“My work is rooted in identity, from a spiritual place,” says artist Cora Marshall, “and allows me to find my place in the world through my experiences and those of others close to me.”
Marshall’s identity – steeped in her sense of self, home, and community – is ever apparent in her art. She mixes and melds symbols and meanings in her portraits, creating multi-layered narratives drawn from connections to her African and Native American ancestors.
And yet, she had no experience with art until she attended college at Howard University.
“I took my first art class as an undergraduate to meet a fine arts requirement,” she says, “and by the end of my junior year, I had switched my major to art education.”
Marshall earned her Master’s Degree and taught for over 20 years in the public school system in Alexandria, Virginia. After earning her doctorate in art from New York University, she taught at Central Connecticut State University. She retired in 2013 and is currently Professor of Art Emeritus and continues to teach two online digital photography courses at CCSU. She moved to Gulfport in 2013.
At the start of her training, Marshall explains, she created art with an absence of color. While researching her grandmother’s Cherokee heritage after her father’s death, she says she had such a spiritual experience during her exploration of the Cherokee people that the “color came bursting through.”
Marshall creates much of her art as themed collections. Her portfolios include “Toiling Upward,” based on jobs held by her ancestors, “Clan and Kin” about family, and “Golden Years,” which portrays the resiliency of seniors.
One of her most moving series is titled Runaway: Going Going Gone a collection of paintings of enslaved men, women and children whose stories she discovered while doing research at the Library of Congress.
“The written descriptions in the runaways ads I found were so vivid,” she says, “but these people existed only on paper. I wanted to give them a face and a personality.”
She changed her technique for this series of portraits, moving from oils to mixed media, which enabled her to embed words into the paintings. But she felt the people she brought to life through her work seemed “too present,” so she covered the paintings with a layer of wax to give them a “veil of mystery.” She produced four or five a year and wound up with 40 paintings.
Marshall said she chose the subjects for this series by the stories that moved her most.
“The desire to be free is ever present when you are enslaved,” says Marshall. “The women were amazing to me. It was difficult for a woman of color, but a woman of color with a baby made it extremely difficult to go off to find a better life. A line in one of the ads particularly moved me: ‘As she left, she struck the owner with a rock.’ That shows personality.”
Marshall created Facebook posts around her runaway portraits as an inspiration for activists during this current moment of unrest. She remembers her time in Washington, D.C. during the Black Arts Movement, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and when protestors flooded city streets after his assassination.
“We’ve come full circle,” says Marshall. “Many things we protested then are the same as what we are protesting now. I can’t believe these are still issues.”
Marshall’s advice to artists starting out today, particularly those interested in addressing social change in their work, is to “be authentic. Address issues that are important to you and that personally affect you.”
Marshall intends to work with her sister writing first-person narratives around historical facts from the runaway ads.
“Now that they have faces,” she says, “we can give them a voice.”
Her next series will focus on paintings of children in gardens.
“It is said flowers have meaning. Young people are our future,” says Marshall. “Children coming up to find a better way.”