Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

Couple chooses to follow artistic dreams

Anyway we looked at it, changing careers was a huge risk. We could have stayed in our traditional jobs and had quite comfortable lives. But, to make the most of our life together, we chose to follow our dreams."

Second careers are dreams that elude many people. But, Suzanne Spangler-Jackson, BE '86, AS '87, a mezzosoprano, and Robert Coleman Jackson, EG '86, a painter, speaking above, successfully made the transition from their original careers as businesswoman and engineer.

The two met in junior high school, so they've been best friends for decades. Both grew naturally into their art. Spangler-Jackson's love of music has been a lifelong, treasured companion, while Jackson's innate artistic abilities emerged serendipitously, with a little nudge from his wife.

As a child, Spangler-Jackson studied piano but singing came naturally, and in high school, she was selected as a soloist for Delaware's All-State Chorus.

At UD, she majored in marketing, and after auditioning for and winning a scholarship, she also minored in music. At the same time, she expanded her understanding of performance, singing in the University Chorale, the Choral Union and the Women's Concert Choir and as a soloist for the Delaware Symphony. She sang UD's Alma Mater to 15,000 people at her graduation in 1986. Then, she decided to stay an extra year and earn a second degree in music with a concentration in voice.

Spangler-Jackson especially remembers the encouragement of three role models then in the Department of Music-Glenda Maurice, Ruth Oatman and Ellen Lang. Also, she says, "Leon Bates [a renowned pianist then on the faculty] taught me what it was like to be an artist....He shared his total love of music with me."

Music Prof. Larry Peterson helped her launch a business career at the Development Office of the Washington Opera Company. "I wanted to do arts management, because I really did not know how to be a singer," she says. "It was a natural place for me, and I was thrilled to be able to watch the rehearsals and performances."

While working behind the scenes, she met seasoned professionals who told her about local auditions. Spangler-Jackson now performs with such prestigious organizations as the Choral Arts Society at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Washington Opera Chorus. As a mezzosoprano (a lower range than a soprano), she has performed in such classic operas as La Bohême, Otello and Così fan tutte.

Spangler-Jackson has managed to create a career with the perfect timing of a metronome. Even entering a master's program in operatic performance at the University of Maryland came at the right moment. "I learned what it is really like to be a well-known opera singer. It's life on the road, walking around singing for the current role and at the same time wearing a Walkman to learn the next part," she says. More importantly, she says, the program helped her realize that singing is "what I'm on Earth to do."

Her balancing act between motherhood, professional singer, supportive spouse and music teacher is rewarding but often trying. "During the day, I'm buttering the bread for my daughters' lunches and at night I'm at a party on the Opera House stage with Placido Domingo," Spangler-Jackson says. "This juggling is the hardest thing I've ever done. It's hard, but it's okay that I'm putting my aspirations on hold while my children (ages 2 and 5) grow. Eventually, I'll try chamber music and oratorio."

Jackson says with admiration, "Whatever she loves, she goes after with passion and determination."

Jackson's own creative drive emerged slowly, he says, but when it surfaced, his life forever changed.

During his senior year at the University, he recalls that "Suzanne bought me a set of paints because I always doodled in my notebooks. I didn't know what to do with them, so I took an art course with Bob Straight [professor of art] during my last semester. It was great because I could only fit a few electives in the engineering curriculum.

"My art is as about as different from Straight's as you can get. He taught me technical skills but did not push me in one direction or another. He actually encouraged students not to paint like him."

Jackson was asked to stay and work toward an M.F.A., but he declined after learning that most artists had to have a day job to survive. Although he loved painting-even the smell of it-he chose to pursue an engineering career.

After Spangler-Jackson graduated, the couple married and moved to the suburbs of Washington, D. C., where they continue to live. Jackson began work as a systems engineer for Motorola.

After five years on the fast track with Motorola (and painting in his spare time), Jackson contemplated the unthinkable-working part-time as an engineer and as an artist. "I discussed this idea with my pastor. He surprised me with an offer to work as his assistant, so I took the position-even though it was full time and my earnings dropped down to a third of what I had been making." Jackson says the human dimension of the job was inspiration for his art, but left him little time to actually paint.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Creativity was the catalyst that helped Jackson bridge the gap between hobbyist and artist. "The book helped me understand my innate abilities, so I broke the rules," he says. "Everyone thought we were crazy. Of course, I felt free."

Jackson's autobiographical work portrays common life issues with a precise and fetching trompe l'oeil (fooling the eye) style. His years as an engineer push him to contemplate volume and mass, yet, the addition of humor creates a memorable difference in his photo-realistic works.

Jackson's work is detailed, small in size and true to scale, mimicking what he sees. "Trompe l'oeil requires the artist to combine technical skills with a continued exploration and interplay of perspective, light and shadow," he says. "I find beauty in things as they are, with all their flaws and imperfections, and allow the viewer to encounter the same in my carefully constructed compositions."

Jackson says, "I feel confident in my art, but I'm slower than Suzanne. Even though I know when I'm ready for the next step, intuitively, she'll push me along."

How do they manage two escalating careers in the arts while raising young children? Neither is short on energy or enthusiasm. They work side by side, sharing responsibilities and frequently trading family duties. When she's teaching from 3-7 p.m., he'll cook dinner and play with the kids. During the day while he paints, she watches them. Together, they've found a way to nurture their family and their muses.

-Sally Donatello, AS '66, '92M

In November, Spangler-Jackson performed in the chorus of the Washington Opera Company's production of Romeo and Juliet. Jackson's artwork can be seen at Zenith Gallery in D.C., Cudahy's in Richmond, Va., and the SomervilleManning Gallery in Greenville, Del.