Thelma Bruce has lived in the same house since 1953. When she first moved there, Park Manor was predominantly white. For many years blacks took a risk moving south of Bronzeville. “But I don’t feel we took any chances, really,” she says. “A few black families were already here when we came, and we had no problems. This was always a nice neighborhood.”
A mile west you’ll find vacant lots, but every house on this south-side street is well kept, with manicured lawns and shrubs. The interior of Bruce’s home is decorated with care. Her art collection, which her daughter Vicki calls “eclectic,” includes African and Chinese pieces as well as a Joan of Arc figurine. The living room has changed little since the 1960s.
When her son-in-law, Kerry James Marshall, asked Bruce if he could reproduce this room in a painting, she didn’t know what to make of it. “I couldn’t imagine what he was going to do. What could he get from this?”
Doubtless only Marshall himself could have imagined the result. Souvenir No. 3 is a mural-size canvas in black and gray. It depicts Marshall’s wife, actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, as a glittery winged angel carrying a vase of flowers. Across the top of the neatly ordered room are the names of African-American writers who died in the 1960s–among them Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes.
Marshall has been getting a lot of attention lately, but he seems unaffected in both his art and demeanor by his new celebrity. A professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1993, and the recent recipient of a $260,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, he works in the same small South Loop studio he first rented in 1991. Paintings from his “Garden Projects” series–dreamy, almost Edenic views of public housing projects–have been shown at the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art. He’s been included in both the Whitney Biennial survey of recent American art and the Documenta international art event in Kassel, Germany. His dealers in New York and Los Angeles have waiting lists to purchase his paintings, but Marshall works slowly and is unlikely to add a Chicago gallery because, he says, “I don’t do enough work.” But three examples from his recent “Souvenir” series, as well as a variety of his work in other media–“some sculpture, some video, some photographs”–are currently on view at the Renaissance Society, where he’ll speak about his work this Sunday at 5. It’s Marshall’s first one-person show in Chicago.
The “Souvenir” paintings are set in the living rooms of his wife’s relatives or their friends, all of whom are middle-class African-Americans in their 70s or older. Each painting commemorates a group of people–writers, musicians, civil rights workers–who died during the 1960s. Marshall says he chose to paint the homes of these people partly because of “my interest in them, in who they are.” When he first came to Chicago in 1987, Marshall recalls, he was welcomed by Cheryl’s family, even though the two were not yet married: “They didn’t know me from anybody, really, and they have followed what I’ve done ever since I started showing work. They’ve been at most of my openings and that means a lot to me, because it brings in people who under other circumstances might not ever find their way to places like the MCA or the Renaissance Society.”
Marshall says these new paintings offer “a glimpse into the homes of a certain segment of middle-class black Chicago that you rarely see represented, that most people don’t get a glimpse of. In the media one sees the more impoverished end or the high end–the ones you see in Ebony magazine. But then there’s this other segment that are right in the middle of all of that, who don’t have celebrity or notoriety. In a lot of ways, as with the civil rights movement, that’s where a lot of the work is being done–just by people who are living their lives, whether they’re doing any activist work or not. Though this person here, Mrs. Ricks, was quite active during the 60s”–he points to Souvenir No. 4, which shows the living room of his mother-in-law’s friend Lois Ricks. “She was Afrocentric before Afrocentric became a popular term.
“They’re all of an age such that, during the 1960s when all of this stuff was going on, it would have had incredible relevance to the way they saw the world and saw themselves in the world,” he says. They were also then about the age Marshall is now–42. “So a part of this says something about them and their relationship to this history, which is in some ways more direct than mine because they were adults.”
Thelma Bruce doesn’t sound very politicized at first. When she met Marshall more than ten years ago, she thought “he was a very personable young man, and he seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do.” She mentions how much her family grew to love him. She admires his self-discipline, how capable he is at everything from installing bathroom fixtures to baking bread. Each year he gives her a homemade birthday card. “When he would have showings at these different places, I went with him,” she says. “He emphasized the blackness in his pictures’ faces very strongly–black face and white teeth, or white, white eyes. I don’t know what I thought of that; I’m not a good critic. But I knew it was different.”
