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a model of experience

Life's pathways take most people through a fairly ordered set of work and diversionary experiences, ultimately wheedling them to the point at which they forsake their 9 to 5 job, slow down and begin their final chapter.

Others reject predictability and embrace life as it comes, finding excitement around every corner, rolling with whatever surprises pop up, turning their existence into an adventuresome ride.

Bob Jackson is among those who see life as an adventure.

In his 67 years, he has worked in a factory that makes tools, recruited for the military, forecast the weather for the Air Force, operated an 18-wheel truck, repaired aircraft engines, sold automobiles and life insurance, ran an advertising agency, trained salespeople and always fell back on his talents as a drummer when it became necessary.

In 1993 he retired, began drawing his military pension and kicked back, clearly intent on enjoying an unplanned future. Little did he know that his penchant for surprises would lead him to another challenge that he would find more enjoyable than anything he had previously done.

The new vocation would draw upon his curiosity, but mainly on his looks, his special features: the characteristic oval face, aquiline nose and shocking white beard. He would become a patient and willing model for art students and instructors who would capture his poses and expressions over and over again.

Today that vocation has come to rule his so-called retirement years and has made him one of the most painted figures at Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota; so much so that he is ostensibly the face of Ringling.

When Jackson made Florida his primary residence away from his summer home in Colorado, he was content to glide along the interstate on his custom 1000cc Honda or test his reflexes while he zipped in and out of traffic on congested U.S. 41.

He had gotten over the fantasy stuff that most people save for their later years. He had owned a couple of sailboats, explored jungles in Latin America and lived a couple of years in Bermuda.

"That gets boring; for me it did," he said.

He wasn't looking to work again, at least not in the traditional sense, when the opportunity to become an art school model was casually suggested by a volleyball acquaintance on a Siesta Key court seven years ago.

He had a certain appeal, Jackson remembered Ringling model coordinator Kate Donahue telling him. "You know, Bob, I think you have something we'd be interested in," she said, explaining that he would fit perfectly what she was looking for.

They wanted a pregnant black woman and an older guy. "I said, "Well, I fit one of those categories,' " Jackson recalled with a chuckle. He showed up on campus a few weeks later for a tour and since then has become a popular fixture.

His face and anatomy have been drawn and painted in thousands of different ways by students and instructors over the years.

Worthy subject

What makes Jackson a fascinating model is his personality, said faculty instructor Fiore Custode. He teaches head painting fundamentals and finds Jackson a worthy subject; he has painted Jackson in a variety of ways.

"(Bob) has a wealth of life's experience that he shares with his artists. It shows in his countenance. He is like a performer who can assume many roles, some of which he has lived," said Custode, who has been on the faculty of the school since 1964.

Jackson loves his job, and it shows in the artists' work, Custode said. "He enlivens the studio whenever he enters. Bob loves to see young people grow in their learning, and he does his best to provide a variety of model props of which his personality is the most interesting."

Jackson has a collection of outfits, from pirate garb to Civil War uniforms, that serve him well in the roles he assumes under the spotlight at Ringling.

Don Maitz, another art teacher and commercial illustrator, shares Custode's sentiments.

"I look for a well-defined face that is capable of expression," Maitz said, describing the sort of facial features that impress him. "But most importantly, I feel that a model who brings an enthusiasm for posing offers so much more to a creation than the most beautiful or handsome subjects."

Jackson's enthusiasm is what inspires Maitz, who is known for creating the character, label drawing, and advertising art for Captain Morgan Spiced Rum products.

"Bob Jackson cares. He wants artists to succeed in their work," Maitz said. "He takes steps to be a model that inspires artists to see beyond just painting a person. When Bob is a model, he offers the opportunity to be imaginative. His willingness to be expressive allows artists to lower their inhibitions and take more chances with their talents."

In the first few months after he immersed himself in his job, Jackson admits he was so eager to please that his 5-foot 10-inch body ached from holding poses.

"I did bite off a lot," he said. "I did a lot of classes; sometimes they were in a row, sometimes I'd just have to lie on the floor (because) the back hurt so bad or the rib or this or that."

A three-hour class typically requires the model to do a combination of short and long poses. The brief poses sometimes last one to three minutes, allowing students to capture gestures, quick lines that sketchily illustrate the body's dynamic. So in the early part of a session, a model may move a lot, switching positions and expressions.

Longer poses, up to half-hour or more, let students refine their representation of the model. It is the longer poses that can be tedious. Models have to be still _ frozen in a tiresome statuelike state. They earn $12 an hour and are paid more if called in on emergency.

When he started, Jackson found that back-to-back morning and afternoon sessions were physically challenging, so he worked out a lighter schedule. "Then I started really loving the job," he said. He works about 15 hours a week.

