Leaving your comfort zone and immersing yourself in a completely different culture can be jarring, scary and yet ultimately illuminating. How a person reacts to and uses their culture-shock experience oftentimes leads to not only a better understanding of the world, but may also inform how you can make a positive impact and serve as one of life’s guideposts.
For Smithfield artist, educator and Norfolk State University graduate student Jessica Jackman, it was her move to Isle of Wight County from Miami that spurred her into becoming a beacon of acceptance for her LGBTQ students at Smithfield High School. It also helped inform Salvation, her first collection of art installation pieces as a first year graduate student working toward a Master of Fine Arts at Norfolk State University.
During her time as an art teacher at Smithfield High School, Jackman was taken aback by the use of the Bible and Christianity in the school.
“I learned a lot about how religion is still very much in our culture, especially in Virginia, especially in rural towns,” Jackman said.
It did not take long for her students at Smithfield High School to realize that Jackman was accepting of all students, especially those that identify as LGBTQ. After a classroom discussion about the LGBTQ community, she helped a small group of students establish Smithfield High School’s first gay-straight alliance (GSA).
Establishing the GSA in Smithfield High School was a bit of a challenge. The administration was not open to the idea at first. Despite numerous petitions to have her fired and continual vandalism of GSA signs at the school, they persevered. Ultimately, Jackman left the school, but the GSA is still active, and she stays in close contact with her kids.
“If you can’t be an advocate for a child, especially as an adult, then you are part of the problem,” she said.
Standing up for those without a voice or afraid to speak up is a priority for Jackman. She regularly attends public forums and speaks on behalf of students as she did this past February when she attended a Gloucester County School Board session when they were considering changing their transgender restroom policy.
It was at that meeting when the idea for Salvation crystallized as she aimed to make a visual statement about “how people can misinterpret and misapply the words of God,” according to her artistic statement.
Persons at the Gloucester School Board meeting that used the Bible as the basis for their comments and opposition to updating the transgender restroom policy inspired Jackman to work around the theme of salvation.
“The people that were coming up who spoke for the Lord that were pastors or had a Bible in their hand, said some of the nastiest things,” Jackman said. “The nastiest comment that really struck me was ‘I don’t think my children should have to look at them’,” Jackman related.
This comment and others like them propelled Jackman to express how those statements can be hurtful and ask people to confront hate words that resulted in the piece Gloucester School Board LGBTQ, seen below.
Jackman used the ubiquitous Times New Roman font, which is used in most print editions in the Bible and covered them in gold glitter to demonstrate that no matter how pretty you can make hateful words, the sentiment is still ugly.
“I feel like sometimes people think they have the ability to say anything they like as long as they tack on the word Bible and/or Jesus at the end.” Jackman went on to say that “words are powerful and can hurt people sometimes.”
Another piece in her Salvation series is titled The Dallas Cowboys. It was borne out of Jackman’s own propensity to prejudge people coming to speak in front of the Gloucester County School Board. During the meeting, she assumed people wearing cowboy hats, Confederate flag belt buckles/shirts would say hateful things.
She learned a lesson that evening as many spoke in favor of Gaving Grimm and updating the restroom policy. The Dallas Cowboys is of a quote from that evening applied translucently on a Confederate flag and explores the ideas around how dressing up words is a constant theme in religion.
The other two pieces that comprise the work explore other themes in Christianity. Cafeteria Christians is a tongue in cheek look at how people selectively cite parts of the Bible that purport to condemn homosexuality, while completely ignoring other teachings and scripture that may contradict their beliefs.
Salvation is a piece that explores the disconnect some feel while growing up in a strict religious household and feeling accepted by their religion or family.
“Children, especially, when growing up in an extremely strict religious household statistically are more likely to turn to drug use,” she said.
She also noted that some of her former students had turned to substance abuse when they knew they were different or were made to feel badly about themselves through the Church or family.
The final piece in Salvation is called Sin and Punishment. It explores the guilt that religion uses to control behavior, the connection between guilt and martyrdom, and sexual masochism.
Although this is her first year as a graduate student, Jackman is eager to return to the classroom as a high school art teacher, in perhaps a more progressive school district than Isle of Wight.
Two pieces of Salvation are currently on display at the Suffolk Art Gallery as part of their Spring exhibition Thoughtfully Awake, an exhibition of local artists examining social issues and awareness. The exhibit is on display until June 7. Click on image below for details.