Story by Jamey Bradbury
Crystal Jackson had never painted before the day she decided to create some art for the walls of her new home. But she liked to sketch and, what’s more, she was broke.
“It’s really expensive to buy art!” she explains. “I thought it would be a fun thing to do, plus I could incorporate colors from the walls and the furniture.”
In 2008, she began experimenting with acrylic paints, but it wasn’t until 2014, when she took a class taught by Anchorage artist Francine Dufour Jones, that she discovered her preferred medium: alcohol ink, a highly pigmented, fast-drying dye that reacts in unique ways to isopropyl alcohol.
“It’s chaotic, and that’s what I like about it,” Crystal describes. “When you throw the alcohol onto the ink, it’s like a chemistry experiment. I’m not necessarily in control of what happens with the alcohol ink – it’s a dance with the ink, a partnership.”
This dance results in vivid pieces depicting Alaska wildlife, like whales and puffins, that often reflect Crystal’s sense of humor. In one ink-on-paper piece, a willow ptarmigan in a jaunty sailor’s cap poses among a collection of beer cans; in another, a polar bear reaches for a tropical daiquiri. The colors with which she infuses her paintings stretch reality beyond the typical hues of an Alaska landscape; bright pink musk oxen, purple whales and green moose populate Crystal’s Alaska.
Some of her pieces reflect her Inupiaq heritage, depicting a blanket toss or a whaling boat. A self-described “military brat” who grew up disconnected from her culture, Crystal is interested in focusing more on cultural pieces as a way to reconnect with her ancestors and with Nome, where her mother was born.
Mostly self-taught, Crystal saw her greatest growth as an artist during her greatest struggle. In fall of 2015, she found herself battling darkness despite all the things she felt should have been making her happy – she’d just gotten married and moved into a new house. Instead, she came home from her full-time job each day, slipped into pajamas and slept. Nothing was interesting, and leaving the house took tremendous effort.
“So I told myself, I’m just going to get off the couch and go to my work station, and I’m going to paint something every day,” recalls Crystal. “I don’t care what it is. I’m just going to try and get better at it.”
She painted owls and otters, auroras and mountains. She painted subjects in photos sent to her by friends. She painted as her husband supported her, and she painted alongside her friend, with whom she exchanged feedback and encouragement. In the end, she produced 100 paintings in 100 days and found that, in addition to helping her grow as an artist, the project had provided her the stability she’d needed to face and cope with the mental health conditions she’d been grappling with for years.
“I really think it’s important for people to feel no shame and find a way to take care of yourself, and find somebody who can help push you and take care of you, as well,” she says now. “With the 100 day project, I was able to look my paintbrushes in the eye and hear them say, We got you, girl.”
In addition to taking on commissioned projects, Crystal now teaches classes at Palette Art Studio, where her students often stumble upon a technique for working with alcohol ink that she ends up using herself.
“It’s such a new medium,” she shares. “You can really play around and use things like Q-tips, dental applicator tools, spray bottles – and the list is growing. I just love seeing what my students, and what I, can do.”