Features
Written by: T.J. Colangelo

The Search for an Arkansas Sunset

When thinking about the traditional student-teacher relationship, many people conjure up images of boring professors lecturing groups of disinterested students. Contrary to stereotypical images like this one, however, the relationship between student and professor can be very complex, one that is often mutually beneficial.

When Michael Beam, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Castellani Art Museum, was a graduate student more than 10 years ago, he met a man by the name of Jed Jackson. At the time, Jackson, who currently serves as chair of the art department at the University of Memphis, was an art professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He was also a mentor to Beam, sharing his extensive knowledge of gallery/museum/donor relationships and the link between the educational aspects and the real-life challenges of being a practicing artist. Beam calls the information Jackson imparted "priceless."

Coincidently, that same man who was teaching Beam art theory at SIUC in the late 1990s also taught members of one of today's most famous American bands nearly 20 years earlier. As an art professor at Medaille College in the early 1980s, Jackson had Robbie Takac and George Tutuska in his classes. Then members of a little-known South Buffalo band, Takac and Tutuska would eventually become part of one of the most popular American rock bands, the Goo Goo Dolls. Jackson, however, was more than just an art professor to Takac and Tutuska, as he developed a close, personal connection with the two men. The young musicians invited Jackson to their shows at local clubs, and Jackson recalls taking Tutuska on his first trip to New York City. In honor of their professor, the Goo Goo Dolls named their second album after Jackson, titling the album "Jed." The band also honored Jackson when it used one of his paintings, titled "Arkansas Sunset," as the cover for that album.

A native of Philadelphia, Michael Beam was unfamiliar with the Buffalo-Niagara area when he was offered a job by the Castellani Art Museum in 2003. Remembering that his old professor from SIUC, Jed Jackson, had once taught in Buffalo, Beam gave Jackson a phone call to get some information about the region. One of the things Beam recalls hearing Jackson mention frequently during their conversation was the Goo Goo Dolls.

Five years later, Jed Jackson and the Goo Goo Dolls would figure prominently in an intriguing project Beam undertook to find a missing painting.

A Musical Partnership
As a Vincentian institution, Niagara University is dedicated to serving the community in a number of ways, and frequently establishes partnerships with numerous local charities that serve a variety of constituencies. One such organization is Music is Art. Founded by Takac, MiA seeks to explore and reshape music's cultural, social and educational impact on Western New York. MiA accomplishes this through a number of programs, including the annual Music is Art Festival, held at Buffalo's Albright Knox Art Gallery, and Music in Action, a 15-week course that teaches music industry skills and attitudes to youths in primarily underserved districts.

 

Michael Beam and Robbie Takac discuss plans for a Jed Jackson exhibition.
Michael Beam and Robbie Takac discuss plans for a Jed Jackson exhibition.

"We're always thinking about ways we can work with educational institutions," said Tod Kniazuk, executive director of MiA. "We know that NU is an institution that's committed to impacting the community. When you look at the number of community service hours Niagara students put it, it's incredible."

 

Kniuzak noted that MiA's core audience of people between the ages of 16 and 34 coincides with the college market that can be reached at NU. While admitting the importance of sponsorship dollars, Kniuzak added that working with Niagara will allow MiA to bring some of its programming, which is based heavily in Erie County, to Niagara County.

When Niagara University became the featured educational sponsor of MiA for the 2008-2009 academic year, Fred Heuer, assistant vice president for marketing at NU, did not know the partnership would involve a search for a missing painting. It wasn't until Beam learned that Niagara was partnering with MiA that the search for the "Arkansas Sunset" began.

"When Fred Heuer told me he was working with one of the members of the Goo Goo Dolls, it just kind of clicked in the back of my head," Beam said. "I approached Fred and told him that I knew the guy who did their second album cover. I said ‘here's a project we can work on.' It all just clicked."

In Search of the Sunset
When Beam approached Jackson to see if he knew what happened to his original "Arkansas Sunset" painting, Jackson said he only knew that he sold it to a prominent rice farmer in Arkansas. He did not know the name of the person or where he lived, however, so if Beam wanted to find the painting, he was going to have to conduct a great search. "That's one of my favorite jobs as a curator: the detective work," Beam says.

"The first thing I did was search the Internet for different agricultural Web sites," Beam explains. "I actually ended up finding and contacting the Arkansas Rice Farmers Association, but they gave no response and showed no interest. Basically, they just kind of blew it off really fast."

Still determined to find the "lost painting," as he calls it, Beam continued on. Beam notes that he e-mailed every single newspaper and online paper in Arkansas, telling them what he was looking for and why he needed to find it. "It took me about two days to reach all of them," he adds. "I got a number of responses, and some stories were published in newspapers as well as online papers." One such publication was Arkansas Business, which did a story and printed a picture of the painting that Beam was in pursuit of. "We kind of played up the fact that we were looking for this missing painting, like an ‘Indiana Jones' kind of thing," Beam says. "But in order to get the publicity, we needed to give the media a reason to do the story. We did this by celebrating Jed's connection to Arkansas, because that's where he's from."

The search for the missing piece came to a successful end when the owners of the painting contacted Beam and agreed to allow the Castellani Art Museum to borrow the painting. According to Beam, the owners, who wished to remain anonymous, were happy to cooperate and were "very excited" to show the painting. Beam remarks that his ability to locate this rare painting that was halfway across the country is a testament to the power of the media.

"It's amazing how you can work with the media to find things," Beam says. "Luckily, we were able to find this painting by the simple act of someone reading a paper. In this case, the owner of the painting was a friend of a friend of a friend who read the article." (The successful hunt was included in Arkansas Business' "Best & Worst of 2008" list as Best Treasure Hunt.)

Honoring Jackson
The "Arkansas Sunset" painting will be the centerpiece of the Jed Jackson exhibit, which kicked off March 15 at the Castellani Art Museum. The exhibit, which will run until Sept. 20, 2009, includes new works by Jackson as well as a number of works from six private Western New York collections. All proceeds generated from the exhibit will benefit Music is Art.

The opportunity to work with his former professor has Beam very excited. "Jed's importance and attention are gaining very quickly," he says. "At the same time of our show, there will be two exhibitions of his work in New York City, and one in St. Louis."

The recognition he has received by Beam is not something that Jackson has taken lightly either. "It's wonderful when students recognize their professors," Jackson says. "When a student honors you by doing an exhibit of your work, it's one of the best feelings you can have."

According to Beam, one of the most interesting parts of this project is its integration of different forms of art. "Historically, a lot of arts organizations have worked independently," Beam notes. "In the case of Jed Jackson, you have a professor of visual art who influenced musicians. The whole concept of album cover design represents the integration between visual art and music." The combination of music and visual art also has Beam excited about the prospect of attracting more diverse audiences. "Hopefully we'll be able to pull in a new audience who might not normally come here, like young people who are into music but maybe not visual art," he says. "They'll be able to experience the cross-creative integration between the arts: visual and music."

The series of events that led to the creation of the Jed Jackson exhibit have many people scratching their heads, including Beam. "This kind of thing," he says, "where everything comes together like this, just doesn't happen very often."