Art is knowledge, knowledge is art. Just ask internationally acclaimed artist Kerry James Marshall who, as a fifth grader in the library at Forty-Ninth Street Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles, came across a book that would forever change his life. It was Negro History Week, and a report on a historical figure of his choice was due by week’s end. Entitled Great Negroes, Past and Present, the young Marshall—already interested in art—browsed through its more familiar images of Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and numerous others before reaching the back of the book, reserved for visual artists. There, he was first struck by the name and work of the iconic Charles White, not because of the beauty of his art but, as he penned in his 2018 essay on his late mentor, because the “simple contradiction of a black man named White in a book about ‘negroes’ struck me as ironic.”
Irony morphed into serendipity as a series of seemingly preordained events would place Marshall in the same spaces as White. The artistic teen was selected for a summer drawing class at the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County where White taught, despite being reserved for older students. Though White didn’t teach the course, Marshall was exposed to the book Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White and permitted to visit the renowned artist’s studio on campus. Following Leonardo da Vinci’s timeless advice for young artists to locate a “good master and copy his work,” Marshall “was copying a drawing of Frederick Douglass from the book when the artist himself walked into our classroom.” Right there, he later wrote, “I resolved to be an Otis student as soon as I graduated high school.”
In January 1977, Marshall enrolled as a full-time student at Otis. And even though his iconic mentor would pass two years later, the impact on Marshall was indelible, stretching beyond the grave. A quarter century after the young artist first read White’s name, he bought an abandoned building to convert into a studio in White’s native city of Chicago. There, wrote Marshall, sitting “atop a pile of papers in a desk drawer left behind by the previous owners” was a copy of the book that started it all, Great Negroes, Past and Present, “worn and tattered, held together with duct tape. My eyes popped and my heart pounded just as they had at his studio door at Otis. Just thinking about that moment sends a shiver through my body.”
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