"Witchy, tacky grandma."
That’s how Kansas City artist Rodolfo Marron III describes his aesthetic.
“I say it as a joke, but it’s kind of accurate,” he says. “My work is softer, maybe more effeminate. I embrace that.”
Growing up on the city's Westside during the 1990s, Marron experienced a rougher neighborhood than the one many know it as now. He lost many family friends to gang violence during a time he remembers as dark and gray. At an early age, he found escape in his art by creating characters and other worlds.
Marron, who recently won a 2016 Charlotte Street Award, still creates characters, pursuing and developing them through his work. Though now, reimagined Pokemon creatures have given way to drag queens, deer, and the “poke ghost” — a character he created after the death of a friend last March.
“My work deals a lot with death, grieving and the afterlife,” he says. “[The poke ghost] became this placement for myself. I was dealing with losing my best friend. It was a chaotic, toxic place I was in. Something beautiful came out of it — a whole series dedicated to him.”
The poke ghost is named after the pigment he uses to paint the character. Marron began making his own pigments in 2013, after a visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, where he noticed a pokeweed bush on the grounds, oozing a vibrant magenta color in the humidity. Back in Kansas City, he started noticing pokeberries everywhere. Soon, he was making pigments out of those berries, elderberries, and other found materials like hibiscus, purple corn and cochineal, to name a few.
“Working with this material that is kind of different to work with … It’s fugitive, it will fade over time,” he says.
By making use of these ingredients, his work has become a very localized exploration of the impermanence of nature and life.
Part of that means also understanding his culture and heritage. Marron is a first-generation Mexican American, raised Catholic, but he says he has never identified as much with that. His familial ties are strong, and his upbringing plays a significant role in his work. But by grounding his work in Kansas City, exploring its environment, he feels he is finding his own place and meaning.
“What’s great about where I am in my life, having the opportunity to be raised here in Midwest, is that I’m able to go and study on different types of things that might ground me spiritually,” he says.
Marron finds inspiration in Wiccan folklore, the Native American church, alchemy, Buddhism, and a native Mexican culture known as Huichol or Wixáritari.
“It’s my privilege, being a first-born American and being here in this time, I can take these separate parts and bring them into myself and find my own spirituality,” he says. “I’m no longer looking towards the sky for answers. I’m pulling … from nature.”
Rodolfo Marron III has an open studio at the Kunstraum KC on May 20, and an exhibit at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art opening Sept. 2, as a part of the 2016 Charlotte Street Visual Arts Awards.
Andrea Tudhope is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @adtudhope.