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There’s a good chance you’ve seen Martha Jackson Jarvis’ work, though you may not have realized it. If you’ve ever been through the Anacostia Metro Station, you’ve walked beneath her mosaic “River Spirits of the Anacostia,” which depicts fish, aquatic birds, and Nacotchtank symbols, but draws on traditional Italian techniques. If you’ve walked past the Metro station at Van Ness, you’ve seen “Music of the Spheres,” her enormous, round sculptures made of concrete, glass, stone, and steel, that seem to float in the Fannie Mae plaza beside the station’s Western exit like a small solar system.
And there’s a chance you’ve seen her work outside D.C., too. Jackson Jarvis has had public art installed up and down the East Coast and beyond: at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore; on an apartment building in Silver Spring; on a fountain in downtown Arlington; in the Prince George’s County Courthouse; in the South Carolina Botanical Garden in Clemson; in the North Carolina Museum of Art; in the Bronx; on Long Island; in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania—and that doesn’t even touch on the numerous solo and group shows that have featured her sculptures and works on paper over the decades.
Earlier this year, Dumbarton Oaks launched a major exhibition of her work that integrates her recent studio work along with selections from past exhibitions. But more than that, it captures her love of public art along with her artistic interrogations of environment.
In some ways, Dumbarton Oaks gives Jackson Jarvis’ work the treatment for which it’s long overdue. While Dumbarton Oaks may not seem like an obvious choice, its renown Byzantine and pre-Columbian collections and its famed gardens are a more than fitting backdrop for Jackson Jarvis’ work.
“I’m very interested in the environments we create,” she says of her interest in public art. “Things that become the commons, these incredible resources, they are all finite. They have to be preserved and observed and appreciated and incorporated and protected.” With Jackson Jarvis’ work incorporated into the space and integrated with objects from the museum collections, Dumbarton Oaks’ resources become more engaging and approachable. And the many dimensions of her work and craftsmanship are more apparent in the shared space.
Jackson Jarvis’s interest in environments—and, by proxy, in art—date back to her childhood in Lynchburg, Virginia. She spent her childhood “playing outside, collecting natural materials, stone, rocks, sticks,” she says. She still does: Her studio space in Mt. Rainier contains countless jars of colored glass, stones, and rocks, along with twisting branches and a small custom-made crane.
When Jackson Jarvis was born in 1952, Lynchburg was, as she says, “very segregated.” It wasn’t until 1962 that two black students named Lynda Woodruff and Owen Cardwell made history when, armed with a court order, they desegregated an all-white school there. Although Jackson Jarvis credits much of her artistic sensibility to those early days in rural Virginia, a family move to Philadelphia when she was 13 was pivotal for her. “The urban environment had this treasure trove of things I never would have had access to … Philly was a really good place, there are good museums and art, lots of musicians, a very strong cultural arts scene,” she says.
Jackson Jarvis studied art at Howard University and at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, crossing paths with numerous other artists. She ultimately settled in D.C. in 1970 and has been based here ever since. Over the course of her career, one of the central questions she came to investigate was “how [to] introduce natural materials and natural forms into urban contemporary places.”
Curators quickly took note of Jackson Jarvis’ work, especially when famed Washington Color School painter Sam Gilliam began making introductions. Julie McGee, an art historian at the University of Delaware who specializes in African-American art, says she first became aware of Jackson Jarvis long before they worked together on an exhibit of Jackson Jarvis’ called Ancestors’ Bones at the University in 2012. “[She’s] among the best-known artists in the Washington, D.C area,” she says. “The work of Jackson Jarvis operates in two worlds—that of large-scale public commissions and the more intimate space of the gallery. Very few artists are able to finesse both, and certainly not with her acumen and sensitivity.”
Dumbarton Oaks’ Director of Garden and Landscape Studies, John Beardsley, has also known Jackson Jarvis for decades, and says he’s long wanted to feature her work at Dumbarton Oaks. He was first introduced to her by Gilliam, was aware of her work as an artist/designer to Julie Dash on Daughters of the Dust, and first worked with her in 1997, on a piece for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.
Along with Dumbarton Oaks’ Curator and Museum Director, Gudrun Bühl, Beardsley has organized a remarkably ambitious exhibition of her work called Outside/IN, which spans the museum and also the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. The indoor portion of the exhibition opened in February, but the garden installation officially opens April 12. It didn’t start out this way.
“The project originated as an outdoor project,” Beardsley says, but last spring he invited Bühl to come along to see Jackson Jarvis’ studio and her latest works. Bühl immediately connected the themes and the quality of craftsmanship in Jackson Jarvis’ work with the museum’s famous pre-Columbian and Byzantine collections, and the project quickly expanded from there, ultimately featuring some of the museum’s collection alongside Jackson Jarvis’ work, creating a dialogue that seems to transcend time, space, and culture.
The exhibit is not a retrospective, but it operates on a few levels and in some instances makes clear allusions to Jackson Jarvis’ own biography. Walk into the main exhibit space and her “Umbilicus I” sprawls in red and brown tones near a Byzantine mosaic in similar hues. The pairing is more than serendipitous: In 1992, Jackson Jarvis went to Ravenna, Italy, to study the traditional mosaic techniques passed down, usually in families, for centuries.
An older Jackson Jarvis piece included at Dumbarton Oaks, called “Green Snake and Collard Greens,” from 1998, is a nod to the time in her career when she first worked with Beardsley. Beardsley says that he included it as a transition piece because it bridges her sculpture and collage work. Jackson Jarvis calls it “pivotal” in her development as an artist.
Outdoor works populate the garden’s “Lovers Lane,” which stretches from a reflecting pool alongside a fence that separates the gardens from Rock Creek Park. For this part of the exhibit, Jackson Jarvis created bamboo structures made from the gardens’ own grove, and installed another set of “Umbilicus” mosaic sculptures. Jackson Jarvis’ youngest daughter, Njena Surae Jarvis, an acclaimed artist herself, helped install her mother’s outdoor works at Dumbarton Oaks. Meanwhile, another outdoor piece located alongside a large museum window called “Earplugs/Listening” uses mosaic, calling to mind the Byzantine collection, to emulate jade earplugs from the Pre-Columbian collection
The exhibit is distinct from anything Dumbarton Oaks has executed before, even if it builds on other multimedia exhibits they’ve hosted in recent years. “It fires on a lot of different cylinders,” says Beardsley. “The materials, the stone with some of the techniques, like the mosaic, some of the imagery, especially the botanic imagery and the way it gets incorporated in the indoor works.”
Bühl points out that it’s been good for Dumbarton Oaks, too. “We’ve played a little bit along the line of ‘What happens if we break the established boundaries, if we do things differently?’ How to activate, how to refresh, how to shake it up… One idea of course is with contemporary art.” Bühl says she hopes this exhibit, which goes further than they’ve ever gone before, will signify the start of a new era for Dumbarton Oaks: one in which cross-collection exhibits will be the norm, and the museum will be seen as a place of playful experimentation.
McGee says she had hoped to do something similar in the botanical garden at University of Delaware when Jackson Jarvis exhibited Ancestors’ Bones. There’s an ineffable, organic quality of Jackson Jarvis’ work, which adds another whimsical dimension. Her art almost looks like it could be part of a living, breathing biological organism. “It would be impossible to think about the art of Martha Jackson Jarvis without commenting on her reverence for the natural world,” McGee says.