"It's really not only a challenge for me, it's also a pleasure for me to be a part of something that is involved in the educational system of our youth. And especially the artists. I'm privileged at this age _ at any age _ but especially at this time of my life to give a little to the community because it sure gives me a lot back."

He admits that as a model he's probably biased toward artists, but he has great reverence for those people who "bring the beauty, the grace, the intelligence, the fascination into our world. Without them, what would we be? Still pounding our chests and using clubs."

Drum happy

As a youth Jackson never had a clear image of what he wanted to be. He reacted to circumstances, taking whatever fork in the road his instincts led him to.

An only child, born Aug. 15, 1937, to a Greyhound bus driver and his wife in Benton Harbor, Mich., Jackson remembered that after high school graduation in 1955 his dad said they didn't have money to send him to Western Michigan or Michigan State, so he tried to steer him to the local community college.

Jackson had other plans. I said, "Dad, I got to marry Lois (his high school sweetheart.)" He took a job at a plastics factory and married Lois; they divorced within 12 months.

When he received his draft notice in 1957, Jackson quit the factory job and went into the Air Force, working for four years as a meteorologist. Having learned to play the drums in his late teens and brimming with a passion for jazz, he played gigs wherever he was stationed. When he left the Air Force, he packed his gear and drum set in his old Willys jeep and hit the road.

"It's the one thing that had followed me all of my life," he said, tapping rhythmically on the hide of a pair of congas in the spare bedroom of his Bradenton mobile home.

His drumming was the closest he came to being an artist and expressing himself creatively.

"That's one of the things that was really, really very important to me. That's my contribution to the world of art in the form of entertainment, you know, being an artist."

Whether his journeys took him back to Michigan, to California, Oklahoma or Virginia, once he arrived he would go to the local musicians union and find work.

"(Drumming) always got me instant money," he said. "Sure enough, I'd always get enough coins so I didn't have a sleep a lot of nights in the back of my jeep, even though I did that a lot, too. That was always a mainstay. But really, it helped me get established somewhere. I have lived in a lot of places and not just overnight or for a week or two. In stretches, sometimes years."

It was a gig with a five-piece Dixieland band named the Wolverine Five that enabled him to meet his second wife in Mobile, Ala.

They were married in 1968. Hurricane Camille swept through the gulf coast in 1969 with 200-mph winds and 20-foot storm surges, forcing him to uproot the family.

"After it was over, we said: "We're out of here.' " They headed for the mountains of Colorado, which has been the family's home and where his ex-wife Dee still lives. They had four children.

In addition to his sporadic military recruitment career, Jackson once worked in a Colorado Springs factory making hand tools for Sears, Roebuck & Co. and had rambling adventures as the owner-operator of a semitrailer truck. .

In the mid '80s, while he was in Jacksonville awaiting a transfer back to full-time recruiting in Colorado, another recruiter buddy talked him into trying the trucking business. He had never driven a truck before but with encouragement from his friend, also a trucker, Jackson bought an 18-wheeler. He learned to drive the vehicle on his first road trip, carrying a load of lettuce from Hastings, Fla., to Chelsea Market in Boston.

"What a nightmare," he said, describing his first run. It led to nine months of hair-raising experiences _ avoiding accidents, DOT inspectors and hijackers _ but gave him a healthy respect for trucking.

"It was an eye-opener to see how that side of the world lived. Oh, my God, we can't live without the truckers," he said. "We have to have our produce; we have to have our merchandise. And between the trains and the truckers, we don't get it if they don't run. The down side is the incredible wash of rules, laws, regulations."

The short detour into independent trucking was rewarding, though. "Drivers can average $9,000 a month easily" he said. "Half of that would go to expenses, so you're making pretty decent money."

He also tried selling cars and insurance policies, but he did not particularly enjoy either.

"Selling cars is crooked as heck," he said. "I didn't have the taste for life insurance. Nothing is illegal, but I didn't like the way . . . it's always on the edge of tongue in cheek. You're not lying, but you're not necessarily giving (clients) the information they need."

Through all the experiences, good and bad, the ups and downs, Jackson remains young at heart.

"I can't wait until I'm 70 or 80 or 90. I can't wait for tomorrow. It's not that I live for tomorrow. I try to live in the present," he said. "Without that heartache, the heartbreak way back there, I wouldn't be who I am. And I like who I am. So because I like who I am now, I hope that I'm going to like me tomorrow. And I will like myself tomorrow based on not repeating any of my past mistakes, to the best of my ability. The fool repeats them. I don't want to be a fool.

"I have 67 years of memories. Outside of that, I can be 6 or 106. Because my mind does not know age," he said.

Paul Jerome is a Times copy editor and publisher of "FlaVour" magazine.