Kerry James Marshall’s works lead viewers to a deeper awareness of integral and coactive relationships across material, form, and concept. Imagery and formal qualities, such as color and shape, depth and flatness, speak to ideas of race and power. Best known for paintings that depict black figures inhabiting prosaic moments in time while incarnating the dignity of eternity, Marshall brings the same integrity to his recent commission, A Monumental Journey. Dedicated in July 2018, this 30-foot-tall public sculpture commemorates the 12 black lawyers, one woman and 11 men, who founded the National Bar Association (NBA) in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1925.* The group’s original name, the Negro Bar Association, speaks to the fact that African Americans were banned from the American Bar Association.
Situated near the river in downtown Des Moines, A Monumental Journey consists of nearly 15,000 reflective, black manganese ironspot bricks, manufactured and then chamfered by hand in the small town of Endicott, Nebraska. The massive form was inspired by the African talking drum, an instrument used throughout West Africa to communicate between localities. The drum is valued for its ability to emulate the tones and rhythms of human speech. Rather than precisely replicating the drum on an immense scale, Marshall placed the upper portion so it balances precariously on the lower half. Offset like this, the form seems formidable, suggesting paired associations of communication and miscommunication, justice and inequality, the power and the delicacy needed to achieve balance. Marshall, a believer in the project, didn’t charge a fee for his work. The names of the 12 NBA founders, etched in black, circle the perimeter of the sculpture’s base.
Lenore Metrick-Chen: You are mainly known as a painter. Why did this project appeal to you?
Kerry James Marshall: What generally appeals to an artist is the challenge of a project that gives a chance to exercise everything you know about the history of form and its relationship to ideas and how you make those ideas concrete.
LM-C: I know that you brought ideas to the sculpture, but what ideas emerged from it?
KJM: I learned some things that I didn’t know, and I was able to meet and work with new people. The design of a project like this is fairly straightforward, but the engineering that has to go into making the thing work so it stands and carries the weight it’s supposed to is fascinating. Substance Architecture in Des Moines coordinated all of the infrastructure work pro bono; I watched how they assured the structural integrity of the piece. Working with the masons was also fascinating; the bricks had to be specially hand-fashioned to accommodate the multiplicity of angles and the curvature of the piece. Every single curve and angle is different from the others, which was an immense challenge. It would take me the rest of my lifetime to figure out how to get those things done. It’s enlightening to work with people who have the skills and capability to make those kinds of things happen.
LM-C: Your paintings have been about different types of blackness, and this sculpture is another type of blackness. How do you see it taking you in a different direction? Does this piece talk about a different relationship to race than your earlier works?
KJM: When you talk about how race is embodied in things, there are different levels of specificity you can articulate. You can do figurative representations that show what appear to be fairly obvious racial differences. You can show the relational figuration of race. You can show people who are phenotypically African looking or phenotypically Scandinavian looking and say, “Those people look different.” In my paintings, I use blackness in what I think is a fairly robust and complicated way. The figures that I paint are really black. I use that representation of blackness because it is a rhetorical device we use when we talk about identity. We say “black” people or “white” people, but if you make that concrete—if you show what you said—it seems extreme. The abstractions of race and color are made into something objectively concrete. This seems to convey more than what people understand in their everyday experience of those concepts. We don’t think of white people as white like sheets or paint on walls, nor do we think of black people as black like ink, but rhetorically that’s how we operate. On some level, my figures are as abstract as the sculpture, which superficially appears to be more abstract.
The color of the bricks is a way of embodying the same sort of dimension of blackness that I use when I paint my figures, which even though they appear to be just a single black color have seven different variations of black. They are complex, not one-dimensional. The bricks are as dark as we could get to achieve the chromatic richness that we wanted. That richness changes at different times of day. There are various chromatic shifts, from a golden color all the way to a deep bluish-purple gray. I think of the fundamental darkness of the thing as a reflection of the kind of blackness that underlies the concept and provides the conceptual sophistication of the piece. It is a way of embodying a certain kind of blackness that goes beyond listing the names of the people who are represented along the bottom of the sculpture. Blackness is in the color of the piece and in the way the color shifts through a variety of different tones based on the quality of light.
LM-C: The fact that the shape is based on an African talking drum adds another human element—speech. Does speech further the suggestion that this is a figural piece, though abstracted?
KJM: When I said that the piece superficially appears to be abstract, it is a way of abstracting an object that is already a real thing. The talking drum is a real thing, and my work has a similar shape—except my shape has been modified so that it can do something different. Among other concepts, this piece has to embody just how complex the idea of justice is. The shape conveys how complicated it is to achieve the kind of balance and equilibrium that we strive for in justice. A form has to be dynamic in order to refer to that complexity.
LM-C: In your paintings, the figures always have a kind of discord with their environment; they emerge from it but don’t ever completely settle within it. Did you pick the sculpture’s location for a harmonious fit, or do you see it as standing out from its environment?
KJM: I don’t think it’s like anything else that’s around it, either in its color or its shape or its size. It stands out and calls attention to itself; it was important—and necessary—for the work to have impact. More than anything else, what do you want people to do with an artwork? You want them to be drawn to it. You want them to be captivated by it. You want them to be overwhelmed by its presence. All of those feelings encourage a certain kind of relationship with the object—it’s an invitation to come to that place.
LM-C: Materials are always an important part of what your works mean, and here you had a shift from what you imagined using. You went from thinking of the piece in monolithic terms, realized in smooth resin, to a brick-by-brick construction. This raises the question of labor. The sculpture now has a part-to-part relationship that would be missing in a monolithic structure.
KJM: The sculpture conveys the concept of brick by brick, or as former NBA president Arthenia Joyner said in her dedication speech, “stone by stone.” It expresses the idea that mountains can be moved, or built, stone by stone. The labor involved in constructing the piece from bricks offered an ideal solution to a series of problems that we had to negotiate—problems not only in the construction of the piece, but also in the conceptual design. Part of the reason why I had wanted it to be smooth and shiny was that I thought I wanted it to create the impression of something that couldn’t have been made by human hands. But then it started to suggest distance—the distance it would create from everyday experience and from people’s understanding of labor and process and building. Then there was the fact that the piece would be created in California and trucked over here—that became less and less interesting to me.
LM-C: So, local construction and local materials became another conceptual element. The bricks have such a high iron content that they appear shiny without any glaze. Nebraska is one of the few places in the world with this type of clay.
KJM: It became important to source the material from brick makers in Iowa, or just outside, and to find craftsmen and masons from here. I live in Chicago now, and one of the mottos of Chicago is that it is the city that works. That sense of the importance of labor, of actually making things with your hands and building, became crucial to the piece. Still, I wanted to figure out a way to preserve a certain kind of blackness. It was going to be black resin initially, but because of these conceptual concerns, I wanted it to be black glazed brick.
LM-C: That goes along with the purpose of honoring the people who live here, who have been relatively anonymous. Your piece expands our historical understanding, building connections and strengthening our relationship to Iowa’s African American legacy.
KJM: And it also means that the people here are invested in it. It’s not something that was trucked in from outside, made by a guy from outside. The choices we made ended up giving the people of Des Moines a sense of ownership in the piece.
* The idea for the monument originated in 2002, the inspiration of Judge Odell McGhee, president of the Iowa chapter of the National Bar Association for over 10 years. After partnering with the NBA in 2006, seven years later, the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation acquired full responsibility for the project.