Remembering Jackie Felix

It was a radiantly beautiful early autumn day a couple weeks ago, when close to two-hundred members of the Western New York art community assembled to celebrate the life of artist Jackie Felix. Family, friends, and art colleagues alerted by phone and email came from as far away as Texas to remember the artist who had passed away in September. As befitting an agnostic who devoted half her adult life to the art world, the event took place, not in a synagogue or church, but at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center. Jackie’s loss may have been felt more acutely than usual by those of us in the arts community who knew her, because she was such an active and vital part of Buffalo’s artistic landscape. For me, there was the added loss of a valued next-door neighbor of twenty-nine years, but long before Jackie moved onto my street, I had admired her work as a painter of uncommon ability.

Widely exhibited, Jackie was one of those artists everyone knew. She was actively involved in the art community, particularly as a member of Hallwalls Advisory Board. She made practically everybody’s short list of exceptional area painters. She was a master of obscure narratives with an artistic flair for the theatrical; she occasionally even painted curtains along the wings of her single act canvas dramas. Jackie was a great observer of the human condition. Her paintings were populated with men and women, saints, sinners, performers, and lovers. Always interacting. Even with her paintings of tables that were depicted isolated in desolate empty space, there was the feeling that someone had just stepped out of the picture moments before. The primary career-long focus of Jackie’s work was on human connections, how people interrelate, or don’t. To Jackie, even a gun suggested a connection between people, albeit through violent interaction. Sex, love, lust, relationships between the sexes; these were the territories Jackie staked out for herself. “I always have sexual content,” she said in a taped interview shortly before her sudden illness. Indeed, viewing the images of her paintings flashing on the screen behind the speakers at her memorial, it was clear that sexuality dominated her work. Her approach to it was often somber though, even mordant. The dark works of German Expressionist Max Beckman were one of her influences. But Jackie could also be wryly humorous and highly inventive.

Jackie lived one and a half hours past midnight on the day of her eightieth birthday. She held on weeks beyond her doctors’ expectations, predicting at one point that she would die on her birthday. She was determined as ever to do things her way, and with a dramatic flair right to the end. To some people, eighty may seem like a ripe old age. But adjectives like old didn’t describe Jackie. Maybe that’s because she only became the person we all knew later in life. She grew up amidst an immigrant population on the south side of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Discouraged by her father from following her art muse, she went to college in New York City to become an elementary teacher. While in school, she lived downstairs from struggling actor James Dean and his girlfriend who she would occasionally have over for dinner. She found Dean to be lacking personality; vacant good looks were not Jackie’s taste. That was classic Jackie, always bucking popular opinion. She met and married Philip Fine and when he was drafted she lived on army bases during his tour of duty. Before long she found herself the mother of four daughters. Her children reminisce today about what it was like being raised in a creative household where gift-wrapping paper was expected to be hand designed, and the kids didn’t just color in coloring books, they made them. But the demands of raising a family prevented Jackie from any formal pursuit of art.

After Jackie’s husband left the army he found work in Buffalo, so the family settled here. Jackie remained a devoted mother and housewife until her husband was tragically killed in an automobile accident. She went back into education again, this time doing substitute teaching as a means of survival. Eventually she met Al Felix, who was a widower at the time with three children of his own. Al was an Orchard Park English teacher, who wrote poetry on the side and shared Jackie’s love of the arts. They got married, and though raising seven high-school aged children was a strain on their budget, Al supported Jackie’s decision to go back to school at the University of Buffalo where she got her BFA and eventually her MFA. At fifty-two, an age when many artists are coasting on their laurels, Jackie launched her art career.

Jackie and I had many over-the-fence conversations over the years, often about art and the art community, our struggles and successes. She was acutely aware of the challenges older artists face in the youth-oriented art world. She often commented that she felt her age was a disadvantage, but she defied stereotyping. She had the spirit of an enlightened woman in the prime of her life, and hers always seemed like a young person’s art. Jackie once said that when she lectured at colleges she made sure to use the F-word early on to establish with the students that this wasn’t their grandmother up there.

Jackie had many other interests about which she was equally opinionated. For instance, gardening; she was the first one to sell me on the wonders of the vegetation killer Roundup, and soon after she was the first to tell me I shouldn’t use it due to its impact on the environment. Jackie was very assertive in her beliefs and did not suffer fools gladly.

Right to the end, Jackie’s work displayed artistic courage, inventiveness, even audacity. She was still challenging herself, leaping into unfamiliar artistic terrain. Her biggest fear was repeating herself. Her work and thoughts had a direct impact on me, and will continue to do so in the years to come.