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Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 23 July 2006

Out, Damned Spot

Paul Jackson hasn't failed.  Not really.  At least, not yet.

Another famous Missouri artist, who himself was no stranger to controversy involving his large public works, said "The only way an artist can fail is to quit."  And Jackson shows no sign of that.  I'm not saying that Paul Jackson is another Thomas Hart Benton (the artist I referred to).  And his mosaic "Tiger Spot" in front of Ellis Library on the MU campus isn't the same sort of artistic achievement as Benton's large murals.  But still, there is a lot to be said for the perseverance that Paul Jackson has demonstrated time and again.

I never really cared for "Tiger Spot."  I found the image too commercial, suited more for the University logo than for a large mosaic.  But I respect the artistic vision behind it, and all the hard work that Jackson and his volunteers put into turning that vision, that dream, into reality.  Now the mosaic is to be removed.  But those who consider Jackson a failure for this one problematic effort should reconsider.

It is in the nature of the artist to confront failure at every turn.  Whenever you sit before an empty canvas, a blank screen, or a white sheet of paper, you are risking failure.  Some collapse in the face of this risk.  Some choose a safe passage.  Some risk much, and win - some risk much, and lose.  The larger the scale of the work, the bigger the dream, the more technically challenging or avant-garde it is, the more risks are involved.

Back in the fall of 2001, about the same time that Jackson was putting the final components of his mosaic together, I was involved in a large-scale artistic enterprise of my own.  It was a work of conceptual art that I called "Paint the Moon."  The idea was that at an appointed date and time people all over the hemisphere would take five minutes and point hand-held laser pointers at the first-quarter Moon in an ostensible effort to create a reddish glow on the dark portion.

Crazy?  Yeah, if you thought it might really work.  But my definition of success wasn't to actually create a red spot on the Moon.  It was to get people all over to join together in a lyric fantasy for one five-minute period, dreamers with a common dream, suspending our disbelief.  The simple audacity of the idea captured the imaginations of people around the globe, and for a while I was famous.  Even a number of noted astronomers came to support my project, not because it was scientifically plausible, but because through art I would help educate and inspire people to look at the Moon afresh.  In this sense, "Paint the Moon" was an overwhelming success.

But dreams are more resilient than tile & grout.  And people had less invested in my project - a simple matter of a few minutes time, perhaps a chuckle over the whole nutty idea with friends - than they did in Paul's.  All told, translating Jackson's dream into the actual "Tiger Spot" mosaic cost upwards of $300,000 for materials and care, money largely raised through donations.  And hundreds of volunteers spent countless man-hours assembling the some 400,000 tiles under Jackson's direction.  All that money, all that effort, means that people have a vested interest in considering the project a 'success,' and resenting a 'failure.'  Hence the controversy, even over the causes of the mosaic's deterioration.  Jackson and his supporters point to vandalism as the culprit.  The conservation assessment conducted by Stephen Miotto of Miotto Mosaics two years ago said the problems were due to inappropriate materials and unconventional construction techniques.  The University's own statement on the matter said the problems were due to weather.  Whatever the cause, as a public work of art in the location selected, "Tiger Spot" was, perhaps, over-ambitious.  Whether it will find a new home remains to be seen.  But it was not a failure.  And Paul Jackson will no doubt go on to confront the empty canvas again, to dream big.  In this, I wish him well.  These days, we need all the hopes and dreams we can get.

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