A native of East Saint Louis, Bruce moved to Chicago when she was 17 to study nursing, completing her coursework at Northwestern in 1946. There were few blacks at the school, and she felt a bit out of place. “I don’t think there were more than six of us,” she says. Much later, in the 1970s, she traveled to Africa with Lois Ricks. They went to Goree, an island off the coast of Senegal that was a major transit point for the slave trade with the Americas (President Clinton stopped there in April). Bruce says she experienced a flood of feelings, not the least of them anger. Amazed and fascinated by the culture, she bought the two wooden heads that can be seen in Marshall’s painting. Reflecting today, she says that trip instilled a new pride in her identity.
Ricks, a retired elementary school teacher, had her consciousness raised well before the 1960s. Her parents came north from Alabama and Mississippi. “I am just three generations removed from slavery,” she says. “Your parents thought if you got an education you could get ahead and move into the American mainstream. World War II created jobs you didn’t have before; all the girls were becoming secretaries and stenographers, and we were moving in the way that most people who came to the country as immigrants got ahead.” But African-Americans encountered racism. White airmen became commercial airline pilots and mechanics, for example; blacks veterans did not. “I understood how you could get to a certain station in life and not go beyond.”
In 1944 Ricks took her first job. It was at the University of Chicago, where she worked as a stenographer for the Manhattan Project. A year later, she was “really appalled they used the bomb as they did.” Eventually, she says, she came to the conclusion that most Americans thought they were “God’s chosen.”
“There had always been white supremacy,” Ricks says. “All societies are alike: some people think they are chosen by God to be on top.” In the U.S., African-Americans were “denied the knowledge of how government works and how you have to organize to make things work for you–the kind of thing that most people will get in their ordinary community life. People who were from a slave background just didn’t get that knowledge.” By the late 60s, however, “black people were beginning to make demands upon the government that they hadn’t been doing before. But it disturbed me to teach children about the Constitution when it didn’t work for them.” Still, Ricks says she’s a patriot–she has watched every presidential inauguration since 1952. “I do feel there’s hope.”
Ricks says her living room replicates the one in her previous home. While she has always bought “way more books than art,” she started collecting artwork in 1955, when she purchased a watercolor by someone she met at an art fair. She added pieces to her collection on trips to Africa, beginning in 1973. African-American music has also been important to Ricks, and she feels an “uncanny” connection to the musicians Marshall refers to in his picture. Her late husband was an audiophile who took up cabinetmaking to assemble his own speakers. “We had this woofer that was too big for that little apartment, and it would be blasting away during the 50s. And the beginnings of black consciousness started us thinking more in terms of culture and in terms of who we were, and that was probably very much reflected in my collections.” Ricks mentions jazz, and the music of Sun Ra and Phil Cohran. She still has her records, but Marshall hasn’t seen them; they’re stored behind a chair.
“Many of us might feel that Kerry’s portraiture is stereotypical, but I love him because I know his focus, and I see it in his art,” she says. “He was a child during the civil rights movement; he didn’t have that firsthand experience, and his art probably reflects that. I think there are things that I’m saying that he doesn’t quite agree with. I’m too dogmatic in my opinions about our condition; most young people don’t hold my ideas. If I had to say I’m anything it would be an African nationalist. But I’m also born-again bourgeois. You live in America–what can you do? We blacks have been set up to be considered the enemy, but there should be no differences among us. Racism keeps you focused on the wrong things.”
