Wednesday, July 24, 2024

This project started as a revitalization effort, but the artist took it a step further

NEWPORT NEWS — When Asa Jackson was contracted to do three works of art for Newport News, the project was part of an attempt to revive areas of the city. But Jackson, who grew up in the shadows of where those works now hang, hopes he has taken it a step further.

“This is just trying to communicate something different,” he said from Southern California,
where he’s working on his next project. “This is a direct approach with these murals because it’s a historic project where I think the point of it is to have artwork that is a teaching tool.”

Jackson’s most recent work, which was of Pearl Bailey, was unveiled March 29 at the Pearl
Bailey Library, 2510 Wickham Ave. The W. Hale Thompson piece was unveiled Feb. 10 at Jefferson Avenue and 25th Street, and the Ella Fitzgerald artwork was revealed last year on April 25, which would have been her 100th birthday. It’s at Jefferson and 26th .

While Jackson knew Fitzgerald was from Newport News, and knew of her success, he didn’t
realize the extent of it until he was doing research for the project. He hopes others take the same approach he did.

“When people walk past those murals and they see Ella Fitzgerald or Pearl Bailey, people may never know they were from Newport News, and then once they see that they were from Newport News, then they might be inclined to look them up to see their attributes,” he said.

He is especially proud of the two-prong approach of his recent work.

“I feel like with the project it’s a really specific end goal: To beautify the neighborhood, but also a teaching tool to teach the people and give them some inspiration to dream big.”

All three pieces are not your traditional murals, which by strict definition are painted directly on a wall. The works of Bailey, Fitzgerald and Thompson are drawings that are attached to buildings with a brace system Jackson has used on indoor murals. These three are the first time he has used them outdoors. One of the reasons was practical.

“Initially it was supposed to be a mural directly on a building,” he said of the Fitzgerald
artwork. “I think there were some issues trying to find the right building for the project as far as permanency for the mural, so I came up with the idea to do the mural on panels.

City of Newport News
The Ella Fitzgerald mural was the first of three commissioned by the City of Newport News to help revive downtown neighborhoods.

That way, if there was ever an issue about taking it down, they could take it down and still save the piece.”

He said officials from Newport News were thrilled when the Fitzgerald work was revealed.
“They said, ‘We like this. This is something we can replicate,’” he said.

Being commissioned to do the works was extra special for Jackson since he grew up in that
area. He remembers going to the Pearl Bailey Library as a child, and “walking down 25th Street all the time.” He has a grandmother who lives two blocks from the Bailey mural.

“It’s very special for me,” he said. “Actually, the mural location where the W. Hale Thompson mural is is a location that I’ve wanted to paint for a long time. Since late high school, I’ve wanted to put up a mural there. It’s very, very cool to see it happen with this project.”

It’s also fitting since his interest in art began when he was in Newport News.

“My earliest exposure to art came from directly in my house and extended family members,” he said. “We had a lot of art in the house.”

He said his mother made a lot of art when he was young. His paternal grandfather, who was an artist and architect, and his paternal grandmother would take him to museums. And his older brother was an avid draftsman when he was younger.

“It was just all around me,” he said. “It was a natural thing. … It was always around me from day-1 and I was always drawing as a kid.”

He admits the pieces are unlike his other work, and he’s proud of that.

“People have been calling me, saying, ‘I didn’t even realize you were the artist doing those
because it doesn’t look like anything you’ve done before.’”

He’s not concerned about having a certain style or look, so it doesn’t bother him when someone doesn’t recognize his work.

“I’ve never really harped on that,” he said. “I let what I do come naturally.”

But he does hope his art touches those who view it.

“It would be nice for them to just have a positive reaction, whatever it is, or just a reaction. If it can stop and just make them think about anything for a moment, I’ve done my job,” Jackson said. “I think artwork is just that. It’s just an open door to somebody’s perspective. When you get it out there in the world, it gives people the chance to not only look at your perspective, but also to come up with a new perspective of their own.”

John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo ( is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.

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