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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Kerry James Marshall in our house !

By Terry DeBardelaben

In June of 2007 I attended an informal gathering of Black Artists of DC to meet McArthur Genius Fellow - Kerry James Marshall. Kerry was in town to attend the opening reception for the Portraiture Now: Framing Memory exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. BADC members gathered at the home of visionary and founder Aziza Hunter.

Aziza first met and collaborated with Kerry a decade ago at the Studio Museum in New York City. The opportunity to informally engage Kerry in an intimate setting that would facilitate frank and open dialogue made the group ecstatic.
Kerry’s nervously tense smile camouflaged a direct style of communication that mesmerized his audience. We sat bemused by his witty commentary leavened with wisdom. He enlightened, educated, and even admonished us as he fielded questions about his artistic journey, education, and acclaim.

Kerry James Marshall sharing his artistic history, intent and vision with members of the Black Artists of DC

His discourse began with reflections about his childhood ambition to be an artist. Kerry then articulated his concepts for his multimedia installations; he spoke passionately about realizing desires new and old, his eyes glistened as he confessed his own boy hood aspirations to be in the art books he browsed as a child. Kerry asked the group: What do you want? Have you always wanted it? And, how bad do you want it? Mr. James’ professional journey set him on a trajectory that allowed him to realize his dream. Biographical research, market place analysis, and a study of art history and trends helped Kerry find his niche. “Your use of material and treatment of the subject are critical to the establishment of your unique identity, which allows you to have an unequivocal contribution to the discourse”.

I froze at that moment and wanted to strip away my masks, - right there on the spot in an effort to discover my essence. I asked my self if what I know reflects who I am…
Kerry made it painfully clear…“art is a business not some romantic notion of artist as genius or some exceptional practice that we do not have access to. Rather, art is a consideration of useful ideas. After all, you will have diminished returns if you just make art without reinvigorating/reinventing yourself and your visual expression. Invest in the moment. Ask yourself, has all possibility for new expression been exhausted? Your language of representation must lead the viewer down a path, because art an intellectual pursuit and requires intellectual investigation.” These jewels shared by Kerry were transforming.

After the group's, three-hour interlude, every fixated eye was satisfied, and our hunger collectively fed.
Upon reflection, it was my conversations with Kerry that both grounded and prepared me for my recent trip to Ghana, West Africa. I journeyed into the unknown with mentor and friend Winnie Owens-Hart to do ceramic field research in the village of Kuli in the Upper Volta region. I reflected on Kerry’s questions that probed possibility for new expression. Witnessing traditional pottery practices that have been passed down over the centuries infuses me with a desire to explore the future applications of traditional techniques.

In Ghana I encountered a people just on the verge of becoming what they might be while they resist becoming what they once were- enslaved. (2007 brings in 50 years of Ghanaian independence from Portuguese, Dutch, and British rule.) The introduction to unfamiliar sounds, tastes, colors and smells has sparked interest in a field I’ve not considered before, ethnographic research. I am on a journey to discover new possibility for a timeless craft.

I too am on the verge of becoming.

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