One might assume from his paintings that Marshall’s an African nationalist, too–the only whites in the “Souvenir” series are a few famous martyrs to the civil rights struggle like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, because, he says, “their names have been so completely linked to the civil rights struggle you can’t separate them out from it; it’s a package deal.” His paintings also exude an almost utopian idealism. Speaking of the Black Panthers, Marshall observes, “They did wonderful things. You can’t argue with the breakfast program they started for schoolkids; you can’t argue with their ideas about teaching African history and things like that to kids; and you also can’t argue with the ways in which they made people who would never have been interested in understanding the Constitution and the laws interested in them, because they showed you how you could do things legally. But there were also problems inside the Black Panthers as an organization, because they were people like all the rest of us and they were subject to the same kinds of weaknesses that are in a lot of us.”
By the time he moved here, Marshall says his “agenda as an artist had already been established through all of those experiences with the things that I saw growing up.” These ranged from TV images of dogs attacking demonstrators in Birmingham, where he was born, to the ennobling portraiture of African-American artist Charles White, with whom he studied in Los Angeles. “I saw so many things, and after a point was really affected by them,” he says. “But all of those things are more complicated than they appear on the surface. If I were only going to deal with what they were about superficially, I probably would be really angry, and the work would be way more didactic than it is. But because I think I saw contradictions and complexities in all of the things that were going on, it was not easy to make a single judgment about what was right and what was wrong, what was true and what was false. I had to operate in these more ambiguous zones.”
Born in 1955, Marshall says he wasn’t touched much by the racial clashes that occurred in Birmingham during his youth. “For kids growing up, a lot of the things that your parents might be affected by don’t quite affect you the same way.” Times had changed. “Things were certainly different for my mother and father. They grew up having to step off the sidewalk when white people approached. I never saw my parents or any of my relatives exhibit any deference to white people, so for me at least it was never an issue.” The Marshalls’ house was small, their neighborhood almost all black. His father worked in the kitchen of a VA hospital; his mother was a housewife who also did occasional odd jobs and domestic work. Both parents were from Birmingham, and around them was an extended family–grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. One of Marshall’s grandmothers lived in a row house with a coal stove and no running water. “We were over there all the time. You had to heat water to take a bath. It didn’t seem particularly unusual or difficult for it to be like that.” As a child, “you really do take the world like you find it; it was just the way it was.”
Marshall had an older brother and a younger sister. Together with kids from the neighborhood, he says, “we did a lot, went a lot of places on our own, walking. There were two creeks running through town, ‘Big Ditch’ and ‘Little Ditch.’ We would catch tadpoles, throw rocks in the water. There were big fields with fruit trees; we used to go and pick what we called multiberries”–their name for mulberries. In the crawl space under their house, he and his brother played with toy trucks and tractors, doing “earthmoving projects.” His cousin Jerome lived across the street. Jerome’s parents had better-paying jobs–his father worked in a steel mill. Jerome was older than Marshall by five or six years, and “he was like a big brother to us. When we were three or four we’d run down to the corner to help him carry his book satchel home. He had all these great toys: cowboys and Indians, a swing set in the backyard.” But Marshall recalls no feelings of resentment. “They had more things than we had, but we could go across the street and play with his stuff, and we were never without things when Christmas rolled around. We got what we got. I had a great childhood.”
Marshall says he’s known he wanted to be an artist since kindergarten. “My teacher kept a scrapbook. She had clipped pictures from magazines, newspaper clippings, old Christmas cards and Valentine cards, ads from magazines, reproductions of paintings, puzzles. And she would let the kid who was the best behaved look at the scrapbook while everybody else took their nap after recess. Looking at that scrapbook really did change everything for me. It seemed so magical, all these different images, all these different styles, what they seemed to suggest. There were a lot of mysterious things–pictures of lions and giraffes–that you just don’t see out on your block. They seemed to promise this amazing other world in which everything looked interesting. I literally was overwhelmed by it. I remember saying, ‘That’s what I want to do–I want to make pictures like those.'”
