His True Grit is a Stone Composite That Dries Into Fine Art

John Wayne Jackson holds a choice specimen.
Portrait by Colby Rabon

When John Wayne Jackson was born, his mother thought it would be a clever idea to ask his six siblings to name him. “They came back with a tie vote,” says Jackson. “So Mom broke the tie by siding with the youngest kids.” The older children, all boys, wanted to name him Elmer Fudd. “I’m happy Mom had my back.”

Never a committed artist, he was working as a corporate trainer for car-manufacturing firms in 1999 when Martha Stewart changed his life. A friend had him watch a segment of Stewart’s TV show that featured two men making mirrors framed with leaves cast in concrete. Jackson wasn’t just interested — he saw a challenge.

He describes his early attempts at leaf casting as “crude, monochromatic, and not at all salable.” But, he adds, “it was still fun.” He began experimenting, and never returned to his 9-5. His wife, Paige, “spotted something she was certain would sell,” says Jackson, and she continues to run the business side of the venture.

Balboa Gunnera

They were living in Phoenix at the time, and their business creating what he calls “Contemporary Fossils” was located in their three-car garage, plus a good portion of their home and three pop-up tents outside under the shade of a large mesquite tree. (They now have a 3,000-square-foot space in Black Mountain — a “dream made real.”)

As his technique improved, so did sales. Things were going great, but then the nation’s economy cratered. “In 2007, our business was about 70 percent wholesale to galleries. By 2009, those sales had slumped to about 20 percent.” They made up the difference by traveling the country doing juried fine-art festivals — and they still spend about 150+ nights a year on the road. 

Giant Sawtooth Philodendron

Jackson says his creative process is fairly simple. “We use the leaf as the mold, resulting in an organic piece with the actual veins of the leaf imprinted.” He fills the mold with a composite he’s created — OmegaStone — made of powdered stone, glass fiber, and binders. After it’s cured, the sculpture is painted with proprietary alcohol-based dyes.

The biggest evolution in his work is the size of leaves he is now able to make, obtaining specimens from botanical gardens across the U.S., although the largest, up to seven feet across, are from a private source: a woman near Portland who bought her house to get an incredible tropical plant growing there — Gunnera Manicata (aka “Brazilian giant rhubarb” or “dinosaur food”). “We’re going for a nine-footer, maybe next summer,”  says Jackson. 

The new Hotel Arras (the former BB&T building in downtown Asheville) will feature a major installation of Jackson’s work called “Graceful Giants,” eight leaf sculptures, three feet to five feet across, all suspended from the ceiling.

Giant Castor

And his dreams keep getting bigger. “I would really love to do a botanical-garden exhibit like Dale Chihuly does with his glass sculptures — only with leaves.”

He says it would require about a three- to five-year cycle to get it accomplished. “So they better call soon.”

Free Spirit Palm

John Wayne Jackson, Black Mountain. Jackson will be at the HotWorks Asheville Fine Art Show at Pack Square Park on Saturday, Oct. 26 and Sunday, Oct. 27, 10am-5pm. The artist’s Contemporary Fossils can be seen at Seven Sisters Gallery (117 Cherry St., Black Mountain, sevensistersgallery.com), New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Village (7 Boston Way, newmorninggallerync.com), and at the Biltmore House (biltmore.com). Jackson opens his studio, Imagine That! Creations, 104 Eastside Drive #501, Black Mountain, by appointment: 480-528-6775. See imaginethatcreations.com for more information.

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