Billy Morrow Jackson, 80, Was Prominent Muralist

Billy Morrow Jackson died Friday, June 16, at Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana, Ill. He was 80 years old.

Billy was and still is a renowned artist whose thought-provoking work is displayed in galleries around the world, including the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, NASA National Archives, Library of Congress and many more. After retiring from the University of Illinois as a professor of art after more than 40 years, he reached professor emeritus status. Recently, he co-authored the book, On This Island, An Artist's View of Martha's Vineyard.

In 1990, Howard E. Wooden completed a complex and beautiful text providing an overview of Billy's life work entitled Billy Morrow Jackson: Interpretations of Time and Light. This was the closest representation of his artistic genius. However, seeing his work in person is moving beyond words.

Billy Morrow Jackson was born Feb. 23, 1926, in Kansas City, Mo., a son of Alonzo David and Opal May Morrow Jackson. He was a veteran, having served as a Marine in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.

He was graduated from Washington University in Saint Louis, Mo., in 1949 with a degree in fine arts. He went on to earn his master's degree in fine arts from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Urbana, graduating in 1954. Also in 1949 he married Blanche Mary Trice and they moved to Mexico to live for two years. Upon their return, they lived in Los Angeles, Calif., until he settled in Champaign. There they raised four beautiful, interracial children amid the challenges of racism, which was prominent during that time. This commitment of love speaks volumes of Billy's character and individuality.

After Billy and Blanche went their separate ways, in 1988 he married the artist Mariah Jackson of Malaysia. Although they resided in Champaign, they traveled extensively and had dual art shows at several venues across the country. While together, they encouraged each other's craft. Mariah was with Billy on June 16.

Billy was frequently commissioned to create expansive, detailed murals for corporations, private organizations and government agencies including Busey Bank, NASA, Parkland College, the University of Illinois, the Illinois State Capitol, the Illinois Veterans Home and Hospital in Quincy, Ill., and the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville. He also founded the Afro-American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois.

Through his art, at times he was an activist, striving and succeeding at provoking thought by creating controversial, passionate commentary on society's ills. He fought oppression, racism and hatred without words or weapons, utilizing art as his means to advocate for education, peace and tolerance. His love for people of all creeds was proven by his deeds.

However, this is only one aspect of the diverse styles, mediums and ideals his genius portrayed.

He is known for depicting the not commonly realized pristine beauty of the prairie; landscape scenes on the East Coast, including those that captured the character and tranquility of Martha's Vineyard, which he dearly loved; in-depth murals so complex that the viewer may require textbooks on science, math, history or literature to begin to comprehend his vision; and portraits that captured illuminating personalities through a simple pose. His use of light in his still-life work was simply brilliant. His artwork improved the quality of people's lives through powerful images that changed the hearts and minds of many for the better.

Billy Morrow Jackson was also a loving, sensitive and courageous son, father, grandfather, brother and devoted husband. On the lighter side, his sharp, quick-witted and sometimes extremely corny humor was delightful. Anyone who knew him enjoyed his ability to make others laugh. He was understated and somewhat mysterious, perhaps due to his complex mind that many simply could not comprehend.

While he worked very hard to support his family during the academic year, every summer he would drive Blanche, Lon, Aron and Sylvia 1,000 miles from Illinois to the beautiful, peaceful town of Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard. That's when and where the children would have quality time with their parents. During the summer season, he would work in the house studio, in the garden and on the house itself. Each stone along the walkway at the family home was placed by his strong yet gentle hands. Billy spent much of his time teaching his children to swim and fish, and together they had frequent walks along the beaches of Aquinnah, collecting sea glass and shells and sharing splendid conversations.

Billy will be greatly missed, but he will never be forgotten.

He is survived by his wife of 19 years, Mariah Jackson; his ex-wife of 38 years, Blanche Mary Jackson, along with their children, Lon Allen Jackson of Champaign, Ill., Robin Todd Jackson of Champaign, Ill., Aron Drew Jackson of Aquinnah and Sylvia Marie Jackson of Boston; and grandchildren, Celeste Glende of Seattle, Wash., Adria Tarleton of Los Angeles, Calif., Maria Hodges of Tolono, Ill., and Matthew Jackson.

Interment was held June 19 at Mount Hope Cemetery in Champaign, Ill.