Skull is well
Halloween may have come and gone, but Richard Jackson is still sporting skulls—and plans to wear them, have them on his walls, and make them all year long. On a recent afternoon, there was a skull on his T-shirt, the kind you might wear while riding a Harley, one tattooed on his arm, the kind you might see in a Day of the Dead procession, and a black, ceramic one in his hands, the kind that’s quintessentially Jackson. It’s a matte-black human skull made of clay, with deliberately rough edges and a tall, pointed hat—read by some as befitting a pope, by others as befitting a dunce—that’s also an upside-down Nevada.
The skull, to Jackson, is like a canvas to a painter. He makes the same shape over and over, varying the glaze treatment, adding new drawings and perfecting his technique with each piece. And “perfecting each piece” in his case, means taking a hammer to a lot of them.
“If you get one out of four or five that is show-worthy, you’re doing well,” he said. Given the highly technical nature of ceramics and glazes—not to mention his obsessive commitment to craftsmanship—that’s his usual hit rate, even after decades of practice. “Don’t fall in love with it until the very last step,” he advises his students at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Jackson traced his interest in skulls back to his childhood, when, he said, his parents let him stay up late to watch his favorite sci-fi/horror show, Creature Features. “It would scare the heck out of me,” he said. “But it was exciting. … My first images were always skulls and demons.”
He kept drawing. In 1991, he earned a degree in drawing from UNR. Along the way, his perception of the skull as a symbol moved out of the realm of horror shows and into the realm of symbolizing eternity, mortality and, well, life itself.
“When I really started looking at other cultures, it’s not a bad thing,” Jackson said. “It’s our culture that views a skull, even in an art class, as this dark, evil thing. It was never that way with me. … When I first learned about Day of the Dead, I had to make a pilgrimage down to Oaxaca, down to Mexico. … I thought, ’Wow, the skull is a celebration of the life. It’s not death.’ And when I went down there, I was like, ’I wish everybody in the United States of America could come down here and see this and quit judging skull artwork the way they do.’ It’s all part of being born. You’re gonna die. That’s a certainty. Embrace it. It’s part of everything.”
Jackson translated the images on the skull piece he was holding into a list of biographical elements. “This is Richard when he was about 10, 12,” he said, pointing out a thin, white arrow drawn in glaze. It’s the ship from the arcade game Asteroids. “This is Richard his whole life, being a second-generation Nevadan.” It’s a river of bright red glaze that makes up a map of High Rock Canyon. “And this is the music influence.” It’s a silhouette of Hank Williams, one of his top three all-time favorite musicians.
Jackson’s skulls, which often include pieces of his own life story, hang in several places around town, including bars such as Craft and Chapel, and his current exhibit at Oats Park Art Center in Fallon is a rare opportunity to see enough of them at once at once to suggest a fuller biography.