He was also fascinated by the Gustave Dore illustrations in his grandmother’s Bible. Though the family was Baptist, the kids went to a Catholic school. “When you’re in kindergarten and first grade, you really can’t go to church, but they take you in to show you what it looks like. It was amazing, to be honest–similar to the scrapbook. You look in there, and there are these statues, these paintings, all this gold and silver, high ceilings, stained-glass windows, the light. And it had a smell, I’m sure from all that incense. It was different, out of the ordinary, so I was amazed by it too. And I wanted to be an altar boy because I wanted to be able to swing that ball with incense. It just looked cool.” Their Baptist church was more austere, he says, “but it had its own mystery, especially if you looked into the baptismal area, which seemed to be in the basement–the dark room, all these beams, ceiling rafters. That was kind of another one of those mysterious zones. The impact that stuff had on me visually was pretty tremendous. A combination of all of those things made me want to work in a mode that presented things in a kind of spectacular way.”
Marshall’s first drawing lessons came from the television. “There was a program on Saturday morning, Jon Gnagy’s Learn to Draw. He would do step-by-step exercises on the show; you could follow along with him and draw the things that he was drawing.” Starting with a few basic shapes, Gnagy “would end up doing this great big Escher-like cityscape with all of these things in it, built one unit at a time with simple shapes, and he would show you how to put them in perspective. I could see that was the key to everything; that there’s a principle that governs the way things look. This gave me a method to do more than stick figures, more than most kids were doing.
“We were fortunate in a way, both my brother and I,” Marshall says. “We were reading before we started school.” They began with Dr. Seuss and a large book of fairy tales and Aesop’s fables–“all these interesting stories about things and people and places around the world. My mother used to read to us from that book a lot.” As with the scrapbook, he says, “You start seeing that there’s more going on than just what’s happening here.”
When Marshall was eight, his family moved to Los Angeles. “My father, he
wasn’t making but a dollar and something an hour at the hospital; faced with the limitations of Birmingham, there didn’t seem to be a lot of options. My mother’s youngest sister moved to LA before we did. Her husband, I think, worked for Ford; she ended up being head of housekeeping at Englewood Park Hospital. My father had gone ahead till he found a job”–at another VA hospital, but making more money.
The family moved into a housing project in Watts. “Nickerson Gardens was an amazing place at the time. We were in the building right next to the gymnasium, right next to the athletic field; it looked like a big park. The houses were split-level. It looked wonderful; they were all very clean. This was the first time I had ever been in a home that had an upstairs and a downstairs. Our bedroom was upstairs, and I could pass the time looking out the window at what was going on down below. For me having this new vantage point was in some ways as good as TV,” though all he saw were “just kids playing, people going about their business.”
The family stayed in Nickerson Gardens about a year, then moved to a rented house in South Central, closer to his father’s job. Eventually his father found a better position at the post office. Meanwhile, Marshall’s artistic interests continued to grow. “I was a big Marvel comics collector when I was in elementary school,” he says. “I skipped school one day after recess, hid out on the playground, and climbed a fence and walked all the way to Huntington Park to a used comic book store, as a way of getting a jump on everyone else, to see if they’d have these early editions. The artwork seemed more complex and dynamic than the drawings in other comic books. Marvel had these amazing poses, a lot of anatomical detail, more interesting characters. We were copying characters from Marvel comics a lot; I remember trying to figure out how to make those same characters but do your own poses.
“I was really lucky as an artist; it seems like everywhere I went I would always meet somebody who was the perfect person to get me to another level. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Foley, was in charge of doing school decorations. Since I had this expressed interest in drawing she would always ask me to help work on these projects. While we were working on those things she would teach me stuff. She loved painting flowers and she would show me all these techniques she used; there was a different way you had to hold and move the brush to paint certain kinds of petals. I also discovered that the folded toilet paper they used in the bathrooms made great tracing paper. Me and this other kid used to excuse ourselves, go to the bathroom, take a hairpin, and pick the lock on the toilet paper dispenser. We’d come back to class with stacks of that stuff in our pockets, and everybody’s working. We would trace photographs and engravings out of our history book and compare them with each other. This was not what I was supposed to be doing but what was most interesting to me at the time. It was fascinating that you could take a piece of paper, put it under something you could see through, and draw; you could get the drawing to look more realistic than you could without doing it.
