Jackson Lee Nesbitt, American (1913 - 2008)

Jackson Lee Nesbitt

The following biography has been provided by Karen Towers Klacsmann, Adjunct Assistant Curator for Research, Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia.

Jackson Lee Nesbitt, renowned for his realistic portrayal of a vanished era of American life, spent a significant portion of his own life in the Midwest, where he closely observed and absorbed the distinctive culture of the area. He was trained at one of the heartland’s art centers, the Kansas City Art Institute, under the tutelage of John deMartelly and Thomas Hart Benton, two of the leading figures in the regionalist movement. Although that style lost favor with the public in the post–World War II era, Nesbitt never wavered from his signature style, preferring to forego his artistic career for thirty years before his return to printmaking in the late 1980s, at a time when there was renewed appreciation for his work.

Born in McAlester, Oklahoma, on June 16, 1913, the only child of Howard and LuCena (Grant) Nesbitt, Jackson Nesbitt spent his formative years in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he helped out in his father’s printing business after school. Although the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression, Nesbitt was able to attend college, first at the University of Oklahoma (1932–1933) and later the Kansas City Art Institute, where he established his career primarily as a printmaker.

Nesbitt entered the Kansas City Art Institute in the fall of 1934 and adjusted quickly to his new environment. Within days of his arrival, he met a student in Costume Design, Elaine Thompson, who eventually became his wife. His first year of instruction was spent with John deMartelly for etching and Ross Braught for painting. DeMartelly, an important first influence, had studied in Europe and brought back etchings for the students to study and imitate. Jack’s earliest professional etching, a self-portrait in the guise of a medieval jester, illustrates his understanding of the techniques represented by those European etchings.

In Nesbitt’s second year of enrollment, a new teacher arrived who would play a pivotal role in the artist’s life and career—Thomas Hart Benton. Nesbitt was a student in Benton’s painting class, but they quickly became friends. Benton assumed the role of mentor to the younger artist. Nesbitt became his teaching assistant, and the two took sketching trips together, frequently ending up in rural Arkansas. Elaine Nesbitt often created hats for Rita Benton, and the couple’s youngest child, Thomas, was Benton’s godson.

In 1937, the Sheffield Steel Corporation contacted the school about a commission for a series of etchings illustrating aspects of their industry. John deMartelly suggested that Nesbitt was the right person for the job. Jack, sketchbook in hand, spent hours in the steel plant, which operated around the clock, diligently recording anonymous workers in this dramatic setting. In addition to producing twenty etchings, he created a painting of the subject that was chosen to represent Missouri in the American Art Today exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The financial security provided by this line of industrial art enabled Jack and Elaine to marry, and Jack made the pragmatic decision to concentrate on printmaking. Over the next twenty years Nesbitt’s etchings and lithographs of industrial scenes, along with his etchings of midwestern life, brought him significant attention. He did not abandon painting entirely but limited it to portraits of family and friends and the occasional painting for exhibition purposes.

The Nesbitt family, which included three children (Kathryn, Evelyn Elaine, and Thomas Howard), lived in Kansas City. Nesbitt taught etching at his alma mater from 1949 through 1951, and his commissions took him on location to steel plants, other manufacturing and military equipment facilities, and oil refineries. At each, he illustrated important aspects of the industry.

His work gained widespread distribution beginning in 1939 when five of his etchings were produced by the Associated American Artists. The editions of 250 prints were sold through subscription. Some were exhibited and two were purchased with the Pennell Fund, an endowment established in 1936 for obtaining high quality contemporary prints for the Library of Congress. The prints chosen for publication by the Associated American Artists were all landscapes of the rural South, and all depict people going about their daily routine. Other recognition followed, including the Eames Prize in 1946 from the Society of American Etchers for his work November Evening.

Nesbitt, deMartelly, and Benton shared a philosophy concerning the depiction of realistic scenes of American life, and they often produced work using the same models and similar subjects. In 1955, for example, Nesbitt produced an etching of a model at the Kansas City Art Institute playing a violin—the same model and subject that deMartelly had etched over a decade earlier.

By the midfifties, the public was not as receptive to his work as it once was. Interest in regionalism had waned, and Nesbitt was discouraged. He gave up printing, sold his etching press, and relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1957. He switched careers, working briefly as an illustrator for Lockheed Corporation and, later, in his own advertising specialties business. When he retired, thirty years later, his earlier work was being met with renewed interest and appreciation, and he began an association with Rolling Stone Press, an Atlanta lithography atelier. Nesbitt and Wayne Kline, the master printer and owner of the press, collaborated on six lithographs beginning in 1988.

Most of them are based on sketches, people, and memories of his life in the Midwest. Some are composites of images seamlessly placed together, and one, Calhoun Street, is a fleeting moment observed by the artist from the window of Rolling Stone Press.

Jackson Lee Nesbitt’s work is found in numerous museums and collections including those of the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C.; Boston Public Library, Boston, Mass.; Columbus Museum, Columbus, Ga.; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tenn.; Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Ga.; Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va.; and Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, Fla.

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