October 2020  Vol. 1, No.6

The Emancipatory Dreamscapes of Crystal Marshall

Wool III- Tears, 2016

Oil on Paper

26 x 32 x 0.5

In the thriving counterculture scene of Greenwich Village during the 1960s, the common challenge question posed for any creative person in music or visual art was: “Does he/she have anything to say?” Crystal Marshall has plenty to say! She impressively channels the essence of her inner being into powerful paintings – her immigrant experience, her femininity, her blackness, her Afro-Caribbean identity. She is clearly conscious of these elements in her art, juxtaposing beautiful realistic portraits against fantastical dreamscapes. Primarily, she paints with oil on paper, and just recently she started back up with charcoal on paper.

Pure Like Wool, 2015

Oil on Paper

24 x 31x 0.5

She was born in Long Island, New York. At age six she migrated back home to her parent’s ancestral Jamaica. In 2005, when she was 19, she returned to the US, first to Florida and then to study at the Maryland College of Art and Design in Baltimore, later on to Georgia.

Marshall’s lovely and approachable paintings exude sensitivity and warmth on the surface, but belie the underlying, conflicting core thematic. She creates serene images that are actually a reaction to a form of racialism. Rather, her paintings depict an alternate reality, her own imaginary world.

Crystal Marshall portrait

The 36-year old has practiced art seriously since her time as a painting student at the Edna Manley College of the Performing and Visual Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2003. If it is hard to get recognition in metropolitan Kingston or New York City, it’s even harder for a young black woman to be understood and recognized in small-town Lithonia, Georgia, where she presently resides. Even in nearby Atlanta, not known as a progressive center of the art world, it is not easy to penetrate the Southern, white-dominated galleries with Afrocentric thematic. In the meantime, she is making a living in her professional day-job as a satellite operator, waiting for her soon-to-come and well-deserved artistic breakthrough.

Serenity, 2015

Oil on Paper

24 x 31 x 0.5

Take for example her Wool series: “The Wool series stems from my spiritual beliefs and also experiences that I’ve had, the aspect of Afro-hair and what it symbolizes culturally; and, what it means to me. When I made my journey to Atlanta, hair became an issue. When I was at the Maryland College of Art and Design, I stopped relaxing my hair and went natural. Everyone embraced me and I felt comfortable. But, when I moved to Atlanta, it was different. I felt antagonism about my hair and how I wore it, what image that presented to people, and how people reacted to me. I’m referring to both black and white. I got some pretty alarming comments, even from black people, that really surprised me. What felt normal and natural to me all of a sudden became a burden. When I was trying to look for a job, I relaxed my hair again. People would say, “Oh, you look so refined” or “You look so much better.”

 

Essentially, local society is still imposing on black women the archaic notion that their own hair is somehow inferior or undesirable.

Wool I, 2015

Oil on Paper

24 x 48 x 0.5

Wool II-Resolute, 2015

Oil on Paper

32 x 48 x 0.5

Essentially, the artist’s natural Afro is a way to celebrate her own cultural and physical distinctiveness, a symbol of personal freedom. Her paintings become a way of self-emancipation. Hair had become a form of protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, not just among hippies but as part of the ‘black is beautiful’ movement, a celebration of black beauty and a repudiation of Eurocentric beauty standards. It was a defiant stand against racial inequities. Marshall is reliving that experience in 2020.

Baby on Wool- Dulcis Dente I, 2020

Digital Photography

36 x 56 x 0.5

She frequently paints self-portraits, including the magnificent Serenity, which depicts the artist slumbering peacefully. The piece Like Pure Wool, for example, is a self-portrait from three different angles. In Wool II, we enter the outer space realm, literally, complete with astronauts and spacecraft. She also carries spirituality into her paintings, explaining, “In Pure Wool and Heavenly Dew, themes bleed into each other. There’s a passage that I really love, “May God give you heaven's dew and earth's richness; an abundance of grain and new wine.” I wanted to take the dew to symbolize heavenly gifts. I wanted to try to turn things upside down, to say that what feels like a burden is actually a heavenly gift. I’ll take the symbolism and I make it my own.”

Creative expressions, be it music, visual art or writing, are often a form of personal catharsis. Marshall created a series of delicate, almost fragile emotive paintings that exude vulnerability and metaphysical sentiments, in almost science-fiction like fantasies. Her Naked series are not nudes, but revelatory self-exposés. Here, “naked” seems to mean “unprotected” as we see right through the body to the exaggerated human spine. The Black Body series plays on the mystical and spiritual, connecting the soul-travelling body to the cosmic and astral.

Naked III-Spina, 2020

Oil on Paper

24 x 32 x 0.5

Naked II, 2020

Charcoal/Pencil on Paper

25.5 x 47.5 x 0.5

Naked I, 2017

Oil on Paper

36 x 56 x 0.5

Black Body I, 2019

Oil on Paper

24 x 36 x 0.5

The artist’s existentialist struggle is perhaps an expression of the alienation she describes– the common immigrant experiences of flowing between cultures, of being bi-cultural, of wanting to belong but not fully being part of either one. Marshall, too, informs her art of this feeling, recalling, “Back home in Jamaica, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re not Jamaican’, because they heard the American accent. Even though I talk in Patois they can hear it – it’s apparent. They’re like – Are you from here? On top of that, I was extremely sheltered. I didn’t really integrate myself in the social aspect of the culture, so people could sense that I was shy. I was different. Not being 100 percent Jamaican and not being 100 percent American definitely has had an impact on that feeling.”

BlackBody III- Ascension, 2020

Oil on Steel

24 x 24 x 0.5

Black Body Summit I, 2020

Digital Photography

30 x 48 x 0.5

Crystal Marshall’s brilliant visions need to be seen. She is on the cusp of ascension, ready to soon be discovered. Her curator, Bibiana Huang Matheis, at the Hammond Museum in New York minced no words, “She is going to be big!”

Frank Matheis
Writer. Photographer. Producer.


Contributing writer to the Hammond Museum, Frank Matheis, is a music, visual arts and culture writer and photographer. His latest project was the book ‘Sweet Bitter Blues’ co-written with National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). His Hammond Museum column ‘In Other Words’ features member artists in all disciplines. He is also a contributing writer to ArtsWestchester, Living Blues magazine (Center for Southern Culture Studies) and thecountryblues.com.