Artist: Kerry James Marshall
Medium: Acrylic on paper mounted on canvas.
Citation: Kerry James Marshall, American, born 1955, Many Mansions, 1994, Acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 289.6 x 342.9 cm, Max V. Kohnstamm Fund, 1995.147, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago. © Kerry James Marshall.
Rights Holder: Max V. Kohnstamm Fund, 1995.147, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago. © Kerry James Marshall.
Engage! Theme: Community
African American artist Kerry James Marshall’s large painting Many Mansions depicts a public housing project, Stateway Gardens, in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Built in 1955, Stateway Gardens was demolished between 2006 and 2007.
While public housing projects are often viewed as dangerous, crime-ridden communities, Marshall’s painting contradicts this perception, showing the dedicated residents of Stateway Gardens, dressed in their Sunday best for Easter, working to beautify their community.
The public housing high-rises loom in the background as three well-dressed young black men in crisp white shirts and black pants tend to the public garden. They weed and rake, while animated bluebirds fly above and adorn the scene with a blue ribbon that reads, “Bless Our Happy Home.” Easter baskets rest at their feet and a phantom flowering tree grows out of the monogram “SG” (for Stateway Gardens).
The brightly colored image, with its puzzling combination of real and artificial elements, highlights the contradictions of growing a garden in a public housing development.
The emphatically black figures are intended to function as rhetorical devices that pridefully and powerfully reclaim blackness from the history of stereotype and degradation.
Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up in Los Angeles. Having lived in public housing projects in both cities, he knew the struggles of the civil rights movement firsthand, witnessing the 1969 Watts neighborhood riots from his Los Angeles home.
The ironic title, Many Mansions, points to the unfulfilled promise of public housing to provide welcoming, safe homes, despite the “Welcome” sign and bucolic name of the housing project. The title comes from a biblical phrase inscribed in the red ribbon at the top: a variation on Jesus’ oft-quoted remark found in John [14:2]: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”
The first public housing units in the United States were built in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. Under local government supervision, tenements were destroyed and low-income residents were displaced in order to create new housing that was intended to address urban problems, such as crime and overcrowding. Houses, apartments, or other residential units were usually subsidized, or tenants paid rent based on income. Critics have contended that public housing concentrates and segregates urban problems in specific areas.
Why do you think these three men in shirt and tie are digging around in a garden?
Where is their garden? There is a “Welcome” sign—what are we being welcomed to? Does the garden fit in this environment? What other ways are we being welcomed to this place?
The painting depicts Stateway Gardens, a public housing complex in Chicago. How does the artist’s representation of the place match or not match your understanding of public housing?
We might say the men are in their “Sunday best,” and we see Easter baskets near them on the ground. Why do you think Marshall sets this painting on Easter?
The red banner across the top reads, “In my mother’s home there are many mansions,” which is a variation on a biblical quote. Where are the mansions here? Why do you think the artist has chosen to use this quote?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
Compare this painting to Grant Wood’s, Tree Planting Group. How do the figures in each image relate to or belong to their environment? What connects the people to one another?
What is the role of a public garden? Who tends it? Who uses it? How does it help build community? Besides planting and tending a public garden, how else can members of a community come together to overcome or defy the negative? Discuss whether there is a visible space in your community that could benefit from beautification or some other project and create a plan to carry it out.