“By third grade they take you to the library and introduce you to the Dewey decimal system, show you how to use the card catalog and all that stuff, and then you go on a field trip to the public library so you can get your library card. The first time I went to the library and saw all these books on Rembrandt, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, I thought all of that stuff was amazing too. I actually ended up never using the catalog; I simply walked down the stacks to see what was there, and when I found the section where the art books were I simply took every book off the shelf and looked at it. I started checking those books out regularly; by fifth grade I was into Goya’s black paintings.”
Marshall also put the books to another use, one that he’s not proud of today. He’d seen an ad for a product called “Decal It.” And after purchasing this kit at a drug store, he began taking the old master color plates from the library’s art books. “They have those two little spots of glue–you put a fingernail file under there and get them out.” Solvents would then lift the image off the paper and allow its transfer to his notebooks. “I took art making very seriously. I was trying out a lot of those techniques that my third grade teacher had showed me. I was looking at van Gogh’s sunflowers and stuff, and I was trying to do that.”
He was ten years old at the time of the Watts riots in 1965. Some argued that “riot” was the wrong word–they referred to it as an “urban rebellion.” But Marshall remembers it differently. “It was like a carnival, to be honest. We looked out the front door, and you could see down in the distance the smoke coming up. We were sitting out on the porch, and this guy ran by; then two people ran by, then three people. Then the next thing you know people are running all over the place. Then you looked down at the corner and the grocery store was on fire; then you looked the other way and there were fires over there. It was like chaos. A guy stood in front of a liquor store with a Molotov cocktail saying, ‘Get everything you want out of there now because we’re going to burn it down.’ Everybody ran in the store and took stuff, and then he threw it in. I had never seen anything like it; I didn’t know what it was about. But I would say hearing the rationale–you listen to the news all night and you hear people talk about why it happened–and then seeing the people who were doing it, they didn’t seem to go together. A lot of the talk about the way people have been oppressed and held down is true, but it sort of didn’t square with my experience. Here I’m a ten-year-old, and I’m looking at people who seem to be having fun. They don’t seem to be all that mad.” He chuckles. “And they seem to be taking advantage of an opportunity.” A day or two later some men paid Marshall and his brother 50 cents to climb into the rubble to find bottles of whiskey that hadn’t burst.
“That evening we all went over to a friend of my father’s; they had an attic room in the house looking toward Central Avenue. There was a Jack in the Box at the corner of Vernon and Central. The sight of that big Jack in the Box clown turning slowly, silhouetted against this wall of smoke and flames–that image registered in my mind so vividly. There had to be something kind of weird, a little absurd, about this clown against the flames.” The next day, he says, “it kind of hit you. You go down to the corner, and all of the stores that were in your neighborhood are burned down. The place where you used to go to get little toys and stuff, that’s gone. There’s nowhere to shop; you have to drive way over someplace to go to the store.”
Marshall attended Carver Junior High from 1967 to ’69. The school was all black, he remembers. “There was a series of student riots in school,” he says, “and weeks and weeks where there weren’t really classes but rallies out on the athletic field and people marching through the school with bullhorns demanding one thing or another.
“A lot of the demands were curriculum demands; there weren’t any black history classes. That’s a legitimate demand, but some of the other objectives were a little less clear. You’d be sitting in class, and they’d walk through and say, ‘Everybody out of class; we’re going to have a rally on the field.’ I went to a lot of them, but then things turned violent at Carver. They started beating up all the white teachers. This is where I had some trouble with things. I guess people felt like they’d been mistreated somehow, but I didn’t see it, and I knew some of these teachers were good people. A crowd of 15 or 20 people hitting you in the head with umbrellas and sticks and stuff, that’s pretty serious. I could see a lot of those teachers were trying really hard, so I didn’t understand it. Some of those teachers left, and I don’t blame them.”
