Columbus City Spotlight: Artist Marcus P. Blackwell


There are lots of things that make up our city. It’s buildings, housing developments, neighborhoods full of stories that crackle with life beneath brick-lined roads and broken cement curbs. We’ve got all these eccentric food trucks and unique features that line our blocks and illuminate our skyline and none of it really does much to define our city, not in any real sense. A city is defined by its people, it’s citizens. We create the content of its character, the crux of its true worth. Everything else, the streets, the shopping districts; it’s all just flesh, skin, and sinew. The infrastructure; its muscle and bone.

People are the lifeblood that light up a city’s heart, but there are some, a unique and significant few, that keep the vibe of a city flowing a little more than others. Most times these people go under the radar, vital but invisible linchpins in a web connecting us to each other and to the metropolis itself. That’s why it’s important to take the time to observe the wake of their actions. To shine a light on the little things they add that make Columbus what it is.

One of these very people is Marcus P. Blackwell. An artist and intellectual that has called this city his home for close to 30 years. A friendly but introspective man, you can see that his eyes constantly appraise the weight of his surroundings. At times they seem weary and burdened, but in the very next moment they’d light up, renewed by an excitement for wonder and discovery.

I had the pleasure of checking out some of Marcus’s work some time ago. I could immediately dig his style. Abstract paintings fused with African American faces and imagery.

Dark but often times warm and ambient, the colors radiated off each piece like buzzing neon signs lining dark city streets.


I wanted to know more about him and his work so we agreed to meet at Dick’s Den, a divey sort of jazz joint in the Old North. We sat down at a table just as an old but lively saxophone tune flickered to life on the jukebox and he rolled right into his life’s narrative.

“Born 1966, pick up sticks,” He said, grinning a slick, playful, toothy grin. Originally a Cincinnati native, the majority of his upbringing was spent in Rochester, upstate New York. After his father passed in 1989 he came back to Columbus to be with family. If you were to ask him then, he always thought of his stay as a temporary visit, a resting point before going back to New York or traveling elsewhere. Soon though, his fascination with the city grew, and he kept his feet planted firmly on Columbus soil.

“Columbus is one of those places,” He observed as he reminisced, “when you talk to people outside of Ohio, they know about Cincinnati, they know about Cleveland, they know very, very little about Columbus. The thing that amazed me when I first got here, is that it had a lot of things going on that no one one knew about. And that was 1989.”

He hadn’t always known he’d be an artist though. Originally his heart was in becoming a writer and you could see that, at least part of it, still is.

He chooses his words carefully, gauging their effect and tasting their aesthetic before releasing them.


That’s not to say he never carried an interest in art before hand. He’d constantly draw and sketch to himself, occasionally showing his work to close friends and family. “My father, before he died, he kept telling me ‘they got a great art school out here, you can live here and go to art school’, he was talking about CCAD.”

By the time he had decided to pursue it as an active goal and enroll into the Columbus College of Art and Design he was already older than most of the incoming freshman. It didn’t seem to bother him much, the way he figured, it gave him a leg up since he had ‘gotten all the party out of his system’. Once in college, he met the woman who he would later marry and quickly began to set down roots.

After school, building a family, and a long career in banking, his art began to solidify and mature. A lot of his work seems particularly driven by people. There’s a personality to the faces that can’t have been mimicked or forged. Something inspired by authenticity and true emotion. “I’m interested in people,” He explains, “in how they think and how they perceive things. People’s perceptions are what matter to me in terms of my art. I’m really fascinated by symbolism and the sort of symbols that we take for granted.”

“Our whole world is full of symbols. We instantly understand them. And there’s no forethought or excess of thought as to what these symbols mean.”


“But if you look at that symbol long enough, you look at a question mark, and just stare at it, it ceases to become a question mark. It’s just an image.”

It got me to thinking about Man and His Symbols by Carl Gustav Jung, the preeminent Swiss psychoanalyst and philosophical theorist. Symbols, Jung argues, were the root to all understanding. Predating language or any known standard of sentient thought, symbols were the first method in which the mind processed the outside world. To understand and to communicate in these symbols would be to speak directly to the subconscious mind.

