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June 2015
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The Brush Is Mightier Than The Sword: Kerry James Marshall On Art, Music for Social Change


On a rainy Monday, I arrived at Kerry James Marshall’s studio dripping wet – not exactly how I envisioned meeting one of my favorite living artists. And he isn’t just any artist. He’s a MacArthur Genius! His paintings were just featured in the Central Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Even Beyoncé stopped by to get a look see at his London show “Look See” in late 2014.

He welcomed me inside the unassuming brick building, located on the South Side of Chicago just blocks from where the White Sox play at U.S. Cellular Field. As someone who had lived on the South Side for many years, I was excited to talk to Marshall, a long time South Sider himself, about his latest project: a multimedia collaboration honoring the 75th anniversary of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son.

Native Son explores themes of race, inequality, and injustice all dramatized through the saga of Bigger Thomas, a young African American man who lives on Chicago’s South Side. Living in poverty and hoping to improve his situation, Bigger tragically falls victim to the systems that control him, and ultimately lands in prison. One early critic of the novel, Irving Howe, declared, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.”

Marshall was approached by drummer and composer Dana Hall to co-create Hypocrisy of Justice: Sights and Sounds From the Black Metropolis — Riffin’ and Signifyin(g) on Richard Wright’s Native Son. Joining Marshall and Hall is a formidable team of artists that includes actress-scriptwriter Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who happens to be Marshall’s wife, and actor Wendell Pierce, featured in Selma and HBO’s The Wire. The work, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series, premieres at Orchestra Hall on Friday, June 19, 2015.

One of the most exciting things about Hypocrisy of Justice is that, like Wright’s Native Son, it has incredible potential to enlighten, inspire, and – ideally – to enact change. Marshall said they hope the project will provide a lens through which audiences can see “parallels between the events in the novel and certain conditions, and how things are now.”

Marshall motioned towards a scaled-down model of his designs. He explains that Hypocrisy is in three sections, just like the novel. “What I have set up on stage also mirrors that three part structure,” he said, “There are two distinct zones of activity: the slum where Bigger comes from and then the space where the Daltons [the white family for whom Bigger worked] live. How do you get from where he was to where he ended up?”

“The major set piece that the people will see functions as a blind. It represents institutions. And then there’s a house-like space that will be made from translucent plastic so that there’s things you can see through in it. There are flowers that are attached to it, too. It’s also sort of bigger than life and overdone to represent the heightened expectations of what it is like for someone like Bigger to live in that environment. It’s sort of a fantasyland. It’s always a fantasy for him to see what goes on in the house and what it looks like.”

His description is interrupted by a phone ringing at a volume loud enough for anyone to hear over the whir of buzz saws or other sounds in his workshop. Marshall is delighted that someone has called to let him know one piece of the set, a large red banner that hangs in the center of the stage, is finished ahead of schedule.

“If anything,” he continues when he sets the phone down, “the set up for this is about mobility and immobility, transparency and impenetrability, interiors and exteriors, barriers and openings. The whole thing is built on those things. If you look at it that’s exactly what you see.”

“Composition to me is the key to the whole thing – it’s how you organize the elements in the picture. I spend more energy trying to organize. I make sure the perspective is accurate, I plot everything just like I’m doing architecture,” he said. “But then I’m also simultaneously composing the picture in two dimensions.” Staring at large canvasses in different stages of progress throughout his studio space, his careful planning is especially evident.

Though the perfect compositional balance in Marshall’s works is perhaps what immediately catches your eye, what keeps you staring are the stories they tell. “Making a picture is a certain kind of language,” he said. “You try to choose your nouns and verbs and you choose carefully. When you speak to someone and you really want to communicate, you communicate carefully.”

His paintings and other works are, “not directly narrative, but they have narrative implications because they are set up as tableaus,” he said. Hypocrisy of Justice, “is kind of the same thing, you’re just doing it in three-dimensional space.”

Though Hypocrisy is ambitious, Marshall said, “I’m always up for a challenge. I have done production designs for some feature films, so I have a little bit of experience with this kind of multimedia production. I understand a little bit of how it is done and how harrowing, how complicated it can be, how many problems you have to account for.”






One of the biggest challenges in creating this work has been far from technical. Marshall and his collaborators have been searching for ways to explore the difficult themes of Native Son without trying to “replicate this idea of complete helplessness, hopelessness, and despair,” he said.

“You can’t keep projecting that as the fundamental reality of the novel. There are complicated realities that seem insurmountable. But, what can you do in the meantime? There’s always something that can be done in the meantime. There’s always gotta be a way out.”

“There always has to be joy and pleasure in spaces where there’s pain. People still live, and they can’t live in total hopelessness. And if nothing else, art can alleviate some of the dreariness – you gotta have a respite from that.”

While Marshall has received many awards and honors, impacting others is the accomplishment of which he is most proud. “If someone comes up to me and tells me I in some way have helped them with something they’re trying to work through? That’s what’s most rewarding.”

We continued to talk about a range of topics from our favorite science fiction novels to life on the South Side. We talked about our favorite music, our families. He told me about how he moved to Chicago with only $300 and the love he shares with his wife, Cheryl.

“If you don’t have to have all the latest shoes, you don’t have to have all the latest sunglasses. If you don’t need all that stuff, and you put all your energy into creating a space so that you can develop yourself? That’s good living.”

As the afternoon got on, I could hear that the rain was beginning to let up. By the time I left Marshall’s studio, the rain had stopped completely, grey skies turned blue, and the world was literally a brighter place.

To learn more about Hypocrisy of Justice, visit the CSO’s website.






  • Oscar Macchioni

    OMG!!! Last time I saw and spoke with Xiaoping he was 10 y.o, he was very shy and did not speak much during his lessons. I had to “force” him to speak. To hear his voice today, of a young man, so articulated, talking about emotions, and to hear him play, bring tears to my eyes. Bravo Xiaoping!!!

  • Kathy Wojo

    Great concert! My granddaughter, who plays the flute at NIU, and I have been to your concerts in Sun City many times. Totally enjoyable listening and our best wishes to you.
    Kathy Wojo and Zoe