Even so, Marshall says, “I had a great experience at Carver; the possibility of learning was available. I learned a lot. I didn’t see any of this miseducation that people were talking about. Maybe this is how I was a little different than some people: I always thought if you wanted to know something you would just go and learn it. My thing was, the moment they showed you the library you could know anything you wanted to know–you didn’t have to wait for somebody to give it to you. There was never anybody telling you what books you could and you couldn’t look at in there, so I didn’t want to hear any arguments about what wasn’t being provided. I noticed I never saw a whole lot of people in the library when I was hanging out.” Marshall laughs. “So to me it seemed, well, they’re not all that interested in knowing these things that they claim to need to know.”
The local Black Panther headquarters was nearby. “There was a big shootout. The athletic field at Carver was the staging area for the police department sending reinforcements back and forth. So here we are sitting in class, and it’s like the Vietnam war going on right outside. You hear gunfire all day; you look out and there are 300 police officers on the playing field.” The school had grown wild. Students were “setting the building on fire…throwing garbage cans through the windows. A gang of 40, 50 people on the flagpole bent the thing over, took the flag off, tore it up, set it on fire. The police did come, but the police made it worse. You have 13- and 14- and 15-year-olds sitting in at the main building, and the police came in like crazy people too, beating everybody up.
“All that achieved some results, I guess. Before I graduated, you could take ‘Negro history.’ I enrolled; it was interesting. But then it seemed like after all those beatings, fires, rallies, protests, and stuff, there weren’t a whole lot of people signing up for the class. So it was another one of those things which fixed for me this attitude: I’m not a follower. I have to look at the situation myself and make a determination about how I ought to address it on my own. There were too many inconsistencies in other people’s ideological programs for me to tag along. So I’m not a joiner, and I’m not interested in a lot of talk about things.”
One of Marshall’s teachers directed him to the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), which had drawing classes for junior high students. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of other people that interested in art, and I was really interested, so he gave me the summer scholarship to go to Otis. This was the first time I had known that there was a place like an art school.”
Around that same time, Marshall also discovered the Los Angeles County Museum, and soon he was going there alone, by bus. “My two favorite paintings in the collection at the time were two large Veronese portraits. There was something about them: the scale, the color, the refinement.” Marshall says the Venetian painter is still an influence on his work, “but I was influenced by so many people. I was so turned on to the idea of making images that I literally was interested in everything that everybody did. I was starting to copy LeRoy Neiman.” He laughs again. “If there was an interesting component to that person’s work, I was interested–how did they get that to be like that? So I got into collecting Scribner’s Classics because I was turned on to N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator at one time because I had seen that stuff and was so excited by it. It goes all the way back to that childhood experience again, that realm of the imagination–what you can make that sort of transcends this prosaic world.
“I really was struck by Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and then by his ‘Large Glass’–it held together in some kind of weird way. I spent a lot of time reading artists’ biographies. What did they know that made it possible for them to do the work they were doing? I thought there had to be some secret bit of information they had that made that possible. I was most interested in their education–how they were taught, what they had to do, and then from there how they used the information they got. The first art book I ever bought was a large volume on Leonardo da Vinci. I paid $19.95 for it at a used bookstore–on time, using my allowance. I had to leave it there on layaway, and it took about two months. Finally, my father gave me the last few dollars extra to get it out. It was another one of those things where the scale of the book first of all was impressive. But then when I opened it up, what I found most fascinating about Leonardo was all of those different things he did–the anatomical drawings, the botanical drawings, the engineering drawings, the architecture, the costume designs, and the paintings. I sat with that book every day and I just looked at the range of what he did. And that said to me, ‘This is how much you have to know in order to be a good artist.’
