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.

Kerry James Marshall, Many Mansions, 1994
Kerry James Marshall, Many Mansions, 1994

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.

CR: For instance?

KJM: Well, my family moved from Birmingham to California in 1963, and my teacher, Mrs. Foley, was in charge of all the holiday art decorations. She enlisted my aid, and I would stay after school and help her, and in between the turkeys and pumpkins she would show me technical things—how to paint flower petals, how to hold the brush. Stuff I really needed to know. And I used to watch this television program, Jon Gnagy’s “Learn to Draw,” which was also highly influential in my development. Gnagy was interested in more than just superficial forms of representation. He started with fundamentals, with the notion that everything you see is made up of three basic components: circles, squares and triangles; and once you learn to break things down and then put those shapes in perspective, you can draw anything. He showed me how to build forms, not just copy forms. Watching that program was the foundation for my search for the formal foundations of making art. And then there was Mrs. Clark, who was the head of the junior high school art department, she had competitions among the kids to see whose drawings got in the showcases.

CR: So you’ve been showing since a very early age. (laughter)

KJM: The irony was that there were lots of kids who were more talented than I was, in terms of copying things, like Marvel Comics’ images…

CR: Sure, I certainly did that.

KJM: Yeah, Marvel Comics was the godsend. My images tended to get overworked really fast, and had a lot of lines, erasures and scratches. I didn’t get a drawing into the case that often.

CR: It’s interesting, you almost seem to be hinting toward some of the techniques that you use now in the floral patterns. Reworking and reworking…

KJM: In a way. I latched on to process as an integral part of the overall appearance of the piece. Seeing that was just as important as having the piece look finished and slick. Maybe falling back on process was a way to compensate for my inability to be slick.

CR: What was the Otis Art Institute in L.A. like?