Woody Jackson is an immensely popular American painter, best known for his “cowmania” — paintings of cows in farm landscapes. You may be familiar with his cows from the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream carton and T-shirt images, which he designed for the then new ice cream company in the 1980s. It all started after he graduated from college in 1970, when he lived on a farm with some friends, surrounded by cows. His colorful canvases of cows — set in both rural and urban landscapes — are iconic throughout Vermont and many parts of the United States.
Jackson earned his BA from Middlebury College and his MFA from Yale University. He is the father of five boys and lives in Middlebury, Vermont with his wife Ingrid and their youngest sons, Eben and Silas.
At what point did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I didn’t know that I wanted to be an artist until I got to college. I think that the era encouraged people to not take the usual routes or go into general business. The time period encouraged the creative type. It was the ’60s, and people were experimenting with a lot of drugs and lifestyles, and everything was up for grabs. Everything was changing.
And printmaking was one of your earliest art forms, correct?
Yes, I did printmaking. I didn’t start until my junior year [in college]. I started making things on my own my freshman and sophomore year. My Junior Fellow had a big influence on me. He was an art major, and he ended up doing special effects art for movies in Hollywood. Because of him, I started playing with lights and designing rock posters. Then, my junior year, I took a design course, and senior year, I took all of the studio art courses available: printmaking, figure drawing, and painting. I didn’t start early on with studio art. I graduated as an Asian and African history major.
No, I never seriously considered other professions. I was lucky in that I had success, enough success, to lull me into thinking that this could work. I was lucky that I didn’t have any student loans to pay, and rent was so cheap it was ridiculous. So I could live for fifteen years on very little money. And I didn’t get married or have children young, which allowed me a lot of freedom.
At the beginning of college, I thought I would go into the Foreign Service or something. But after I graduated, I moved onto a communal farm with like-minded, back-to-the-land people. They were all interested in crafts. Quite a few of them became artists: painters, weavers, and pottery makers. Well, in the short term anyway.
The farm was in Vermont?
Yeah, eight miles from Middlebury College. So I would come back to the college and use the art studios, mostly in the summers, to use the printing press and other tools. A printmaking professor, David Bumbeck, let me use the studios for years. He was very generous with the college’s supplies. I was still coming back in the early 1980s, twelve years after I graduated from college.
It’s great that he let you do that! During that time, when you were living out on the farm, how did you support yourself?
We worked for local farmers. We were the hired men, haying, cleaning up after cows, and I also painted houses. I worked in the apple orchards, pruning apple trees in the winter, and hauling apples from the orchard to the storage place during the harvest.
We had plenty of food. It cost us about $20 per person per month, so we got lots of bags of wheat and rice and other whole foods. So food was never really a problem. We drove old beater cars around, and I didn’t have health insurance. Until I got married when I was thirty-five, I didn’t really worry about security or the future.
My parents didn’t push me to get serious about a job. And I didn’t have a real job where I sent in my resume and applied and got interviewed. Instead, a friend would get me a job by saying to a farmer, “Oh, you’re looking for someone to prune your apple trees in your orchard? Well I know this guy, he’ll help.” It was all basic labor. All you need are a couple of brushes and a ladder for house painting. It was very independent. So I could work for a month intensely, and then travel for the next two months, and then come back to work and play soccer.
It was really inexpensive for us to live, so I could work part-time and still work on my art. Although I didn’t work on my art that much during the first couple of years after college, I knew it was my vocation. I was traveling probably about a quarter of the time. It was rather an extended adolescence.
Sounds like the good life! Did your travels influence your art?
Maybe. I traveled so much and I really liked Persian miniatures and Japanese woodcuts. I also did a lot of Buddhist meditation stuff in Asia, and I think that had some influence on my artwork. But Vermont was the primary inspiration. And cows got in the way early.
Whose cows are they?
Well, I would be working on different farms, so they were Avery Carl’s cows or Leo Connor’s cows. Basically, they were Addison County’s dairy cows. They’re models that have agents [laughs].
Are there any contemporary artists that inspire you?
I don’t know if they inspire me, but I kind of go, “Wow,” you know? I saw the movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, about Banksy the graffiti artist, and I found it inspirational in terms of what Banksy has done. Elizabeth Murray and Judy Pfaff were both teachers I had at Yale, and I really like their work. I also like neo-expressionists David Salle and Julian Schnabel. I think David Hockney’s work was kind of funny in a commercial way, but it’s done really well. I like things with a lot of color. And it makes sense to me. People tend to respond to things that are similar to their work. You see them in you and you in them — it’s self-reflecting.
