Ulysses Jackson: Certainly the arts were a big part of my family growing up. I don’t think that I ever wanted to be a visual artist initially. I thought I was going to be a musician and then it happened that at a certain point, even though I tried to be a musician, art had a way of showing up and it slowly became the dominant force in my life.
Mark: Was that in high school or in college?
Ulysses: There are certainly glimmers in high school but it was definitely the college environment where you have solitary time to focus on your craft. That was when I really got “the bug” as I call it.
Mark: Where did you go to school?
Ulysses: I went to University of South Florida in Tampa.
Mark: And originally you were there to study music?
Ulysses: Yes. I was recruited to study experimental music composition and sound production. I worked in that industry during college and in the summers doing sound production for movies and various musicians. I did a lot of sound on Martha.s Vineyard and worked for an acoustician firm as well.
Mark: Were you painting during this time?
Ulysses: By that point, I was painting pretty heavily, pretty much every day.
Mark: So you were working during the day on the sound stage and then painting at night?
Ulysses: Exactly. And in some ways, having to listen to other peoples’ music all the time pushes you to want to paint more; rather than to start listening to music of your own at night. And so while I still love music and still have my very loud and obnoxious band, I definitely am better at painting.
Mark: So, after you graduated, I know you decided to take a trip and travel the country.
Ulysses: Right. The road trip spawned out of having absolutely no clue what I wanted to do, as many college students realize when they graduate. They really don.t know everything, like they thought they did going in.
Mark: Where were you living then?
Ulysses: I was in Tampa and when I graduated, I went back to North Carolina for just a bit to get my bearings. I sent out some emails to everyone I knew, as well as some letters to see if people would be interested in being “ports in the storm”.
And then I went off for a year to learn about myself, which was very exciting and formative. It’s where I really feel that I learned to paint because I was painting any chance I got, and seeing all sorts of new stimuluses and people along the way.
Mark: We were so delighted to be one of those ports and host you for even just a short time on that trip.
Ulysses: That port was a real joy! And it’s your fault that I’m here. Barb gave me a fantastic tour of the factory and I thought, “Oh, this seems like a pretty neat place to work. Maybe someday I’ll try to get a gig there”. I didn’t know that I was going to try to get a job here then, that happened later.
Mark: So you continued your travels all the way across country.
Ulysses: I took a whole year and saw 35 out of 50 states. I finally got road fatigue and just wanted a studio, which is what terminated my travels. At that point I started thinking of where I wanted to permanently settle and sent my resume to the company. There was an opening in the Lab and I was given a trial run of sorts.
Mark: It has been great having you working in the Lab but that you had more to offer to the product development team. The level of creativity that you bring the entire group is really enormous. I also know that the artists that call up and get to speak to you enjoy it as well. How has that been, answering phones and emails? What is that daily interaction like?
Ulysses: Well, it’s a real blast! Certainly artists love to talk about making art and since we’re all really into materials here, not only does our personal practice allow us to have insight into what the particular artist needs, we also in turn, get direction and learn new things from the artist.
There are those few instances where someone’s asking a question we can’t answer on the fly. We like to think we know everything, but there are certainly times when we don’t. Those opportunities can send us off on a train of research that, while answering the particular customer’s question also sparks additional ideas and avenues.
Mark: Were you always involved or always interested in the technical aspects of materials? Was that always part of your work or was that new?
Ulysses: That was new. Quite honestly, I was a little embarrassed at how little I knew about color coming to work in the lab at GOLDEN. It.s through the exposure of looking at the scientific side of the paint, working with formulas, in which that interest was expanded.
Mark: I guess I’m surprised because your knowledge of materials is vast. You’re a source of information for folks and I’m surprised that this was newer to you. Obviously you.re an incredible student –
Ulysses: Certainly when it comes to application of materials, I’ve always had an interest, so I can bring information from my studio practice and grow that with the incredible resources available to me here on a daily basis.
Mark: Well, I think that’s part of what you’ve brought here is that sense of learning and wonder and it makes us all – no matter how long we’ve been here – invigorated as well. So we thank you.
