170 Jerdein Kirkland

Born Detroit, 1952 / Lives in Oak Park, MI

Jerdein Kirkland has the swag of Detroit-raised women who work hard and play hard, fedora cocked ace-deuce. She is a reflection of her art: a single loc, wrapped with sequined beads, dips past her knees, loops back up, tucks into a back pocket. Her clothes and jewelry are similarly embellished, with bespangled trim suggestive of craft stores, urban boutiques and hair shows—apropos, for in fact, she spent years selling her jewelry, and is a long-time hairdresser. Her collage paintings (her “Baby Girl” series, not pictured here) sparkle with bling, reminiscent of assemblage artist David Philpot (the late husband of this writer, and the subject of Essay’d installment #50); her “outsider” presence in the arts is reminiscent of him, too.

As a child, Kirkland watched her mother draw, and listened to her encouragement. In 2021, she arrived at the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club—a loose, spirited gathering of local artists, enthusiasts and collectors that meets weekly. She began to show her paintings: vividly colored grown folks, babes and little girls—deceptively simple, large eyes evoking innocence and wisdom, often in bright blues and greens. 

One might be reminded of Toni Morrison’s book, The Bluest Eye, and the pining of its Black protagonist for an eye color other than brown. But in Kirkland’s artful world—like in her painting, Beautiful Goddess (2021)—blue eyes are without irony or pedantry, they are coloring-book celebrations of life. A basketweave of lines adorns her subject’s head, crownlike, honoring beauty and Black womanhood. 

Kirkland was new to the arts community, and was tearfully stunned to receive stellar remarks and counsel from veteran artists and collectors. Black Love (2021) is one of the works that she shared, with lovers dressed in garments of harlequin color-block, a motif in this and other works. She painted background designs as graphic embellishment; to this writer, the broad strokes evoke symbols on the African Language Walls of MBAD Bead Museum, by Olayami Dabls (the subject of Essay’d #39). 

Along her journey, she has doubtless felt the sting of shade and class bias. However, Henry Harper, a founder of the DFABC, and esteemed arts and antiques appraiser and dealer, was impressed with her work, and welcomed her. He pronounced to the group that she is a “Folk Artist,” an expression regarded in some circles—despite the stratospheric success of some such artists—as devaluing the work of the unlettered working class; a damning with faint praise, separating them from “fine” artists and MFAs. But Harper bestowed this sobriquet as the highest compliment, and to Kirkland, it meant acceptance and confirmation; she embraced her new designation with aplomb. 

Her works are stark, though not severe, with a focus on one, or two—or sometimes three— figures. Have No Shame (2021) is a trio of nudes, without any attendant eroticism, characteristic of her work. The ornamental strokes of black may be just that, or perhaps trees, evoking—as does the titular reference to shame—the Garden; Adam and Eve. One might likewise discern the style of Frida Kahlo, with linear boundaries surrounding an unborn-like figure. In Black Family Love (2021) a mother and father, at peace with their child, gaze outward, without turmoil or troubles—or clothes; an expression of folk-art simplicity, naivete—and power.

Kirkland is known for her solitary faces, simple enough to be universal, capturing the humanity around her, resonating with diverse audiences and collectors. Black Proud Man (2021) is strong of features and vitality; his open eyes and mouth indicate a largeness of spirit. His dark-brownness is in a lineage of painterly depictions of Blacks, without need to “refine,” his prominent teeth a sign of physical health. Kirkland’s acrylic colorways are primary yet sophisticated; rich, with subtle gradations; shades of Blackness. 

Some of her works explore whimsey and oddity; in Turn On the Light (2021), a giant eyeball peers outward. (Large eyes are a signature of her work.) The titular order is a demand, or admonishment—or both. Kirkland says the eye can see whether the light is on or not (an omniscience reminiscent of David Philpot’s eyeball embellished staff—that he avowed were the eyes of God).

The works of Jerdein Kirkland have a child-like innocence, and at her inaugural solo show in March 2023, some commented on how her figures “look like someone” they knew. Such is the archetypal manner in which she captures the human experience, a reflection of her love for people—and her emerging artistic gifts. 

Marsha Music, June 2023

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