“Two things happened at Otis that were really significant. One was getting to do the drawing class; the other was finding out that Charles White, a black artist who I had learned of while doing a book report, taught there. We saw his studio, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a real artist’s work in progress on an easel. His subject matter was these sort of very stately black figures. It’s one thing seeing work in a book or even seeing work step-by-step in those how-to books; it’s another thing seeing unfinished work on an easel, where you can see this part that’s finished and this part that’s not and compare.” When he was 15, Marshall snuck into one of Charles White’s evening classes. “He came over and talked to me and told me that I could come anytime. I decided then that I was going to go to college at Otis.
“There’s a connection between my show now and all that other stuff. At breaks the drawing class would go downstairs. The coffee truck would come; they’d go to the lounge and they’d sit around and have these big roundtable discussions. There were continuing ed students and some graduate students taking Charles’s class. The range of things they would talk about at the table was for me as a kid amazing. I couldn’t contribute because I didn’t know anything, but I was impressed. They were always talking about history, culture, mostly things other than painting. They’d get into politics, and Charles White would talk about KŠthe Kollwitz a lot, one of his favorite people. I had never seen the books they had read. This was another one of those ‘you gotta know something if you want to be an artist’ things, like this sense I’d gotten from da Vinci and Duchamp that this art thing is broader than just making pictures–it’s about a whole lot of other stuff too. This show at the Ren is my chance to show all of the things that I’m interested in. I’m one of those people who’s still interested in the notion of mastery. If you get a master of fine arts degree, it’s supposed to mean that you are sufficiently skilled in all the languages of visual communication to be able to make works successfully in every one of those areas according to the requirements of the idea you’re working on. It doesn’t mean that at all today, but it should.”
Marshall graduated from Otis in 1977 and worked at a variety of jobs to support himself–carpenter, house painter, teacher’s assistant. In 1985 he moved to New York to accept an artist-in-residence position at the Studio Museum in Harlem. That’s where he met Cheryl Bruce. Two years later he moved to Chicago because she wanted to return to her family. At the time he had no thought of making a living as an artist. He found a job as soon as he arrived. “I stopped at a phone booth down on 95th and Halsted or someplace and got a phone book and made a list of all the places where they were doing something I knew I could do. I called Anderson Brothers movers and told them I was looking for a job.” He was hired the next day. It was “the dead of winter, a cold winter too,” he says. “But it wasn’t a bad job. I liked the work.” After three weeks, when he had saved a little money, he moved into a six-by-nine-foot room at the YMCA on 50th and Indiana for $50 a week. After a brief stint as a telemarketer for the Art Institute and a long period working as an art handler, he became the production designer on Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. That gave him enough money to paint full-time for a while. By then he had married Cheryl, and he painted in the apartment they shared. These paintings–a series of meditations on African and African-American history, including one work dealing with apartheid and another on tourism in the Third World–earned him a $20,000 NEA grant in 1991.
Souvenir No. 1, recently acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art, includes a banner that reads “We Mourn Our Loss,” a phrase that Marshall says is key to the series. “It comes from a felt banner that was really ubiquitous in different forms after the assassinations of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. In the 60s you’d see this commemorative banner in a lot of places, and then it started to be manifest in a lot of other forms too–on the acrylic tip of an ink pen from a Ford dealership, on that photograph I bought at a thrift store with the three of them.” Souvenir No. 1 has a frieze across its top, with faces and names in a cloud commemorating people who died during the 60s. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and John Kennedy “were commemorated as a kind of holy trinity of the civil rights movement in America,” Marshall says, but Souvenir No. 1 includes many names. “There were all these other people whose contribution to the civil rights movement and to the black liberation struggle was quite significant, but they never received the same kind of commemorative status as the more official people did. It starts with Medgar Evers and the four girls who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church; then there’s Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark. Off from the main cloud a little bit is Father Divine [the leader of the Peace Mission Movement], a charismatic figure who stressed self-empowerment and assistance.”
