Martha Jackson Jarvis was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1952. She spent her early childhood in the south and moved to Philadelphia when she was thirteen. Jackson Jarvis studied her freshman year at Howard University where she benefited from the influence of artists such as Elizabeth Catlett and Lois Mailou Jones but later transferred to Tyler School of Art to study ceramics. She earned an MFA from Antioch University.
Over the course of her successful career, Jackson Jarvis completed a number of public and site-specific sculptures. She has received a number of honors including the Creative Capital Grant, the Virginia Groot Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Penny McCall Foundation Grant, and the Lila Wallace Arts International Travel Grant. She has exhibited extensively around the country including at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Studio Museum of Harlem, the University of Maryland, and the African American American Museum in Philadelphia.
On her grandfather’s farm, she remembers going to the spring to fetch water and, later on, observing her grandfather and uncle dig a well. “I remember watching them go deeper and deeper and then it was a black hole and suddenly there was water that appeared at the bottom of that hole. I’ll never forget that. And it just told me the endless possibility of things that seem solid and dead and not present, are ever present.” Being from the country and moving to the city of Philadelphia, Jackson Jarvis says, was like she had “died and gone to hell.” Coming from a town where half of the residents were relatives, Philadelphia taught her to be tough, observant, and stand her own ground. The blessing of the city was that her mother made sure she and her sister experienced the museum, theatre, and symphony. Though she moved away from her grandfather’s farm, Jackson Jarvis remembered how he could go into the back shed with his tools and build anything. “I thought whatever he wanted, he could go in that shed and come out and be tinkering. He’d come out with whatever was necessary. And I loved that.” This memory may have guided Jackson Jarvis on her life’s course as an artist.