You work alone most of the time. Is that how you work best?
Yeah, I’m not a collaborator necessarily. I sort of learned that in art school. Art school is pretty cutthroat. People say things like, “That guy’s work sucks. My work is really good.” [Laughs]. There’s a whole lot of posturing in art school. You’ve got to smoke and drink coffee. You have to sit and look cool.
During graduate school I was doing my art, but then there were the faculty and staff, some of whom liked me and some of whom didn’t. And the ones who didn’t like me fought their battles with each other through me and vice versa. So I realized that even though these guys have succeeded, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can pronounce what I am doing as right or wrong. I find the art world to be so topsy-turvy anyway. It’s like anything. You have to stick to what you know, what you can do, and what you believe. You just have to find your own way.
When was the first time you were paid for your artwork?
Pretty early on. I sold some etchings at Frog Hollow, a small gallery in Middlebury, shortly after college. Three or four years after I graduated, I had an exhibit at Middlebury College called “Cows.” And I sold some work there. So I started from there on a small scale. What was really nice was that even though I wasn’t selling enough to support myself for at least three or four years, it was okay because I was working on the farm to support myself. So I just did what I wanted to do instead of thinking, “Oh, I will paint this so I can sell it.”
Would you say your were “discovered” in the beginning of your career as an artist?
No, I wouldn’t say that. The nice thing about art is that there are all kinds of commercial success. Art can be very local. So I’d say I was locally successful, within New England anyway. I exhibited in Philadelphia, Vermont, Boston and other parts of Massachusetts, and a little bit in New York. So I wouldn’t say I was discovered. I think getting your art out there takes active self-marketing. It requires taking stuff to galleries.
Yes, in a previous interview you mentioned your belief that artists also have to be businesspeople and market themselves. Can you tell me more about that?
Unless you are Rainer Maria Rilke, who had patrons, or someone who is taken in by the art promotional machine — and even then you have to promote yourself — you have to be strategic and connect with a critic, a style, and a school. Nobody is going to take care of you unless you find a patron or unless you’re married to a professional person who can support you. So you have to be the one.
There are a lot of ways you can market yourself these days. You can enter into competitions and shows. There are art festivals and art fairs, which provide a whole structure to help artists. At one point, before art school, I drove out to California and brought my prints around to galleries in San Francisco. Then I hitchhiked to Los Angeles and went to galleries there. I sold a few prints on those kinds of trips. It was a lot of door-to-door business. I was never picked up by a gallery that said, “Okay, I’m your representative now, and I will pay you a yearly fee, but everything you do I will market.”
Is that mostly how you have promoted yourself — through galleries and art fairs?
Yeah, mostly. I started with little galleries. But gallery owners don’t really make any money — especially in Vermont. So you have to have lots of different irons in the fire, unless you’re really exceptional and get taken on by a big gallery. And even if you’re taken up by a larger gallery in a resort place, like Jackson Hole or Aspen or Santa Fe, you still have to sell a few books and sell some prints to make money. Right now, because of the economic woes, it’s a lot harder to sell original artwork. I sell some of my artwork on cards and prints, and I sell T-shirts wholesale. I also sell artwork through my website.
When were you able to start selling original artwork on a larger scale?
A couple of years before I went to graduate school in 1978, I traveled to India and all through Asia for a year. While I was gone, I left all of my prints with my brother and at a couple of galleries. And during that year, I did really well — I had made about 3,000 dollars, which was more money than I had actually spent. So from that point on, about six years out of college, I started making money from my art, but I still painted houses and worked on farms to make more money.
How long did you wait after college to go to art school at Yale for your masters?
I had been out of college for eight years when I went to art school for my masters in 1978, which was a two-year program. I had been somewhat self-taught and on my own for a long time. I had spent two years traveling around the world and I was getting older. I was almost thirty at that point. And I lived a fairly carefree existence. I thought it was time to get a little serious, learn some things, and maybe be able to teach if I could.
Have you taught?
No. I taught at Yale as a teaching assistant. I went through the process though — I went to the College Art Association meetings where I was interviewed, but I didn’t get too far in the interview process. I didn’t get called anywhere. There were not that many teacher openings back then in the 1980s. I also don’t know if I would be that good of a teacher — I don’t think it’s really my nature.
After your masters, you moved to New York City?
Yup, I lived in Brooklyn for three years.
And how did you support yourself then?
I was supporting myself through print sales and still with some house painting and things like that. My parents lived in New Jersey and I would go out there and do some jobs. But it was mostly print sales.
