BOMB THE ROOT: The Kerry James Marshall Interview

In this 1998 interview from the BOMB Digital Archive, painter and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Kerry James Marshall, one of the most decorated contemporary African-American artists, talks about growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, and the black arts community that nurtured him.

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Kerry James Marshall, Many Mansions, 1994

Kerry James Marshall is one of the most decorated contemporary African-American artists working today. His flat—almost two-dimensional—eerily utopian paintings have earned him entry into the Whitney Biennial, Documenta and the Venice Biennale; a solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago; and most notably, a MacArthur “genius grant,” and yet relatively little attention from the mainstream press.

In this BOMB Magazine interview, conducted in 1998, the same year Marshall won the MacArthur, the artist talks to Calvin Reid about growing up in Alabama and California and his lifelong commitment to making art. According to Marshall, his artistic practice is dedicated to the tireless pursuit of technical and material mastery and is not about cultivating fame or fortune. “I’ve never been that anxious to show work,” he says. “I’m always focused on making it. I know a lot of people who took their work around and beat the pavement and had horrible experiences. But I didn’t want anything from anybody.”

Though Marshall has never prioritized wooing the art establishment, he nonetheless acknowledges the great, national black arts community that made it possible for him become a professional artist—the community that nurtured the artistic aspirations of Alison Saar, David Hammons, and John Outterbridge, among others.

-- Adda Birnir

INTERVIEW EXCERPT:

Calvin Reid: You grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Was art a part of your life then? And what kind of influence did your family have on you as an artist?

Kerry James Marshall: That’s a complicated question to answer. In a lot of ways I was one of those fortunate people who consciously knew that being an artist was what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know at the time that it was called being “an artist!”

CR: That’s fascinating that you recognized it so early.

KJM: Yeah, I’ve been single-minded since then. So when it comes to my family’s support, on one level, it really didn’t matter. Not that they discouraged me, but my decision to go to art school was my decision. At the same time, it seemed like there were signposts all over the place saying, “Artists this way…” Everywhere I went I met the perfect person to get me to the next level.

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