Smile Politely

Marilynn Dean Cleveland showcases Black American life in My Soul Doesn’t Cast a Shadow

Painting: The City by Marilynn Dean Cleveland features a group of Black people in the foreground. Abstract shapes are behind them, including something that resembles the Bean sculpture in Chicago. The city is reflected in the central Bean shape. The background is made up of abstract paint strokes. The painting is primarily dark: reds, blues, greys.
(c) Marilynn Dean Cleveland, The City, 2002; photo by Serenity Stanton Orengo

During her 82 years of life so far, Marilynn Dean Cleveland has created more than 1700 pieces of art. When I learned her choice of media included popcorn and bottle caps, I was intrigued, to say the least. Some of Cleveland’s work is currently on display at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center for her show My Soul Doesn’t Cast a Shadow. I went to view her exhibited works on a Saturday, and there were people chatting sitting on folding chairs while watching a soccer match that was projected on a large screen, kids playing ball in one room, other kids drawing in another. It was my first time at IMC, and I was immediately overcome with a real sense of community. As I viewed Cleveland’s art, it occurred to me that it should always be viewed in this type of community setting.

Content warning: This article features artwork that depicts violence against Black bodies, including lynching, which may be triggering or distressing to some readers.

Painting by Marilyn Dean Cleveland, a group of Black dancers are in the foreground on a black and white checkered floor.
Serenity Stanton Orengo

Cleveland’s work depicts “landscapes, real and imagined characters, and Black American life.” The tone of the pictures varies greatly. Take the above and below paintings for instance. Both feature multiple faceless Black bodies. The above painting, with its checkered dance floor, successfully conveys joy and movement as you imagine the bodies moving around a dance floor. The second painting, Strange Fruit, is a perversion of the tree of life: the unborn babies in the ground grow up to be the bodies hanging from the tree branches, with more Black faces looking on with visible sadness. Cleveland clearly has something to say about the Black American experience, and she is able to effectively say it through her art.

Painting by Marilyn Dean Cleveland. A large tree, the trunk is wider than the branches and takes up most of the frame- 2 black men are hanging from the tree in nooses.
Serenity Stanton Orengo
Serenity Stanton Orengo

In addition to painting, Cleveland is also a writer. She had some poems and longer narrative descriptions hanging amongst the art. While I typically think that art should speak for itself — and certainly much of Cleveland’s does just that — in this case, I think the written pieces mostly worked when looking at the collection as a whole. The narrative accompanying the above painting provides necessary and important context to the work by describing the role cotton fields played in many Black American lives.

Serenity Stanton Orengo

While most of Cleveland’s work on display are large paintings, other pieces, like the one pictured on the right above, make use of other mediums. The small portraits pictured above were created with oil on plastic.

Three paintings by Marilyn Dean Cleveland. The top left is the smallest, a square, primarily blue. Right top is primarily pink and a vertical rectangle, bottom center is primarily turquoise and a wide rectangle. Each feature black ballerinas with white swirls surrounding them.
Serenity Stanton Orengo

The collection as a whole is quite dark: there’s a lot of deep browns, reds, blacks. As a result, the paintings that feature color stood out the most. I was especially drawn to the trio of paintings My Soul Soars Up on the Breeze (1-3). Painted in 1995, long before young dancers had Misty Copeland to look up to, Cleveland offers another iteration of the faceless bodies, here to depict Black ballerinas. There is something simple yet effective in the way she captures movement with the white paint swirling around their bodies.

Abstract painting by Marilyn Dean Cleveland. The background is mostly deep red brown, with white-grey wide brushstrokes
Serenity Stanton Orengo

One of the more surprising pieces was the abstract painting Glass Zoo. Although striking, and I personally am a fan, it seemed almost out of place with the other paintings. If anything, this is likely a testament to the longevity of Cleveland’s art making. This piece was painted in 1992, more than thirty years ago. Cleveland has certainly experimented with different mediums, styles, and subject matters.

Two paintings by Marilyn Dean Cleveland. Both feature bright colors- primarily green with yellow and oranges. They resemble gardens. The painting on the left has a black woman in the center surrounded by the plants and flowers. The painting on the right has large butterflies as a focal point.
Serenity Stanton Orengo

My personal favorites from the collection were Watering of the Flowers and The Lady Bugs. Both are more recent works, painted in 2016. The vibrant colors easily drew the eye, and the picturesque garden setting conveys a sense of ethereal calm.

Serenity Stanton Orengo

My initial impression of the show was surprise that a single person created every piece considering the vast range of styles represented. As I’ve sat with it for a few days, I can see more clearly the thread between all the works. I am left feeling impressed by Cleveland’s ability to capture so many facets of the Black American experience through her art. The show is a worthwhile endeavor to witness, and I recommend those who appreciate the fine arts to check it out before it leaves IMC at the end of the month.

My Soul Doesn’t Cast a Shadow
Independent Media Center
202 S Broadway Ave
On display through July 1st
Tu-Sa 2 to 5 p.m.

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