Campus News

Program to honor Bruce Jackson

Bruce Jackson

A special tribute to faculty member Bruce Jackson will take place on Sept. 21. Photo: DOUGLAS LEVERE


Published September 13, 2012

The life’s work and accomplishments of UB scholar Bruce Jackson will be honored during a special tribute titled “A Celebration of the Arts to Honor Bruce Jackson: Working in Time,” to be held from 1-5 p.m. Sept. 21 in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall, North Campus.

A reception in the Center for the Arts atrium will follow from 5-6 p.m.

The event, hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, is free and open to faculty, students, staff and the community. To RSVP, visit the event’s website.

“This celebration is a new event for us, and one which we hope to do on a regular basis, perhaps annually,” says Alexander Cartwright, vice president for research and economic development. “Bruce was a natural first choice because of his excellence in the arts, which is widely recognized internationally.”

Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, College of Arts and Sciences, and James Agee Professor of American Culture, says he was both surprised and delighted when he received the news about the tribute a few months ago.

“Honors like this usually come from elsewhere, not home,” Jackson says. “At home, they usually only do things like this when you’re retiring or dead, neither of which I am.”

The program festivities will open with greetings from President Satish K. Tripathi.

“UB has a long history of leadership in scholarly and creative excellence at the vanguard of the arts,” Tripathi says, “and as we launch a new annual tradition that celebrates that tradition of cutting-edge work, Bruce really emerged as an ideal figure to spotlight in this inaugural event.

“Like much of the very best work in the arts and humanities, Bruce’s work defies easy definition. His films, photographs, social commentary and scholarship all cut across multiple fields and have tremendously broad relevance, from the academy to popular culture, to international social policy. The incredible scope and reach of those achievements embody the complex, interdisciplinary contributions of the arts—and of the research university itself.”

The tribute to Jackson will be moderated by Jackson’s wife and collaborator, Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English.

“This is an important event for the university—it honors a senior humanistic scholar and artist, and it focuses the celebration not just on lifetime accomplishments, but on the artistic element and voice,” says Christian.

Images from Jackson’s forthcoming book, “Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prisons,” will be accompanied by a soundtrack recorded in 1964 and 1966 for “Wake UP Dead Man,” Jackson’s Grammy-nominated CD.

The celebration also will feature the world premiere of “A Garland for Bruce” by David Felder, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Birge-Cary Chair in Composition, Department of Music, with a cello performance by Jonathan Golove, associate professor of music performance.

Jackson describes Felder as “one of the people who makes UB a viable intellectual and artistic community.”

Jackson’s long-time friend, renowned documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whom he has known since 1965, will deliver a brief introduction to the screening of his film “Crazy Horse” (2011).

This will be followed by an open discussion with Felder, Jackson and Wiseman.

Jackson is an acclaimed folklorist, ethnographer, documentary filmmaker and photographer. He has written or edited 32 books, one of which is “In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America,” in collaboration with Christian.

His 20 solo photograph exhibits include “Death Row,” on view this fall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In spring 2013, the Burchfield Penney Art Center will present an exhibition of more than 350 of his photographs.

Christian, who has been Jackson’s colleague for 42 years and spouse for 39, says their collaboration has been wonderful and fun. She notes that Jackson has been a word artist since he was a teenage radio book reviewer and musical artist who traded his guitar for his tape recorder when he heard black convict work songs.

Christian met Jackson in 1970 when she joined the UB English department. She describes Jackson at that time as a “young Turk” who worked in multiple media and was an outspoken anti-war activist and an advocate for the poor and imprisoned.

“I loved his energy and politics and brilliance, and his willingness to use his remarkable academic credentials for social issues. To me, he was the ideal intellectual. He’s also unapologetically vital and sexy, interesting,” she says.

It may be difficult to imagine a career of the depth and breadth of Jackson’s, let alone what he might choose as particularly significant accomplishments. But he is able to identify three things of which he is especially proud.

“I was able to document black convict work songs—a tradition derived from slavery and which began in Africa—just before they disappeared forever, and that the book is still in print, the film is available on the Web, most of the recordings are in print, and all the original materials are now in the Library of Congress, where they are being catalogued and digitized, so they won’t be lost.

“Second, that I’m still at it: I was photographing in the Chihuahuan desert last December, I’ve done 10,000 photographs of Buffalo’s grain elevators in the past three years, I’ve photographed every writer in Just Buffalo’s Babel series, and I’ve had four university press books published in the past five years (counting the one about to come out from University of Texas Press).

“And third, I still love teaching and get great students to hang out with.”

Jackson says that while “it’s all been a great deal of fun,” one of the most challenging moments in his career happened on death row.

“A guy on death row said he wanted to cut my throat and the guy in the cell next to him said he did, too. A few minutes later, I was in a locked room with them and maybe a dozen other guys, and we got it worked out.”

Winner of a Guggenheim fellowship, Jackson has been president of the American Folklore Society and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.

The French government has twice honored him, in 2002 as Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2012 as Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite.

With all of these accolades, Jackson could have gone almost anywhere to pursue his academic and artistic interests, but he stayed at UB.

“I’ve been very lucky here in that I’ve just about always been able to teach things I’m really interested in. That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed at Buffalo. I’m based in the English department, but over the years I’ve been adjunct and taught graduate classes in art (and now visual studies), sociology, law, architecture and even in library science.

“Few universities I know are flexible enough to let someone do that. I’ve been able to do all those things, in part, because UB provided an environment that nourished that kind of exploration and experimentation.”

When it comes to describing himself, Jackson says he’s someone who gets curious about things and that like most academics, he adores questions.