From the catalogue ‘Kerry James Marshall: Along the Way’ edited by Deborah Smith and Sarah Martin, Camden Arts Centre, London, 2005.

Deborah Smith posed the question:

How do we make sense of what we see?

Anecdotes from a possible list of responses:


I arrive at the gallery early. The painting is already unpacked and propped against the wall. I have a number of questions:

Does the painting look ok against the wall colour?

At what height should it hang ?

Does the painting ‘work’ with adjacent pictures?

What is lighting going to do to the picture? Is that elaborate frame going to cast an unsightly shadow?

When does the courier need to catch her plane? How quickly does the painting need to go on the wall?


I am in a half-finished exhibition room. There is nothing much happening so I take the opportunity to look at the pictures on the wall.

This self-portrait has a great frame; it looks older than the painting. My eyes flit between the main elements of the composition: the artist (clutching a paintbrush with a blob of red on the end – paint depicting paint), a cherub over one shoulder and a skull at the other. I look at the artist’s face; he stares out of the picture, startled by the sudden presence of death when he has become comfortable with love.

My phone rings.


It’s wet and I have a half-hour to kill. I can nip into the gallery by the back door and see what I come across.

My bag is heavy; maybe I can find a seat and a picture that I like. I look at a painting of ships in a high sea. The thing I miss about living in this city is easy access to the sea. I enjoy being on the shore looking at the sea. But this is not a view from the shore and I find myself looking at the shape of the clouds and the indistinct horizon line. The way that the sails billow is a pleasure too but the best bit is in the lower right hand corner where the waves are white, whipped up into an unlikely frozen mountain range.