A life’s journey: Marlisa Anderson, breaking barriers through art

Late last Friday at Hacker Lab, beers are being passed around for Fusion Friday. Marlisa Anderson doesn’t drink – she’ll take a soda, thank you.

Marlisa is sitting at the 3D-printed chess set at the lab’s front, playing strategies out of her mind – no paper, no books — and her memories of playing with her father. “He would whoop my butt! Until I asked why. That’s when he taught me the value of strategy,” she smiled.

At her side, a kangaroo skin bags she’s taken all over the world; a bag full of art supplies, including a fresh paper for making origami sculptures of members’ initials; and an Arizona Iced Tea, lemon flavor. She’s often around the Lab drawing, sold her handcrafted popsicle-stick houses at our last Bazaar, took a welding class here and is even considering becoming a teacher.

Some people you interview, you ask them questions and have a point. Others, simply have a story to tell. When Marlisa started telling me those details, and the time she saw the century’s first sun-rise off of a boat near the island of Vanuatu, broke barriers in racism and won New York City-wide art contests, I knew I had to listen.

Read on for our conversation and let us know if you know an interesting story to pass through our walls — if so, email me at [email protected]

Giana

Giana

HL: So, you must have an interesting life. Where did you grow up?

Marlisa: I’ve been to Africa a dozen times. I’ve been to Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso... I’ve been to many places.

I grew up in the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn. But in the ‘50s when I grew up, “the projects” weren’t infamous areas with drugs, rape or violence. I lived in a well-thought out community – it was the second the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development built.

We had a track and field, a football stadium, bleachers, soccer fields, even cricket fields. We had a big swimming pool and a 16 foot diving board!

Back in the olden days, Red Hook was a thriving port. From where I lived, I could see the Statue of Liberty and the skyline of lower Manhattan. I lived in a multicultural neighborhood; a six-floor apartment building. Hispanics, Blacks, White, Jamaican — we all lived there.

We played marbles or used the field for stickball. We didn’t know that we were poor — we had such a great community. Everybody helped everybody else.

HL: What did you do after high school?

Marlisa: I got married [she laughs]. I had my first son at 18, the second at 20 and third at 22 - and then I got divorce [she laughs again].

I wanted to marry young, because I wanted to be able to play with my children and appreciate them. My mother got married when she was 30 and mom wasn’t about to go outside and throw the rope with us! That’s for damn sure. I always wanted to appreciate that with them, and I did.

My parents were disappointed since I had an opportunity to do fashion design and art; but unfortunately I wasn’t ready to go to school — and I chose to get married. It was a big disappointment, my father didn’t come to my wedding — but he made up for it.

The thing is, I was a heavy reader. When I was 6 years old and I went to first grade - I could read and write. I had a library card in the first grade My brother, five years older than me, took me to the library to show me all the books.

HL: How did you wind up at Hacker Lab?

Marlisa: My sons lived out here. I had been retired in New York for five years. One asked me to come out to California; so I decided to sell the house that I grew up with my siblings and moved out here.

One day, we went to the farmers market, and there was somebody from the Hacker Lab!

He started telling how it’s a place where artisans come and make things; I said “Sculpture?” He said “Yes, photography, woodworking, metalworking...” So I asked him to give me a piece of paper.

I made him a sculpture from that paper.

He said you would fit in really well at the Hacker Lab (she looks knowingly and smiles).

I’m always trying to learn more, so it fits for me.

HL: Who were some of your role models growing up?

Marlisa: When I went to the first grade, I met Ms. Thelma, the art teacher at the community center. She was the first Black person who taught me something - all my teachers were white or Jewish.

She taught us how to make pot holders, how to cut, sew; I knew then that I wanted to be an art teacher.

I went to the community center from 6-16 in that Red Hook project. She would tell me, you’re very gifted and talented. I said, “thank you’. According to my mother I was always making mess. I was always busy with my hands (she holds her hands up with fingers).

She taught me a great many things. Do you know, years later, I came across Ms. Thelma and she was still teaching at the community center. 30 years later!

I went on to create “Marlisa” handbags. One of my students, when I had my career, bought one of them in an expensive department store. She was surprised to learn they were mine – because of Ms. Thelma.

HL: Did you face discrimination growing up?strong>

Marlisa: Growing up, I wanted to go to Bay Ridge High School, who specialized in performing arts. After Board v.s. Board of Education, you had to take a test if you wanted to go to a school outside of your zone.

For one teacher, I was her first Black student. I’ve always been kind of a loner; even with siblings I could tune out and be into my art. That was good as I had to take drawing, painting, design and textiles.

One day, everyone else in her class got a 93 or higher. I got an 85 — why do you think I got that? [she glowers]. On another test for the city, the first time I took it, was a 95. Yet on my report card it showed a different score — 85.

I told her, “I got a 95. I want a 95 on my report card. So, fix it!” She didn’t fix it. Eventually, I went to the chair of the art department, who was a Black man – the only Black men I’d seen were the janitors.

I went to Mr. Brown and told him what happened. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll change it.”

On an all-borough New York City art contest, one of my teachers wasn’t going to submit my art. I had thought about how I could project brotherhood. And it came to me: It’s echoing through the land. So I made these letters where brotherhood was echoing in perspective in nature — but in the front were people of all cultures. The teacher said, “what is this crap.”

So I’m ready to kill a bitch, personally speaking [she cracks up].

Months roll by. And I learn that I took third place at Bay Ridge, which was the 3rd best school in the city. I won 10 dollars that day in 1967 — finally with enough money to buy that portfolio I’d always wanted. I put all my art inside, and my mother was finally proud of my artwork.

HL: You musts have been the first person to do some things in your career.

Marlisa: I majored in painting in Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I went on to get my master’s to become an art teacher. There, I began to study designing toys and educational materials. Two toys I designed are in the Arksansas Decorative Arts museum — a MotionMobile and a DynaMotion.

I integrated Bay Ridge High School and I was the only Black graduate at Smith. My professors didn’t know what to do with me there [she laughs].

Later on, I became a teacher and worked for the Board of Education for 26 years on the East Coast, mostly middle school and stage and set design. I loved it all.

Do you have a story to share? Have you made something cool at Hacker Lab? Get in touch by emailing Michael at [email protected] We’re always looking to share about our community.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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