Kerry James Marshall, Artist of the Black Experience

kerry james marshall
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Kerry James Marshall (born October 17, 1955) is a prominent contemporary Black American artist. He broke ground for Black artists by rising to the upper echelon of the art world while remaining steadfastly dedicated to presenting work that explores the Black experience in America. His experience growing up in the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles profoundly influenced his art.

Fast Facts: Kerry James Marshall

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: October 17, 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama
  • Education: Otis College of Art and Design
  • Selected Works: "Voyager" (1992), "Many Mansions" (1994), "Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master" (2011)
  • Notable Quote: "One of the reasons I paint Black people is because I am a Black person."

Early Life and Career

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Kerry James Marshall moved with his family to the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles as a young child. He grew up surrounded by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s. He was an eyewitness to the Watts riots that occurred in August 1965.

As a teenager, Kerry James Marshall took part in a summer drawing class at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles after a teacher nominated him for inclusion. There, he was shown the studio of artist Charles White, who later became his instructor and mentor.

Kerry James Marshall enrolled as a full-time student at the Otis Art Institute in 1977 and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1978. He moved to Chicago in 1987 after completing a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City. Marshall began teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1993, and he earned a "genius" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1997.

History as Subject Matter

Many of Kerry James Marshall's works reference events from American history as primary subject matter. One of the most prominent is 1992's "Voyager." The boat featured in the painting is named "Wanderer." It references the story of the former yacht that was the last ship to bring a large number of enslaved Africans to America. In violation of a 50-year-old law prohibiting the importation of enslaved people, the "Wanderer" arrived at Jekyll Island in Georgia in 1858 with over 400 enslaved people on board. It was the final event in the history of the African slave trade in America.

In 2011, Marshall painted "Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master." It is a nearly full-length portrait in the manner of traditional portraiture, but the grisly image of a man slaughtered in his sleep lying behind Nat Turner is chilling. The historical event referenced is the two-day rebellion of enslaved Black Americans led by Nat Turner in 1831.

Housing Projects

In 1994, Kerry James Marshall painted a series titled "The Garden Project." He depicts life in public housing projects in the U.S. inspired by his own experience living in Nickerson Gardens, a 1,066-unit apartment complex in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His paintings in the series explore the dichotomy between the imagery evoked by the names of the projects using the word "Gardens" and the reality of harsh life in public housing. It is a metaphor for the lives of Black Americans in contemporary America.

One of the key pieces is 1994's "Many Mansions." It shows three Black men in formal clothing performing the manual labor of planting flowers for a housing project. Their depiction is at the center of Marshall's juxtaposition of the ideal evoked by the concept of a public housing project with the reality of the residents' experiences.

Another painting in the series, "Better Homes, Better Gardens," shows an idyllic young Black couple strolling through a brick housing project. The inspiration for this piece is Chicago's Wentworth Gardens. It is notorious for a history of gang violence and drug problems.

Concept of Beauty

Another frequent subject of Kerry James Marshall's work is the concept of beauty. The people depicted in Marshall's paintings usually have very dark, almost flat black, skin. He explained to interviewers that he created the extreme to specifically draw attention to the distinctive appearance of Black Americans.

In a series of 1994 paintings of models, Marshall depicts male and female Black models. The male model is shown against a mostly white background that emphasizes the blackness of his skin. He is lifting his shirt to presumably share the power of his physique with viewers.

He painted a topless female Black model with the names Linda, Cindy, and Naomi inscribed in the upper right. They are the iconic supermodels Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, and Naomi Campbell. In another model painting, Marshall juxtaposed the image of the female Black model's face with those of blonde White models.


In 2016, Kerry James Marshall's work was the subject of the historically significant retrospective "Mastry" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The exhibition covered 35 years of Marshall's work with nearly 80 pieces displayed. It was an unprecedented celebration of the work of a Black American artist.

In addition to its overt celebration of the Black experience in America, many observers saw Kerry James Marshall's work as a reaction to the movement of much of the art establishment away from traditional painting. Unlike celebrated experiments in minimalist and conceptual art, Marshall creates his works with an eye toward arranging his subject matter in ways that stretch back to the traditions of art from the Renaissance era. Kerry James Marshall has explained that he is more interested in being a painter than creating "art."

When the "Mastry" exhibition traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Kerry James Marshall selected 40 works from the museum's permanent collection that he particularly valued as inspiration. The exhibit within an exhibit was titled "Kerry James Marshall Selects."

Public Works Controversy

In 2018, Kerry James Marshall's paintings made headlines in two controversies over the value of public art contrasted with the benefit of public services that could be provided with money earned from sales of the art. In May, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority of Chicago sold the monumental piece "Past Times" to rap artist and entrepreneur Sean Combs for $21 million. The original purchase price was $25,000. The piece previously hung in the McCormick Place convention center on public display. The money earned from the auction provided a windfall to the budget of the public agency.

Even more controversial was the announcement by Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel that the city would sell the 1995 Kerry James Marshall painting "Knowledge and Wonder." It hung on the wall in one of the city's public library branches. Commissioned for $10,000, experts pegged the value of the painting at somewhere near $10 million. Emmanuel planned to use the funds from the sale to expand and upgrade a branch of the library on the city's west side. After intense criticism from the public and the artist himself, the city withdrew plans to sell the work in November 2018.


  • Tate, Greg, Charles Gaines, and Laurence Rassel. Kerry James Marshall. Phaidon, 2017.
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Your Citation
Lamb, Bill. "Kerry James Marshall, Artist of the Black Experience." ThoughtCo, Jan. 30, 2021, Lamb, Bill. (2021, January 30). Kerry James Marshall, Artist of the Black Experience. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Kerry James Marshall, Artist of the Black Experience." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2023).