Kerry James Marshall, Our Town

Kerry James Marshall, Our Town, 1995, acrylic and collage on canvas, 256.5 x 363.2 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and we’re looking at a large painting by Kerry James Marshall called “Our Town,” and there’s no missing the title.

Alejo Benedetti: [0:14] Emblazoned right across the top, you have “Our Town,” and this is a reference to Thornton Wilder’s play from 1938, also called “Our Town.” It’s all about this average American town, and he’s addressing the assumption in that play that the average American town is going to be populated by white people.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] That’s one of the things that is important to the artist to address, the assumption of whiteness in America and also the lack of presence of Black people in the history of art, so asserting that presence.

Alejo: [0:47] I think he makes that presence of Blackness very apparent. When he paints figures, he’s not painting brown figures, he’s painting Black figures. He is mixing together very vivid black colors.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] We look up at “Our Town” and we notice bluebirds carrying ribbons. Behind that, the sun that seems to be rising, the rays of light that come from it. There’s something very cartoonish.

Alejo: [1:13] It is beautiful. It’s Disney-esque. The bluebirds of happiness. If you look to the right in the backyard, you have a pool and a swing set, and the white picket fence. All of these things that we associate with perfect suburbia.

Dr. Harris: [1:26] And the housewife who stands waving to the children with an apron on and a skirt. This sense of 1950s nostalgia.

Alejo: [1:34] Even the two children that are in the front, that feels like it’s straight out of a 1950s “Dick and Jane” picture book.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] The red bicycle, the dog who’s nipping at their heels. There is a sense of childhood joy here, but there’s also discomfort. These figures feel out of place and make me aware of my assumption of whiteness.

[1:55] Let’s talk about these two figures. They are in the center and the foreground of the painting. They’re large and they’re moving toward us.

Alejo: [2:03] They are aware of our presence. This young boy is looking side-eyed at us. The girl is looking more directly at us, but she’s also holding up a Black Power fist.

Dr. Harris: [2:13] It feels to me as if everything begins to come apart as we move further down, especially toward the left part of the canvas.

Alejo: [2:21] You have the perfect scene but we’re pressing at the seams here. The ‘o’ in ‘our’ for “Our Town” is not fully painted in. You also have the painting in the front, especially on the left-hand side, that is not totally complete. We have this vision of the American dream that is not realized.

Dr. Harris: [2:40] The area in the left foreground is so painterly. We see the hand of the artist, we see the drips of the paint, and it stands in such contrast to other parts of the painting that are so carefully finished.

Alejo: [2:55] You have all of these different sections where there’s information missing. Where there’s a story that is incomplete.

Dr. Harris: [3:01] We could see that in the thought bubble of the little girl.

Alejo: [3:03] It’s going specifically to the red, white, and blue picturesque house, as if she is dreaming the American dream. This is also something that is incomplete. This is a promise that is not delivered on, or at least not delivered on to all people.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] There are other ways in which things are unfinished or incomplete. We can look at the yellow ribbons tied around the trunks of the trees that tell us that this family has someone, perhaps, who’s serving in the military, and they’re waiting for him to come home.

[3:31] Then we have this juxtaposition that’s disconcerting of the difference between the house on the right, and its perfectness in terms of its alignment with the American dream, and these small houses on the left that are close together, that lack windows, that aren’t part of this American dream.

Alejo: [3:51] These are clearly lower-income houses than what we have depicted on the right.

Dr. Harris: [3:56] We know that this painting is part of a series that Marshall did called “The Garden Project Series,” and did spend a little bit of time as a child in a housing project. Those were filled with utopian promises of community. We all know what happens in the 1970’s, and the violence and poverty that happened in those housing projects.

Alejo: [4:18] In some ways, Kerry James Marshall is looking at his own childhood, and the fact that when he was growing up and when he did live in these housing projects he saw it as this really wonderful thing, but he is also creating this work in the mid-’90s and he’s looking back at the reality of that.

Dr. Harris: [4:34] It’s hard not to feel a sense of questioning what belongs, what doesn’t belong.

Alejo: [4:41] I think that these kids are setting this up for us. They are staring out at us, very directly. There’s clearly a sense of unease, and it’s not totally clear when you walk up to this. Are we the viewer who are being stared at? Are we out of place?

Dr. Harris: [4:54] There’s a complexity of looking and race that’s tangled up together, and reminds me of the tangle of yellow ribbons behind the children.

[5:04] [music]

Cite this page as: Alejo Benedetti, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "Kerry James Marshall, Our Town," in Smarthistory, August 22, 2022, accessed May 27, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/kerry-james-marshall-our-town/.