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Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing: meditations on black aesthetics

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90.3 WBHM | Birmingham -- Kerry James Marshall has been called one of the most important artists of our time. And over time -- with years spent in segregated Birmingham and burned out South Central Los Angeles -- his work has evolved from copying the masters to transcending his own view of black history and struggles onto canvas, cardboard or photograph. A professor at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois Chicago, Marshall is represented in more than 30 public collections nationwide. WBHM’s Steve Chiotakis recently caught up with Marshall to talk about his upcoming exhibit in Birmingham and how it feels to be back home.

Kerry James Marshall"As a child, you're insulated from a lot of things going on in the world. The way I saw the world, I was just in it..."

It wasn’t until a decade later, when the family moved to South Central Los Angeles, that Marshall and his neighbors became a part OF the world. Riots broke out in nearby Watts and, soon, Marshall saw first hand the struggles of the black race in urban America.

"It seemed at first, like a carnival or something... almost like a party was going on. (You didn’t realize people were fighting or people were upset about something??) Right. It didn't dawn on you until it looked like... wait aminute... all the stores in our neighborhood are on fire – that means something..."

What it meant for Marshall was trying to manifest that burning desire to parlay his experience then – and subsequent ones – into a creative vision of history and place. At first, learning the basics.

"I was trying to learn everything I could. I was trying to do all of that stuff... because it all looked interesting to me."

But he would later take cues in high school and college by such black artists as Charles White – whom he credits for his initial interest in black aesthetics.

"And I made a conscious decision -- and it was odd that it had to be a conscious decision -- that when I made work that I would only paint black figures. And that I ultimately evolved the way of working with the figure where not only would they be black figures, but they would be so extremely black as to make it undeniable that it was a central part of the work."

Marshall’s works include ‘Africa Restored,’ a three-dimensional exhibit of polystyrene and cardboard shaped like the dark continent and featuring the names and faces of those who embraced or were influenced by African-American art. Many of the names are of white artists. There’s a mock slave ship, video presentation and a work called ‘As Seen on TV,’ which remembers the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, about the time his family left Birmingham for California. Marshall gives a lecture at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Saturday at 11 at Steiner Auditorium, and his exhibit opens at the museum on Sunday.

~Steve Chiotakis, February 3, 2005