• Marline Johnson

Pivot

“An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I'm concerned, it's their choice, but I CHOOSE to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty.” - Nina Simone.


We are living in a time where public art represents the diversity and dynamism of the communities in which it is made. To meet this moment artists all across the city of Chicago created art that reimagined the possibilities of who we, as a city and nation, can be. I saw artists creating art pieces that will outlive them and reminded us of how far we have come as a country, and yet, how much further we have to go. I thought about Nina, I thought about my duty, I thought about my purpose. I thought of all the people who helped me find my light.

“An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I'm concerned, it's their choice, but I CHOOSE to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty.” - Nina Simone.


We are living in a time where public art represents the diversity and dynamism of the communities in which it is made. To meet this moment artists all across the city of Chicago created art that reimagined the possibilities of who we, as a city and nation, can be. I saw artists creating art pieces that will outlive them and reminded us of how far we have come as a country, and yet, how much further we have to go. I thought about Nina, I thought about my duty, I thought about my purpose. I thought of all the people who helped me find my light.




No Fear November 2019


In November of 2019, I met a woman by the name of Caroline Elaine. She is an incredible black mosaic artist and has been in the field for over 20 years. This moment was crucial for my development because up until this point in my artist career, I’d been operating as a self taught mosaic artist with no formal training. I had sent countless emails to other mosaic artists in search of mentorship but kept coming up short. A one hour meeting turned into three hours of minds coming together into what is now a beautiful partnership and friendship. Carolyn willingly opened up heart practice to me, shared her techniques, and I learned and grew exponentially as an artist. The first project she asked me to help her with was a Basketball Girl, for the Hall of fame wall at Harlan High school. It was day one of working together and it was already life changing — I’ll tell you why.


When I was 9, my grandmother told my brother Vince (age 10) and I to pack a bag and that we were going on a vacation. Most vacations have a start and end date. However, this vacation we were about to take was actually the genesis to our relocation story to Chicago. One moment we were on a plane and three days later, we were looking at schools and buying school uniforms. I remember the moment my brother and I locked eyes, and silently we knew that we weren’t going home, not for a while anyways.


I struggled socially and emotionally with the transition and found it difficult to find my place. People had tons of questions about our family like where were our “birth parents” and “who specifically was our white lawyer, turned legal guardian, turned Father.” It was a lot to negotiate at 9 years old. So, I did what I thought any kid would do by burying myself in school work. The first time I picked up a basketball was 4th grade P.E. We were playing knockout. I was 5’0 —long and uncoordinated, but I could shoot a free throw. Most people assumed I played basketball because of my height but I didn’t...well not yet at least. Becoming a basketball player was my coming of age story. On Saturday morning’s I went to Girls Got Game basketball camp located at New City YMCA in what was formerly known as Chicago Cabrini Green Area. The Cabrini Green was a prominent housing project in Chicago, but has since been torn down and gentrified with shopping malls, movie theaters, and restaurants. However, for the years that I spent at The YMCA it became a second home. The St. Hilary Cardinals and the Chicago Lady Demons became my surrogate families and how through basketball I was able to make Chicago feel like home. Basketball has taught me so much about life, hard work, commitment, perseverance, team work, love, failure, victory, community, and friendship. So when Carolyn asked me to be a part of this project, you could imagine my excitement. Serendipity is the world that comes to mind, as this is the first project Carlyn asked me to support her with but it wouldn't be the last.




Basketball Girl: February 2020


Shortly after the installation of the Baseketball Girl, the world shut down. The coronavirus pandemic had exposed America’s devastating racial inequalities and the video of the brutal murder of George Floyd has exposed (once again) America’s systemic contempt for Black People. More specifically our Black Men. We are at a tipping point. Our youth have picked up the baton and thrown it like a stick of dynamite into America’s corrupt and corrosive system of oppression and killing. Whether we agree with their tactics or not, this is OUR time to PIVOT. Going back to “normal” is no longer an option. We want to move forward. The question is... how? With whom? At what cost? Historically the cost has been black lives. By filming George Floyd's violent encounter with the police, 17 year old, Darnella Frazier changed our world.


In times of turmoil, unrest, uncertainty I turn to art, that's my North star. At the impetus of PIVOT it was just another project Carolyn asked me to be a part of. We spent my time fabricating 130 square feet of mosaic. In the beginning, we were unaware that the images emerging would be so poignant given our political landscape. Some might call it serendipitous that the installation of this mural began on May 26, one day after the murder of George Floyd at the knee of police. It was as if the deeper meaning of what we had just created was being revealed to me in real time.




PIVOT MAY 2020


This artwork pays homage to the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. The raised fist of Tommie Smith continues to be a powerful symbol of resistance today. The imagery in this composition was inspired by the artwork of renown Black Panther artist Emory Douglas who created art for the Black Panther Newspaper. The red Adinkra symbol depicted in this piece is Akoben. A battle cry, call to arms. It’s a symbol of vigilance, readiness and preparedness for action or battle. We as a country are at a tipping point. We aimed to create anything that is reflective of the current state of America. We want people to remember these times not just for a week, or a month, or a year. We want these art pieces to live forever because the art that is in our minds cannot. Several years from now, even when we leave this Earth, our artwork will have documented a really important time in American history. Are we pivoting into a new decade where black people get equal justice? Let’s hope so. When I look at this piece I think of Nina, and the call she made for artists to reflect that time. As OUR ancestor, I hope we are making her proud.


Marline Johnson is an African American artist, whose work is centered on the notion of making “the invisible” visible, through spoken word, photography, and mosaic making. She uses these mediums to create spaces where she can foster critical dialogue with her audience around the challenging nature of racial and gender inequality by awakening complex issues that many would prefer to remain mute. Her work addresses the small acts of racial and gender oppression that have become embedded within our culture today.

Marline is an alumna of Connecticut College and earned a Master of Arts degree in Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since Graduating from SAIC, Marline is committed to working in the fields related to youth development, leadership development, and community engagement while simultaneously cultivating her art practice centered on eliminating gender-based violence against women and girls. She has experience facilitating social justice, person-centered, trauma-informed counseling services to adolescent female survivors of sexual violence.


©2019 by The Macfarlan Group