Community Stories: Kerry James Marshall

Works of art from our permanent collection often travel on loan to other museums. For instance, Kerry James Marshall’s 1993 painting De Style is soon headed to the Vancouver Art Gallery, where a retrospective of his work opens next month.

Marshall, who currently lives in Chicago, grew up in Los Angeles. As an elementary school student living in Watts, Marshall visited LACMA and began to envision a future as an artist. Since then his work has been widely exhibited by major museums and he is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius award. I recently spoke with him about his formative experiences at LACMA. Here’s what he had to say:

We arrived in Los Angeles in 1963 from Birmingham Alabama, part of the classic migration story. My father was looking for better opportunities. We all got on a train and took that three-day trip from Birmingham to L.A.

It was so bright! The light was blinding almost. Then you saw palm trees, thirty or forty feet tall, which was something we had never seen before. It was strange and new.

Kerry James Marshall, "De Style," 1993, purchased with funds provided by Ruth and Jacob Bloom

When we first got to California we lived in Watts. We moved to the Nickerson Gardens Projects on 111th Street. Then we moved to South Central L.A. so my father could be closer to work at the VA Hospital in Westwood.

From my third grade teacher I was starting to develop an interest in art. And then in fourth grade we visited the library and I started to learn about technique. I used to watch John Gnagy’s program, Learn to Draw. By the time I got to LACMA on a fifth grade field trip, it really meant something. I was able to see things by people whose work I had seen in books.

Paolo Caliari Veronese, "Allegory of Navigation with an Astrolabe: Ptolemy" (left) and "Allegory of Navigation with a Cross-Staff: Averroës," 1557, gifts of The Ahmanson Foundation

There are two paintings in the museum by Veronese. Two big paintings of saints. Those two pictures struck me as the most magnificent things I had ever seen. I grew up looking at a lot of comic books. The figures in those were like super heroes! It was the color, the tone, the drawing. The size. They were extraordinary. They were beyond.

I also saw one of the most powerful things I had ever encountered. In the African Art section, there was a Senufo figure—burlap with feathers in the top and sticks for the arms.

Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, Senufo peoples, "Fetish Figure," 20th century, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Baker

I had never seen anything like it. It was so mesmerizing. It had such a power. I didn’t know anything about it, but there was something about it that was haunting.

I would go back to the museum to see that and the Veronese paintings all the time. Those two things had the most profound impact on me.

Amy Heibel

One Response to Community Stories: Kerry James Marshall

  1. Thank you Kerry James Marshall for your story. I hope artist like myself, will see you and other artist of color speaking live at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, so the whole art community will continue to be served.

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