Marshall Shorts has spent a bulk of his career working to build spaces in which other Black creatives could flourish.
He founded the creative agency Artfluential and launched Maroon Arts Group, a collective that spotlights Black culture through a mix of public events and arts education. He also co-founded Creative Control Fest, an artist conference that centers Black creators, and which stemmed from his experiences attending events such as the Weapons of Mass Creation Fest in Cleveland, where he was one of only a handful of people of color in attendance.
“I was seeing all of this popular culture that was inspired by Black culture, but I was like one of three Black folks there out of hundreds,” Shorts said in an early March interview at Upper Cup on Parsons. “And we went to school with people who were doing really dope stuff in the fashion and creative and design industries, so why don’t we have more representation? And I’ve always been that way: Yeah, we need to have a seat at the table, but we need to have our own table, too.”
With his 40th birthday approaching this week, Shorts said he’s spent more time than usual in reflection, fueled by the ongoing pandemic and the mounting personal losses he’s endured in the last few years. In the months before COVID, Cleveland police shot and killed a childhood friend. An intern he worked with at his studio at Blockfort passed away, and then a couple of high school friends died by suicide. Then there were the family losses: two uncles passed, a cousin was killed in Chicago, and then Shorts’ great aunt died a week later.
“And that’s been the cadence the last few years, and I know it’s a part of life, but it was still like, ‘Should I be thinking about [death] like that at 40?’” Shorts said. “I told my wife a few weeks ago, it’s hard for me to recall a time when I didn’t think about it. … And every day is doing the work to work your way through those emotions, those feelings, the stories you tell yourself. And then that is all impacted by the cloud of COVID.”
Amid this process, Shorts said he started to take more intensive personal stock, asking questions about what he had accomplished, and more importantly what he still had left to do and the messages he hoped to convey with his work moving forward.
“I’ve spent most of my early career creating spaces in Black art,” said Shorts, who will celebrate his birthday with a party at the Columbus Museum of Art on Thursday, March 23. (He’s also currently running ). “And now I want to get back to a consistent practice of my own.”
While he’s still processing what form this work might take, Shorts recently picked up photography again following a lapse, inspired by a colleague who told him that they wanted to take pictures of Black men crying. “And I had so many questions,” said Shorts, who grew up on the East Side of Cleveland. “But I think the sentiment was that they wanted to show Black men being vulnerable. But where I’m from, smiling can have the same effect, where it can be seen by somebody as a sign of weakness.”
So, when Shorts visited relatives in Chicago, he brought his camera, aiming to capture unguarded moments with family members who due to circumstance had spent the bulk of their lives walling themselves off emotionally from others. “Sometimes they weren’t even at full smile, and they were about to smile,” he said of the resulting portraits. “And it was sad, and it made me take inventory of where my joy is being found.”
Shorts has since leaned further into the potential inherent in photography, weighing the possibility of setting up a photo backdrop and a camera in his Bronzeville neighborhood in order to take portraits of those folks whose images and stories are often overlooked. For Shorts, the project raises larger questions about documentation, the kinds of people whose stories get told, who does the telling, and why.
Shorts said he has long held to the idea that art functions as a means to ask questions, where design seeks solutions. And it’s this concept that perhaps best articulates the internal shift the creative said he’s experiencing as he approaches this landmark birthday.
For the first half of his career, Shorts said he leaned heavily into his design work, and his various outside pursuits mirrored this solutions-driven mindset, with the creator attempting to find workable fixes for the various inequities he encountered (see: Creative Control Fest). It’s an approach that Shorts said started to take outward shape during his freshman year at CCAD, where he majored in industrial design, when a professor took the three Black students in the class aside, Shorts included, and asked them how they could address a design problem without “putting so much of their culture into the work.”
“And that always stuck with me, and at the time I didn’t have the language to articulate why that was, but it felt racist,” Shorts said. “And I know he was trying to connect, but culture informed his whole curriculum. … And so, I started thinking about that in the context of what was acceptable design. And some of those battles, we’re still fighting. But I found a space, and we started a group on campus called African Cultural Awareness, which is to-date the longest running student group at CCAD. It’s called the Black Student Leadership Association now. And we’d try to rally to get an African art history class [as part of the required curriculum], because it was only an elective.”
This communal spirit has been embedded within Shorts from the time he first picked up a pencil as a child and started drawing cartoon characters. “The idea, when I had it, was that I was always going to start a space for my friends, and we were going to be the Black Disney company,” said Shorts, who absorbed these lessons growing up in the Pentacostal Church of God in Christ and the sense of community the experience rooted deep within him.
As a result of making a more conscious return to his own practice, Shorts said he has been grappling with more questions of late, some of which have been circulating in his psyche for decades, including a lingering “survivor’s remorse,” as he termed it, that he said he feels for being one of the few from his neighborhood who was able to transcend the numerous hurdles placed in his way.
“I still bring friends to Columbus to show them what we’re doing, and to pull them out of things I thought they might have been into,” Shorts said. “And then beyond that, I’m asking questions about racism, capitalism. I read a book called Brainwashed by Tom Burrell, and it really put into perspective how powerful imagery has been in shaping narrative, shaping our existence – especially for Black folk. … And then another thing that’s emerging now is what’s happening internally – that grief and asking myself how I’m processing things.”
Along with this emergence arrived the biggest questions with which Marshall has grappled as of late: Precisely how much of himself does he want to put out there for people? And how personal is he willing to get in his work?
“Even though I’ve been in the public eye, in a lot of ways, people don’t really know me,” Shorts said. “It’s funny, because I’ll talk to people, and they’ll act like we’ve been best friends forever, and I’m glad. But people find out I grew up in church, or I played basketball, or sang in choir, or went to nail tech school, and they’re like, ‘Really? You?’ Or that I’ve struggled all this time you’ve seen me, and I was being sued because I hadn’t paid my gas [bill]. … I’ve been to jail. I’ve had a felony. And I’ve gotten through that. I’ve lived a number of different lives, but at the same time still been a part of cultivating a community that says, ‘We’re here. And we’ve contributed.’”