I brought this concept to Blackwell’s attention and he agreed emphatically, “When I look at people a lot of times I see them as a statement of symbols. How do we distil thoughts and ideas into a simple little image? What does that image say to us? My interest in people is in seeing them as a canvas of [these] symbols.”

He focuses primarily on faces in his work, to him they tell the whole story. He explains sheepishly that he never had much of a poker face, he often gets caught with his heart on his sleeve. That used to bother him but not so much anymore. He thinks it’s an important aspect of a person to properly and honestly communicate how they feel, especially in a day and age where people tend to focus so much of their effort into concealing their thoughts and emotions.

Many of the images he creates are what’s known as Afro-Abstractism; it’s an expression of the African-American experience in symbolic terms. To him, it more aptly illustrates the cultural experience than any photo-realistic image. “Just the idea that being black in America is sometimes, well, it’s an existential venture. No, not a venture, it’s an existential horror story.” He laughs.

He sees the struggle of being black in America as a very abstract one. “It’s absurd,” He explains, “I don’t know any better way to address that absurdity than through abstract.”


“There’s one thing to be black in America, and there’s another thing to be black in America and your skin is a political statement. Through no fault of your own and through no control of your own. It’s a statement that we can’t actually control.”

Taking conventions of being black in America and twisting them, that’s always been an obvious play. But he uses that, makes them more apparent, more confrontational. He’s more concerned than anything with getting a reaction or any sort of emotional response from his viewers. In many ways, this reflects a deep seeded desire in the black community. We’re often times desperate for an emotional response from an institution incapable of it.

Explaining the black experience to anyone in America can be a frustrating thing. A lot of that is a lack of empathy, but a lot of it too has to come from the philosophical dilemma of subjectivity. It’s completely impossible to understand someone else’s experience if you’ve never felt it, not by any literal sense. Symbols attempt to correct that. Instead of fumbling for words, you’re communicating on a more primal level. Past the ego, straight into that little part of ourselves deep in us that we all ignore. Down into the truths of us. More permanent and more resonant.

“What does it mean to be black? I seek to ask that of my viewers, but I also seek to ask that of myself. The questions are more important than finding the answers.”

The music shifts slightly, what was originally an assortment of jazz instrumentals, hot and wiry, now cools into old funk tunes. You can almost see the steam settling off of the old jukebox in the corner. Our conversation moves with the music, our dialogue settling onto a basic two-step. I ask him how what he thinks of the local art scene and he swirls a few ice cubes around his whiskey thoughtfully before answering;

“Art generally in America seems to be such an exclusive club.”


You have a few gatekeepers who are the arbiters of all that’s fine art versus not. And in order to get into that inner sanctum, you had to curry their favor.”

He concedes that, particularly in Columbus, that is all changing. “What’s happened in the last few years that I’ve noticed, is that the art scene has gotten a whole lot more inclusive and a whole lot more accepting.”

He explained that what was then dubbed “degenerate art” or lowbrow, is now accepted more by the art community as a whole. Tattooing, graffiti, “who’s to say what’s ‘high art’ and what isn’t?”

“The short north used to be the artist mecca right here in Columbus, and it’s interesting to me that a lot of [galleries] are moving over to the Franklinton area. The scene here, it’s going to be more prominent. It’s going to gain national attention. There’s no way to close your eyes to back to before”

He swallowed the last of his drink, his fingers rested lightly on the empty rocks glass. I glanced back toward the bar, gesturing to cash out. Before we wrapped up I asked him one final question. I wanted to know, in times as apparently dark as these, what sort of future did he see for art, or for our nation for that matter. He chuckled softly. “Even in these desolate times, I have hope. I think hope is the truth. And I don’t think we’re apathetic enough or dystopic enough where hope is just dead now. It may feel that way… But I think we’re going to be okay.”

To check out more work by Marcus P. Blackwell click here

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