Interview with Marcus Kiser + Jason Woodberry

The World is a Mirror of My Freedom responds to the national dialogue on Black lives and invites reflection on how the past has conditioned the present. The exhibition takes as its starting point Intergalactic Soul, a multimedia project by Charlotte-based McColl Center for Art + Innovation Affiliate Artists Marcus Kiser and Jason Woodberry.

Begun in response to the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Intergalactic Soul combines the artists’ mutual love of comic books and science fiction with their perspectives on the plight of Black American men. Collectively, their project tells the story of two adolescent astronauts, Pluto and Astro, as they traverse the cosmos and encounter familiar forces of oppression, from Jim Crow and police brutality to gentrification.

The artists spoke with Nicole J. Caruth, McColl Center’s artistic director, about their influences, creative evolution, and the relevance of their work today.

Nicole J. Caruth: What was it about science fiction that appealed to you, as a means of addressing Black masculinity and social justice issues of our time?

Jason Woodberry: Some of the most iconic films, characters, and toys within the sci-fi genre were released during the eighties. We grew up on comic books and cartoons. Comics have always had a way of addressing current events in a way that makes them digestible and entertaining for a wide audience. Take X-Men, for instance: the storyline reflects the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties. Professor X was a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Magneto was a reference to Malcolm X. Professor X practiced non-violence whereas Magneto sought to establish peace for mutants “by any means necessary.” X-Men was both entertaining and educating. [The rapper] KRS-One called this quality “edutainment.”

Marcus Kiser: Being a Black male, I’ve always had a certain love for sci-fi, with its roots in social justice issues and history. Sci-fi is also strongly rooted in the imagination. I feel this combination and balance of content makes it easier to address or create much-needed conversations and to help audiences to relate to our experiences—what it’s like to be us.


Marcus Kiser (left) and Jason Woodberry outside of their studio at McColl Center. Courtesy Ashley Mahoney/The Charlotte Post.

NJC: Early on, we spoke about your mutual childhood love of comic books, graphic novels, and videogames. Which stories and characters influenced you most?

JW: There are many, but Star Wars and X-Men were huge for me. Both of us were into space and aviation, and Star Wars wrapped both of these subjects into a complex, multilayered storyline. Not to mention that in the movie you have Billy Dee Williams flying the fastest spaceship in the galaxy and James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, the most bad-ass villain in sci-fi. X-Men features mutants with phenomenal abilities to save the world, but they are continuously confronted with discrimination and stereotypes from a fearful human race. The context is very relatable.

MK: I was influenced by Marvel Comics, Image Comics, and a variety of video games. Also, my dad bought me tons of Star Wars toys during my childhood. However, I have to say that 1980s cartoons were the most influential. I was caught up in their look and design more than their storylines. Transformers, GI Joe, Galaxy Rangers, and Voltron were my staples. Both the animated Transformers movie in the 1980s and the opening theme for Galaxy Rangers had lasting effects on me.

NJC: How has Intergalactic Soul evolved since you began the project three years ago?

JW: It’s come a long way. Initially, we wanted to make dope art that addressed the social climate; it began with two images, Pluto and Dark Matter. Both pieces were featured at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014, in a curated exhibition titled Cosmic Connections. That same year, Dark Matter won Charlotte’s ArtPop billboard award. Our concept grew from there, and our vision became clear about what we wanted Intergalactic Soul to become.

MK: We’ve also grown as artists and creative professionals. We have been experimenting with new mediums, software, and ideas. Three years ago, I only wanted to do two-dimensional illustration. Now, I’m more into multimedia animation and working on video installations. We’ve learned new programs and techniques in order to keep Intergalactic Soul fresh and unique. The journey has been amazing, and the work has evolved greatly.


Marcus Kiser + Jason Woodberry, Rocket Punch, 2015, digital illustration. Courtesy of the artists.

NJC: Has the Charlotte uprising in response to the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott had an impact on Intergalactic Soul or your thinking about this project?

JW: I think the event will affect how our work is received by Charlotte audiences. Those who saw our exhibition at the Harvey B. Gantt Center last year understood the message, but it still may have felt distant to them. It’s sort of like seeing the disaster that Hurricane Matthew caused in Haiti and thinking, “That’s horrible. I feel sorry for them,” but then forgetting it after you turn off your television because the damage is two thousand miles away and means little to your life: your electricity and plumbing still work, and your paycheck will clear on Friday. Now that Charlotte has seen helicopters in the sky, protesters confronting riot squads, tear-gas grenades in the streets—all of this happening on our doorstep—the conflict is real to people.

MK: This is the type of subject matter I’ve always covered as a creative professional. Prior to Intergalactic Soul, I made several pieces that address these types of issues. Despite the fact that people feel uncomfortable because of the subject, I think more people locally may be able to relate to it now, especially those who didn’t understand it before.

NJC: Tell me about the process of shifting your creative practice from user experience design, Jason, and brand marketing, Marcus, to a contemporary art practice. What’s different for you?

JW: The industry. Creating a logo or a Web mockup and having it reviewed by shareholders or a marketing team is a long way from dealing with curators and gallery owners. In our art practice, rather than branding a business or product, we are branding a message.

MK: I’ve always approached brand marketing and graphic design as forms of visual art. I can find the same beauty in a logo that I could find in a sculpture or a painting. One difference that sticks out to me is how, in marketing, we have to constantly place people in groups or target audiences. You have to simplify people’s wants and needs into a product. I don’t like to think of people that way because we are all complex beings, not just what the industry calls “money targets.” When I create fine art, despite using graphic design elements, I’m basing it on how I feel. I’m not worried about how others receive it…as long as it creates the conversations I think should be held.


Marcus Kiser + Jason Woodberry, Black Starfighter, 2016, digital illustration. Courtesy of the artists.

NJC: What will be some of your takeaways from the McColl Center residency?

JW: The conversations we’ve had with other artists-in-residence and visiting curators have been extremely enlightening, on everything from the creative process to networking in the industry. Coming from marketing backgrounds, there is much about the art industry that’s new to us.

MK: Meeting artists and curators has been great. I’m always amazed by the conversations and insights that I’ve gained from other creative people (including you). That would be my biggest takeaway.

NJC: What’s next for you two?

JW: We would like our work to continue traveling. We have a couple of museums in our sights, so we’ll see what happens. We’re also taking part in a residency in Cuba next year. Once the residency ends at McColl Center, we will likely focus on the Intergalactic Soul graphic novel.

MK: We’d like to create that graphic novel or an animated series that would accompany our next exhibition, and to continue traveling, meeting people, and engaging in more delightful conversations.

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The World is a Mirror of my Freedom is on view at McColl Center for Art + Innovation from January 27 to March 25, 2017. The exhibition features work by current Affiliate Artists Marcus Kiser and Jason Woodberry and Alumni Artists Shaun Leonardo, Dread Scott, and Charles Williams. An opening reception takes place on Friday, January 27, 2017 from 6 to 9 PM.

Top: Marcus Kiser + Jason Woodberry, Kings and Queens and Michael Jordan Rings (detail), 2016, digital illustration. Courtesy of the artists.