Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from Polly and Mark Addison, the Alliance for Contemporary Art, Caroline Morgan, and Colorado Contemporary Collectors: Suzanne Farver, Linda and Ken Heller, Jan and Frederick Mayer, Beverly and Bernard Rosen, Annalee and Wagner Schorr, and anonymous donors, 1995.77
Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955. Eight years later, his family moved to Los Angeles, California, where they lived in a housing project called Nickerson Gardens. He currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. Marshall received his BFA from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, California and was presented with an honorary doctorate in 1999.
Marshall’s work is often rooted in African-American popular culture, and draws upon his own childhood memories and experiences: “‘You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go,’ says Marshall.” He also brings together the traditions of artists from previous generations, combining everything that they’ve discovered about art to create something new: “It’s all up for grabs, it’s all material that can be combined to make something that nobody’s seen before.”
What Inspired It?
Better Homes, Better Gardens is part of a series of paintings that Marshall calls the “Garden Project.” The paintings in this series portray scenes that suggest the complexity of life in low-income housing projects. They are rich in references to art history, social history, and Marshall’s own personal history. According to Marshall, these paintings are “loaded with contradictions. That’s what makes work exciting.”
Better Homes, Better Gardens is set against the backdrop of an Illinois housing project. The homes all look the same and are part of a larger institutional building. The housing project code “IL 2-8” sits in the top right corner of the canvas. Marshall challenges the stereotypes of a housing project, however, by creating a more hopeful scene set against the institutional backdrop—two young people embrace one another as they stroll down a path; bluebirds flutter near the top of the painting; cheerful sunbeams pop up from behind the building. “What I wanted to show in those paintings is that whatever you think about the projects, they’re that and more. If you think they’re full of hopelessness and despair, you’re wrong. There are actually a lot of opportunities to experience pleasure in the projects.”
Things to Look For
Banner with Title
The title suggests an ideal place, an urban Garden of Eden. But the notion of improvement, of striving to better a less-than-ideal lot in life, seems to be part of the mix as well.The title, Better Homes, Better Gardens, calls to mind the well-known magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, which focuses on home improvement, gardening, and decorating. The title also refers to public housing projects whose names sometimes include the word “garden,” like Wentworth Gardens, depicted here.
Blackness of Skin Tone
The figures in Marshall’s work often have an intensely black skin color. He says, “A part of what I was thinking to do with my image was to reclaim the image of blackness as an emblem of power, instead of an image of derision.” However, here we find another contradiction. Although Marshall gives the figures a position of power, the “ultra-black” skin color makes their facial features difficult to see, making the figures nearly invisible. Marshall cites Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic American novel The Invisible Man as the origin of his black figure. In this novel, the protagonist and narrator, a young, unnamed black man, views himself as socially invisible in a world dominated by intolerance, racism, and bigotry.Marshall says, “[W]hat I set out to do was to develop a figure or form that would represent that condition of invisibility, where you had an incredible presence, but there was a way in which you could sometimes be seen and not seen at the same time.”
The Code IL 2-8
This is the official designation of the public housing site in the state of Illinois. The idyllic setting that Marshall has created is challenged by the presence of this bureaucratic code.
Bluebirds and Sunbeams
The birds and the sunshine are symbols that Marshall describes as a “fantasy of happiness.”
Splotches of Paint
Marshall uses the paint splotches to disrupt the narrative flow of the scene. He creates a scene does not tell just one linear story, but a story that has many different parts. Marshall also believes that evidence of the process of painting is very important to the overall appearance of a finished work. He says, “Some of what’s evident in an unfinished painting is that it reminds me just how difficult making a painting is. It confirms the suspicion that I always had, that these things don’t come into existence by magic.” Here, Marshall deliberately leaves traces of his process by including these random splotches of paint.
Each lesson plan includes high-quality image and information about the art.
Early Childhood (ages 3–5)
Students will engage with Marshall’s painting Better Homes, Better Gardens by comparing the images in the painting to their own neighborhoods and daily life. A storytelling activity helps students go beyond what they see and engage their imaginations.
Students will imagine they are visiting the scene presented in Marshall’s painting Better Homes, Better Gardens and write a letter home about their experience. They will then write a second letter, imagining they were visiting on a misty, moonlit night, to stretch their imaginations and enhance their writing abilities.
Students will learn about Marshall’s creative process when painting Better Homes, Better Gardens and discuss how it influences their perception of his work. They will also discuss the thematic content of the artwork and write a creative piece inspired by the painting.
According to Marshall, much of his work is “loaded with contradictions. That’s what makes work exciting.” Use this quote as the basis for a class debate. Assign sides—have half the class argue that this is a positive image of a housing project, and the other half argue that the painting shows a more negative outlook. Students should find examples in the painting to prove their point.
Write one act for a play about Wentworth Gardens (the housing project depicted in the painting). Construct a dialogue between the two figures. Think about their age and what their body language might indicate. Think about where they are going and where they are coming from. Look for examples that tell you what their life might be like.
Have students think about the different types of buildings in which people live, such as houses and apartment buildings. Consider the different elements that make up a “home.” Is it just the structure, or is it family and neighbors? Are there unique things about your neighborhood that make you feel at home? Have students create a painting showing what makes their neighborhood special.
Find Out More
Kerry James Marshall's Relationship to Art History
Artist Kerry James Marshall discusses his relationship to the Old Masters and considers his inspiration for developing a "rhetoric of blackness" in his painting series "Mementos."
Kerry James Marshall: Being an Artist
In this video from Art21, Kerry James Marshall discusses three recent paintings, all Untitled (2008), during the installation of his exhibition Black Romantic at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
This gallery’s website presents some of Marshall’s work, along with some background and commentary about the pieces.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
The classic novel that inspired Marshall’s depiction of the African-American figure in many of his paintings.
Powell, Richard J. Black Art, A Cultural History. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2002.
An exploration into the history of African-American art, supplemented with many examples of artists and their works.
This Website is generously funded by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, The Virginia Hill Charitable Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries and the National Endowment for the Arts, Xcel Energy Foundation, the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation, and The Japan Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.