What was your daily life like? What did you eat?
A lot of peanut butter and jelly on crackers. No, I ate well. I wasn’t missing much. I wasn’t starving at that point— never starved, actually.
Well that’s good. How about the rest of the living in New York?
Well I had lived in New York City before, in SoHo, back in 1973. And I went to the New York Studio School. SoHo was not a shopping Mecca at the time. It was just full of empty warehouses and a couple of restaurants and some galleries. And I think it was not a high point of my life there at that time.
But then Brooklyn in the 1980s was a really great place to live. I had a loft, which was also my studio, and it was in Dumbo right on the waterfront of the East River beneath the Manhattan Bridge. I didn’t have a job that I had to commute to regularly. My girlfriend was an artist, but she was a waitress too, so she had to commute. I was making money from print sales and a little house painting, so I just had my studio and my dogs to myself all day. My dogs would go swimming in the East River. It was a fun community. It was kind of a funky mix of people all trying to be artists. There would be open studio art shows and people would come through to see them, basically just to see lofts. It was amazing how bad most of the artwork was, and I didn’t really enjoy the whole party scene. But it was fun going to openings and seeing the larger lights of the art world.
Was it important to you to be part of an artistic community?
No. There were some artists who were much more in that track. My girlfriend got accepted by an art gallery, but still never really succeeded. My work wasn’t fitting in with what was going on there in the 1980s. I did a lot of New York Cityscapes at the time. I had some paintings of cows in the city, but most of my paintings were of the East River at that point.
At what point did you tell your parents that you wanted to be an artist?
I don’t know if that ever happened. There was no equivalent of, “Mom, Dad, I’m gay.” My career as an artist was an evolution. But my parents were probably telling their friends, “My son graduated from Middlebury, and now he’s living on a commune with all these hippies, and working for farmers and hitchhiking across the country.” Right after college graduation, I was trying to borrow money from my Dad for a farm that we wanted to buy, and he said, “Well I don’t have any money for that, but I have some money for graduate school.” But then a year later he bought me a chain saw, which we ended up needing on the farm.
So your parents were eventually supportive of you being an artist?
Yeah, they were. My Dad helped me sell some of my work at a festival in my hometown, and eventually he became known as the father of artist Woody Jackson, which I think he kind of liked.
What were some of the earliest hurdles you experienced as an artist?
It’s like being an actor or actress. You’re continually told, “Oh, no, we don’t want you for this.” It’s the same with art. You bring your work around to galleries and there is a lot of rejection. I was lucky though in that I had success fairly early on. I got accepted to the Boston printmakers’ show for one of my earliest cow prints in 1974 or so. And it won a prize, which gave me encouragement. Later, I had a big exhibit in Boston that another artist friend set up. It was a five-person show in a huge space that we completely self-promoted. We got reviewed in the Boston Globe, and we all sold quite a bit of artwork out of that show.
Why did you move back to Vermont after New York City?
I left New York City in 1983 after I broke up with my girlfriend. I had always returned to Vermont for the summer, and I owned a cabin in the woods. I wasn’t sure that I was going to stay, but it ended up that I did go for good.
Is there an artistic community in Vermont?
Yeah, there is. The artists in Vermont were much fewer and farther between throughout the 1970s as compared to now. There were a lot of craftspeople. It used to seem like there were ten artists in Vermont, and now there must be thousands. By the 1980s and 1990s, there was already a huge artists’ community.
Was it really after moving away from New York City that you were able to quit your other jobs and support yourself entirely on your artwork?
Yeah, pretty much. That was in 1983 when I was thirty-four years old. I also started my commercial business around then, selling T-shirts and gifts with my artwork printed on them.
And do you make any artwork that you don’t sell as often?
Yes, I’ve done a lot of other things that people don’t really see. When people want to buy one of my pieces, they say, “Well, we’ve got to get a real Woody Jackson that has a cow in it.” I use a lot of watercolors, but I also use oils, gouache, acrylic, and other materials. I haven’t done any prints in a long time. I’m just starting to explore multi-shaped abstract things right now, such as sketches with watercolors.
In a way, if you have success, then you’re kind of restricted. For example, Frank Stella had lots of success early on with his geometric art, so he had to work within that framework and make little evolutionary changes so that people didn’t get lost when they saw his work. Picasso is one of the few artists who did major radical jumps from one thing to another. Most artists, like Ned Smyth, did these very evolutionary things, even if they change a lot over time. They have to take steps. I have iconography in my work and people know me for that.
Do you ever feel limited by that?
