Jim Arendt, Sonya Clark, André Leon Gray, Jackson Martin, Jason Mitcham, Damian Stamer, and Stacy Lynn Waddell. We’ll be posting a short Q&A with each artists in the weeks leading up to the award announcement.

Sculptor and photographer Jackson Martin was born and raised on a “hippie commune” (his words, not ours) called The Farm in Tennessee, and as a young adult spent weeks and months criss-crossing the country On the Road-style — hopping trains, hitchhiking, and tramping. Now, the N.C.-based artist and professor at UNC-Asheville works with materials like wood, tarp, canvas, and living trees to create works that explore the confluence and opposition between nature and man. 

City Paper: How did your early life on The Farm and your later childhood in Nashville influence your art?

Jackson Martin: I view my childhood in two distinct parts … I was born in a bus that my parents were living in on The Farm and for the first eight years of my life I spent my time outdoors playing in the woods. We moved to Nashville when I was about eight and I’ve lived in an urban setting ever since.

When I started making art on a serious level, I realized that I had spent about half my life in the woods and half my life in the city. This environmental duality is the reason I’m interested in this juxtaposition of natural and industrial elements in my work. What I remember most about my early childhood on The Farm is discovering a particular phenomenon again and again during my walks in the woods: industrial objects being reclaimed by the earth. Old mattress springs, cinder blocks, even entire school buses with plants growing in and around them, to the point where the original objects were almost completely camouflaged by nature. For the most part, these discoveries had lay dormant in my mind until I took a trip to New York City for the first time in 2003. Walking down the streets of this massive concrete jungle, I remember seeing plants, trees and even entire gardens growing on the tops of buildings. I remember being struck by how odd it seemed that these living things could thrive so obviously separated from their source. When I returned home, I began making sculptures around these ideas and haven’t stopped since.

CP: When you took your cross-country trip (via trains, hitchhiking, etc.), were you still interested in becoming an artist? 

JM: I’ve actually taken several cross-country trips, each time walking, hitchhiking, train-hopping or some combination of all three. Those trips mark a particularly unstable period in my life, when I was questioning everything. One of the fundamental things I was questioning was whether art and life should be separate. Now with over a decade of perspective, I really think those trips were an attempts to collapse the two. 
CP: How do your photography and sculpture relate to each other?

JM: I’ve always considered myself an extremely observant and sensitive person. Rather than seeing the world in purely pragmatic terms, I view my surroundings in terms of color and the shapes of things and how everything fits together in a larger composition. When I discovered photography, it was like meeting up with an old friend or finding something important that I had lost.  

I also employ photography to document particular sculptures or sculptural events because I’m extremely interested in the combination of object and residue. After making my first burlap and tarp suits, they seemed so flat and boring. It made perfect sense to don the suits and compose a photo in which the two sides of my personality are marrying each other. The overall presentation of these suits next to the photograph is infinitely more interesting and engaging than the suits by themselves.

: What’s next for you?

JM: My current pallet work is relatively new territory for me and I still have quite a few ideas for new pieces. The next sculpture on the horizon will be another pallet, but instead of steam-bent wood, I’m going to construct it using 100 percent USA-made denim. I’m still trying to figure out the logistics of it being able to maintain its form, but I think I can make it work. In addition, I’m going to design it as a wearable pallet — it will have backpack straps.

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