Each room in the series is a kind of temporary funeral parlor. The winged angel who brings flowers–the only objects Marshall has added to the decor–is also a reference to the Annunciation. Whether in color or black-and-white, “these paintings are flatter in every way” than the “Garden Projects” paintings, he says. The “souvenirs” have “none of those kinds of gestural embellishments, nor are they built on the same kind of classical compositional structure. My intent was to make them flat in terms of the way they’re painted. There’s perspective in these that operates differently from the way perspective in the other paintings works. These are drawn to scale, measured out in terms of the actual measurements of the rooms. The ‘Souvenirs’ are without the kinds of underpainting and overpainting and glazing used in the ‘Garden Projects,’ and become more like popular illustration. The souvenirs that commemorate those people are always sort of kitsch, kind of tacky, kitschy little things that are meaningful nonetheless. The banner that I took the idea from is one such object, but instead of making paintings of the banner, which would be about it or a critique of it, part of what I try to do is make these paintings seem the same thing as the banner. If I made the paintings with the same kind of tacky quality that kitsch items have, associating them with these people would offer a kind of critique that I’m not interested in. These paintings are not critical of these people–not that they’re immune from criticism per se, but I’m not doing that. Part of what I’m simply trying to say is to remind people that as a period in history the 60s were incredibly rich and dynamic, and there are a lot of people who would otherwise be forgotten were it not for this kind of commemorative memorabilia. But since most of these people didn’t get any of that in the first place, here’s a way of addressing that. I didn’t even know until I started doing the research for this that so many really significant people died in that decade–some who you kind of don’t think of as having died, even though you know they’re dead, because people keep feeding off of the work they did even now.”
What about the optimism of Marshall’s pictures–the near-paradises he finds in housing projects, for instance? He says “all of that other stuff”–devastation and ruin–“is already implied simply by the fact that they are housing projects. That’s where you’re going to go first, so I don’t have to show you that.” Similarly, “if you believe a lot of things you hear,” you might already have negative expectations about the homes of African-Americans. Is Marshall fundamentally an optimist? “Yes and no.” He says, “Yes, in the sense that it’s a wonderful world, in spite of all of the horrible things that go on. I’m eternally optimistic in the sense that I know that you live in the world you make. But I’m not actually trying to see the world in the best possible light; I’m trying to see it the way it is. Yes, everything you think about these places is true; everything you think goes on there is true. But there’s also this other thing that goes on that’s not completely overwhelmed by despair, by the impoverished conditions that a lot of people live in. There’s a harsh reality, but then there’s this amazing side. These living rooms are quite prosaic in the sense that they are the way they are, but they’re also peopled by these extraordinary creatures, these angels.”
Each “Souvenir” has glitter at its border, suggesting a tapestry fringe at the bottom. “Glitter is one of those really strange materials that has the capacity to elevate the aesthetic level of anything you put it on while at the same time calling attention to just how cheap the shrine of the glitter really is.” Cheryl is always the angel, “partly because she always complained about never being in anything I did; now she’s in everything.” Marshall noted the irony of transforming a “living” room into a place that commemorates the dead. “A lot of these homes have a quality to them, in their decor, that seems to be fixed in a period around the 60s and 70s. They seem to exist outside of this contemporary moment. That’s one of the reasons why I chose all of those places. When people see them they immediately think 60s, 70s. But those places are the way they are today, so they say something about time and space. Even though time and space change, people don’t really change. The sensibility of each person responsible for decorating these places comes out of that period, so for me it says something about the ways in which time is an arbitrary sort of abstraction–that the contemporary in a sense is always back there; that the past is always contemporary at the same time that it refers to the past. We bring it with us all the way through. We are always in the moment, and in the past.”
Though the rooms are painted in a relatively flat space, they also possess a monumental, almost heroic quality. Part of Marshall’s point is that the past’s heroism is also present today. “It’s present in the homes of ordinary black people,” he says, “ordinary folks.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Jon Randolph; “Souvenir No.1″ artwork photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art; Souvenir No.4” (top), Luis Ricks (bottom); “Souvenir No. 3” (top), Thelma Bruce (bottom)..