The Eyes Have It

Exhibit promises wider exposure for legendary local painter and longtime SDSU art director

To behold the motionless figures and shadowy outlines of an Everett Gee Jackson painting is to feel as if you had skipped to the last page of a sweeping epic.

Though the shading belies intricate detail, and key elements appear with satisfying repetition, the subject treatment is provincial by design.

Believed to be San Diego’s first modernist, Jackson carved his niche as an artist by distilling the frenetic energy, vast scope and narrative quality of the great Mexican murals to easel size.

Flooded Piazza
Jackson was known as an artist for condensing
the Mexican mural style to easel size.
Photo courtesy of the San Diego Museum of Art.

Paintings like “Charcoal Burners” and “Serra Museum Tower” – a permanent Smithsonian holding – economize on volume, but they abound with the muted palette and southwestern motifs popularized by great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

While only a few of his works expressly depict San Diego, Jackson’s Mexican-inspired style resonated with the fledgling border town. Decades later, his paintings are a vital part of the city’s visual history. Anecdotes from his 30-year tenure as San Diego State University’s first art director are the stuff of local art legend.

Now, the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) is honoring the artist, who died in 1995, with an exhibit. With 50 paintings, prints, drawings and illustrations, “Everett Gee Jackson/San Diego Modern, 1920-1955” offers a glimpse into the most prolific period of Jackson’s career.

“As I heard more and more about Jackson, I came to understand that he was a very important local artist,” said D. Scott Atkinson, SDMA chief curator and curator of American Art, who moved to San Diego 10 years ago. “I was amazed he had no larger national reputation; so I set out to rectify that.”

Starting with three Jackson paintings he found in museum storage, Atkinson completed the exhibit with works on loan from museums around the country, individual collectors and members of Jackson’s family. The resulting “San Diego Modern” is the first major exhibition of Jackson’s work. When its SDMA run concludes Feb. 10, 2008, it will travel to the Georgia Museum of Art.

Portrait of the artist

Jackson was fresh out of the Chicago Institute of Art in 1923 when he set out for Mexico with friend Lowell Houser.

Moving from Guadalajara to Guanajuato to Oaxaca to Mexico City, Jackson and Houser witnessed the great Mexican muralists at work as they executed their masterpieces on public walls.

“He must have been one of the first outsiders to see this,” Atkinson said.

An impressionist by training, the murals forever transformed Jackson’s style.

When he returned to the United States, he quickly settled in San Diego and began working at the art department at San Diego State College.

Rory Levine
Everett Gee Jackson in a picture from the
SDSU yearbook.

By the time he was named director in 1930, he was well on his way to developing a unique style and grandfathering San Diego’s art scene as we know it today, not to mention earning friends and admirers.

“He was extremely witty and very kind to his students and to everybody. Just a very nice man, as nice as they come,” said John Dirks, SDSU professor emeritus of sculpture.

Dirks, along with Martha Longenecker, who founded the Mingei International Museum, are just two of the influential artists Jackson hired at SDSU.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t have gone on to do my work as I have and become the founder of the museum without spending those years with Jackson; I grew up with him,” said Longenecker, an emeritus professor of ceramics.

Jackson’s prolificacy wasn’t limited to painting and teaching: He wrote four books and illustrated several others; helped found the Contemporary Artists of San Diego, the region’s first professional artists’ organization; and created the SDMA Latin American Arts Committee.

Additionally, he helped found the San Diego Moderns, one of the only local art groups that counted female artists as members.

“He certainly didn’t draw any lines between any of us, man or woman; he was just concerned with human beings,” Longenecker said.

Jackson at SDSU

Today, an SDSU art gallery exhibiting the work of graduate students in the School of Art, Design and Art History bears Jackson’s name, a testament to the guidance he offered hundreds of students. Students like Genevieve Burgeson Bredo and George Sorenson.

NRA Packages by Genevieve Burgeson Bredo
“NRA Packages” by Genevieve Burgeson Bredo, will be
installed in the Love Library.
Photo courtesy of Seth Mallios.

Bredo and Sorenson painted two Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals Jackson commissioned for the campus as part of the New Deal Federal Art Program.

In the 1930s, five WPA murals commissioned by Jackson adorned the walls of the library in Hardy Memorial Tower. All were thought to have been destroyed during construction in the late 1950s, but two were exposed in 2004 during ceiling tile replacement.

Both existing murals exhibit common themes of the era. Burgeson Bredo’s 1936 mural, “NRA Packages,” depicts three men unloading boxes from a truck in Hillcrest while Sorenson’s 1936 mural, “San Diego Industry,” is the graphic story of San Diego’s fishing industry. They borrow heavily from Jackson’s style and are often mistaken for Jackson’s work.

“He was their mentor,” said SDSU Anthropology professor Seth Mallios. “He would often use his artwork as a guideline for them and encourage them to paint similar to those.”

Mallios is heading the restoration project for the two murals. “NRA Packages” could be finished by the end of the year, while the much larger “San Diego Industry” will be finished some time in 2008, marking the 75th anniversary of the New Deal.

Related information


  • Story by Lauren Coartney
  • Story edited by Coleen L. Geraghty
  • Graphics by John Signer
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