Harry Jackson: Life (and death) on his own terms

I was saddened to hear that Cody artist Harry Jackson, 87, had died, but not at all surprised to learn that — after a long period of ups and downs followed by recent declining health — he simply refused to eat or drink. Harry lived life on his own terms, and met death the same way.

Many times, Harry and I talked about a long-form profile on him that we both wanted to see done. I was covering Cody and the Bighorn Basin for The Billings Gazette, and it bothered Harry that he had never gotten the star treatment in that paper — not even from legendary Gazette scribe and bon vivant, Addison Bragg, who was Harry’s old and dear friend. Like any reporter, I thought Harry was an irresistible subject.

But Harry was a stubborn and intractable old cuss who demanded that he “review” (meaning “edit”) anything written about him — something I wouldn’t allow for The Gazette (and won’t allow for WyoFile). So the grand profile, which I only wanted to do with his full cooperation, never got written. I still stopped by his studio (where he also lived until last year) every once in a while to chat and admire his art, including my favorite, “The Italian Bar,” which is not as well-known as most of his Western oeuvre.

I did end up writing a short piece on Harry based on a 30-minute interview with him that was part of a local art project I did with a photographer friend, Ham Bryan. Cody Character was a series of portraits by Bryan with accompanying bios by me of 10 longtime Cody residents, folks who had character, and, in some cases, were characters. (Both were true of Harry.)

That project was done for fun, not a paying gig for a news outlet. But when, as expected, Harry insisted on reviewing the bio, I initially considered just not writing one for him at all. But I decided the best course was to note on the piece that he had read and changed it. The project was Bryan’s, after all, and I was along for the ride, so I didn’t want to upset the apple cart. In the end, Harry was far more concerned about my grammar and punctuation than how I portrayed him. (You can read the brief biographical sketch here, along with profiles of other Cody residents.)

A lot of ink has been and will be spilled by folks looking to define Harry, pigeonhole him, sum up his life and work in a few paragraphs. I won’t even try. His persona overflows any canvas used to portray it. Which is why his art — not what is written about him or his work — will define his legacy.

Despite his meticulous efforts to construct and control his image, I suspect that’s something Harry always knew.

Contact WyoFile managing editor Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or ruffin@wyofile.com.

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