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Alumni Feature: Levi Jackson

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Focused on the West, photographer Levi Jackson believes that myths convey more about the truth than the truth itself

The inherent ability of the camera to simultaneously reveal and hide its surroundings makes it an effective tool in the hands of artist Levi Jackson. As a truth-telling device, the camera demands trust while presenting a distorted—or at best, limited—reality. Embedded in the history and nature of the camera, this paradox contributes conceptually to Jackson’s work.

“If I take a picture and it includes something, you think that’s what’s there,” Jackson said. “But in reality, two feet to the right of that picture is something that completely debunks what you thought was true in the image, and just me pivoting creates this question of what really is true and what is fabrication.”

Jackson’s process of constructing installation sets and then photographing, dismantling, and revealing the final image serves as a metaphor for what he calls “mything the West.” He believes that the human tendency to fabricate realities people want to believe is compounded in the western United States. “Even in 2020, where we all know we should be distrustful of images, we’re still not,” Jackson said. “We still look at things and believe them and trust them, and I really like that because I feel like it’s pretty indicative of the West and also a western mentality, which is we believe what we want to believe and it’s gonna be how we want to believe it.”

A Sentimental Practice

In the past, Jackson felt that his role as an artist was to expose truth. In the last nine years since graduating from BYU, Jackson said he has merged his research-based practice with a sentimental focus. His recent work is much more personal and reflects his experience as a Utah native.“

A big part of the concept of my work is that I think the lie tells me more about the truth than the truth does,” Jackson said. “So the fact that there is this folktale or myth, I’m less interested in saying that’s not true, and I’m much more interested in what this tells us about ourselves that this even exists in the first place.” When approaching a new project, Jackson considers places or concepts where “an absurdity has been normalized.” He chooses a location—usually a remote desert site in the West—based on its history or usage, and then either creates objects to photograph, or re-photographs existing images.

One recent piece, “Fishy,” is based on a Utah folktale in which a British scientist supervised the transportation of two whales from Australia to the Great Salt Lake. According to an 1890 article printed in a now-defunct Provo-based newspaper, an agent of Wickham claimed to have sighted the whales months after their release, trailing several hundred offspring. In addition to basic misinformation about whales included in the article (e.g. they do not live to be 400 years old or lay eggs), the high salinity of the lake does not support large animals.

Connected to the legend of the whales, Jackson explained, is the biblical account of Jonah and the modern example of a “fish story,” where the teller exaggerates the truth.   “I really like this combining historical story with biblical story with a more contemporaneous example to say we still do this,” Jackson said. “We still fabricate these experiences or realities in order to better suit how we want to interpret the world around us.” 

A Teacher First

For several years after earning an MFA at Pratt Institute, Jackson taught art courses at both BYU and Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. He now teaches full-time at Weber State and continues to make art, although he considers himself a teacher first.

“I would give up making art in a heartbeat if I had to choose,” Jackson said. “That being said, I think I would be a pretty bad teacher if I didn’t make art.”  A lot of his work misses the mark, Jackson said, but he doesn’t mind. More important than the artwork itself is the conversation it evokes. “The best part of making work is being outside, or stopping at a gas station in the middle of nowhere to get a Coke,” Jackson said. “That’s better than the work for me. It’s fun to make work, but it’s all just a placeholder for something hopefully much bigger than the work itself.”