Ulysses: Thank you for allowing it.
Mark: So, has being in the Lab, with a lot of different materials influenced any of your art making or the way you make art; the way you think about it?
Ulysses: When I came to work for GOLDEN, I was making these very soft, quiet landscape paintings. The focus was on a perfectly smooth surface. Then one of the first things I began doing in the lab was creating drawdowns with various colors.
Drawdowns, while they’re beautiful, it is in essence a calibrated squeegee that pulls a paint film. After you do a couple thousand of them, you don’t want to go home and make perfect films. So I started abrading into these films. Now my work is tied to the ability to manipulate dry product as well as the wet product. Learning all the nuances of how colors and pigments function, it allows me certain plays of light that perhaps other painters might find intriguing.
Mark: I think what’s been amazing is how quickly you’ve assimilated so many of the materials that we work with and we think are too many choices. You’ve made them all work in ways that are just magical.
Ulysses: Well, thank you.
Mark: How do you balance all the work required here with your own career, which has been really pretty successful?
Ulysses: As far as balancing the two, I’m fortunate to be obsessed with art and art materials. My wife is a painter as well, so she understands that dynamic. We can just meet in the hallway between our two studios for a tea break whenever one’s feeling the need to see the other. But really, I think it takes a unique individual to want to spend 16+ hours a day with art materials.
Mark: It certainly shows in the dedication here and in the work. So, has there been an unusual call or most unique kind of call that’s come in or request that.s come in that you’ve had to respond to as providing tech support?
Ulysses: Well there’s certainly been many. And the more outlandish in some ways, the more intriguing they can be. There’s always that joy when you can find a little detail that might have been unexpected in that glimmer of excitement, or the extreme excitement you get when you figure out what this person is asking for and can explain it in a way that can accomplish their goal.
This one comes to mind, just because it happened recently. I wouldn’t call it outlandish by any means. An artist called and said they work with a lot of found objects. They’d found an object in a forest and they wanted to use it in a sculpture, but it was falling apart. And how would we put it back together?
We went through various options about how to make it more stable. As the person was describing this object, it started to spark memories from my walks through the forest and got me thinking, “What tree could this be?” So I started in parallel, while talking about solvent born concealing agents, looking at different seed shapes. I thought that this was most likely a sycamore seed pod.
I told the artist after we discussed how to stabilize this object, that if you’ve happened to by accident mess it up, you might look for other sycamore seed pods. They basically calmly thanked me and we hung up. And about two seconds later, someone from Customer Service called, looking for which person in Tech Support was speaking about the seed pod project. And this woman was very enthusiastic that we truly were amazing and that it was indeed a sycamore seed pod. That was very fun!
Mark: It is fun. So often questions that come to us that make you tilt your head wondering – really make it so much fun to be able to then think about the issues the artist is facing in a way that you know that it’s going to take some real thought and you’re going to have to say, “Let me get back to you” or “Let me have a conversation with my other colleagues to be able to see if there’s something else that we can provide as an answer.”
Ulysses: Oh sure. We try to figure them all out, don’t we?
Mark: You go back and forth between all sorts of applications. Your role here is unique in that you both supply services for artists as well as part of the real innovation team in the company. Want to talk a little bit about the role in innovating new products?
Ulysses: A lot of the new products here come from the New Product Development group. We’ll be in our studios in the night, and then be kept up late at night thinking about a paint product we needed. Then we will come into work and there’s a spreadsheet everyone has access to where we put in new ideas. Those ideas can come from us or from outside artists. After sorting through them and filtering them down to the best and most interesting opportunities, we will then begin the process to start to make prototypes. Some custom products are developed within days and for others, we spend the next few years in the process.
Mark: Ulysses, it has been just that level of curiosity, creativity and excitement that you bring to us that keeps us all moving forward. As you gain more information and bring us more ideas, I think we all get more excited.
Ulysses: It works both ways. The more excited everyone is, the more revved we get!