As a wave of Black Lives Matter protests flooded through the summer of 2020, Santa Cruzan artist Zendrea Marshall watched from her studio as a revolution unfolded in the streets.
Painting portraits is a protest for Marshall, much more than a regular side hustle or hobby. It’s a way to connect with her own identity, a way to escape, a way to heal, and a way to teach. In June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets, Marshall turned to her art.
“I wanted to be out protesting and I want to be fighting for this,” Marshall said. “But I’m also an African American woman in a racist country and I fear for my life. I didn’t even want to step outside my door sometimes because I was scared and I was depressed. I needed something that makes me feel like I’m OK. It’s my protest through my art.”
Marshall, a college student at CSU Sacramento, is working on a book of portraits of 100 Black activists she started this past June. Marshall is using her work to bring attention to critical individuals who have fought for the rights of Black people in America.
She has painted 25 portraits for the collection so far, which include Senator John Lewis, Nina Simone, and Colin Kaepernick. Her favorite is a portrait of Stevie Wonder because she relates to his upbringing and feels inspired by his perseverance and work.
After watching her parents paint small greeting cards for Santa Cruz businesses, Marshall herself began working on drawing and painting. This led to her first college painting class where she began working on a large-scale self-portrait.
“It wasn’t just brown. There were yellows, pinks, purples, reds, and greens. There were so many colors that created the skin tone that I have. It’s not just a dark brown,” Marshall said. “That’s one of the things that I love about portraits, your face is a rainbow.”
In Marshall’s portrait of Angela Davis you can see the layers of reds, browns, greens, and yellows. The mixture of colors and shading bring warmth to Davis’s disposition.
Since she was young, Marshall has used art to try to understand who she was and where she fit into her own community. Growing up in Santa Cruz, she often felt out of place.
“As a child and in high school even, [art] helped me…There were so many mixed emotions of not fitting in with the normal Santa Cruz surfer crowd,” Marshall said. “Art was an escape and a therapy. It was always there for me.”
Marshall grew up in Santa Cruz in the early 2000s, where less than one percent of the county was Black or African American, according to the 2000 census.
Rebecca Suplee is Marshall’s longtime family friend. Over the span of two decades in Santa Cruz, she watched Marshall grow in the academic, personal, and artistic areas of her life.
“Certain things are consistent through her life as far as her ebullient personality, easy laugh, and easy smile, but she’s really grown,” Suplee said. “There’s a perseverance that she’s developed that carries through to her ability to pursue her career and academic goals.”
Marshall is finishing her undergraduate degree in psychology, and she draws connections between her schooling and her art. Portraits, she said, can capture emotion and character beyond the surface. Marshall plans to pursue a masters in clinical psychology and move back to Santa Cruz once she’s done.
Dr. Greg Kim-Ju, professor of psychology at Sacramento State, said Marshall’s artistic prowess resonates with many of her peers in that it raises awareness of important Black activists.
“[Art] presents a different perspective with social justice,” Kim-Ju said. “She draws a lot of her own personal experiences growing up…She presents a nice combination of someone who is in psychology and then is able to incorporate artwork and be active.”
Marshall is dedicated to bringing awareness to important historical figures and current activists.
In an attempt at understanding their world, artists take to their medium with the intention of articulating how they feel or what they think. In this process, their respective art forms express a language that everyone can understand.
“I’m a leader and an educator and I see that through my art. It might’ve taken me years to have that without it,” Marshall said. “To me, it’s revolutionary art.”
To learn more about Zendrea Marshall and her artwork you can visit her website here.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article contained an error about the number of paintings Marshall has completed for this project and their medium. Marshall has completed 25 acrylic paintings. The sentence ‘After watching her parents paint small greeting cards for Santa Cruz businesses, Marshall herself began working on drawing and painting,’ has been slightly modified for accuracy. A previous version stated Marshall began by drawing her classmates.