Not especially. I’ve really enjoyed what it’s allowed me to do. Even if I have a cow in my painting, I can keep learning how to paint at the same time.
Does the whole hype over the Ben & Jerry’s fame help you get your other art out there?
I don’t think it has at all. There was a whole conflict around it for a while because people would say, “Oh, those are Ben & Jerry’s cows!” about my paintings. And I would have to say, “No, those are actually my cows, and I let Ben & Jerry’s use them.” But it has been helpful at times. The thing is that my business exposure and career grew at the same time as Ben & Jerry’s got famous, although they became much bigger. When I first designed the T-shirts, they didn’t really promote that I was the artist, because Ben was a little upset that I was getting royalties on the Ben & Jerry’s T-shirts forever.
He didn’t like paying the money. It turned out to be a lot of money over the years because their ice cream business grew huge over time. I could have been bought out for very little at the beginning, because I didn’t have any money. But they didn’t have any money either when they started out. So I’ve been receiving royalties. It’s turned out to be quite a nice thing because it has given me quite a bit of financial stability. That’s why I can do abstract paintings now if I want.
So that’s actually a major source of income?
Yeah, it has grown into that.
That’s so great. Who would have known back then?
Yeah. It just came from a phone call early in the spring of 1983, when I was breaking up with my girlfriend and leaving my loft in Brooklyn. They left a message on my machine while I was doing an exhibit in Winooski. And they said, “We really like your cows. We’d like you to do a billboard for us.”
Nice. And how did you get into the children’s books later on in your career?
They were just fun things to do. I got asked to make the Counting Cows book by Ellen Johnston, a Middlebury College graduate who ran a publishing company called Harcourt Brace and Company. And then the other book, A Cow’s Alfalfa-bet, was also published through a Middlebury graduate. So the Middlebury connection was pretty good.
Have the children’s books been successful?
Well, I think I’m the biggest seller of them. You don’t make much money unless you really hit it big, such as with Where the Wild Things Are or something. And you have to do a lot of them. It takes a lot of work. In the process, the publisher will say, “Can you change this picture?” And then you have to redo the whole thing. I’m sure people can make a living out of it, but I haven’t.
Since you have five sons, who all probably have different personalities, do they ever inspire you in your work?
They inspired me, especially when I had my first kids. I did a lot of paintings of them. I had cow sculptures and cutouts in the house, so I started doing paintings of the cows in the house with the kids. My oldest son is a filmmaker and he’s got a really great eye — he’s very visual. But they are all really different. And they’ve all worked for me, selling things at craft fairs. All of them painted in my studio when they were young. But I wasn’t training them to be artists.
Did you have older relatives who were artists who served as role models to you?
My Mom had a little studio in Philadelphia. She went to Middlebury College too. She and her sister and sister-in-law had a Pennsylvania Dutch art trays and tins art gallery and studio. And my grandmother was a good amateur artist. But nobody had it as a career.
Did it ever feel scary to be an artist?
I think it was scarier to go into a traditional career path. Unfortunately, none of the people who I hung out with was trying to get a real a job. That would have been considered selling out and working for the man or joining the war effort or something. Although I think about four fifths of my fellow graduates from Middlebury College went to some kind of graduate school. And a lot of friends went back into regular jobs ten or twelve years later when they realized they weren’t going to make it in a creative way. But quite a few stuck with it and succeeded too. I think I was too naïve to realize the dangers of the unconventional path. The crunch comes when you start your own family, but I was fortunate enough to be okay at that point.
What’s your advice for aspiring artists?
Unless you’re extremely lucky, you have to be aware that you’re not going to belong to the country club. You have to make a conscious decision that you’re willing to deal with this lifestyle for what you believe in. You’ll have to work other jobs. I was just talking to a friend who is a photographer, and his son is a drummer who lives in Brooklyn. He also has to work as a waiter. So I think you have to give it a solid try for a number of years. I have a former sister-in-law who was a really talented writer when she was at Middlebury College, and she went to the Bread Loaf School of English. But when it came down to it, she was not willing to have that financial uncertainty. So she got a job with a major corporation in the public relations department and ended up being hugely successful in the magazine business. She’s really smart and she made a ton of money, but she gave up that freedom and the dream. You need a lot of self-discipline. If it’s something you love to do, it gives back and allows you to play, even when you’re working. You have to have some chutzpa to get there.
Interview by Cloe Shasha
Images courtesy of the Artist:
Redhill; Dancing Clouds; Marching Cow Parade; Cow Prom New York City; Painted Barn
Link to Woody Jackson’s homepage