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Visiting Artist Yvonne Shortt Elevates Student Voices through Public Art

When artist Yvonne Shortt thinks of public art, her mind doesn’t go to statues and monuments. Rather, she considers community-based art, pieces that elevate local voices and local creators.

Two of Shortt’s sculptural pieces, large-scale afro picks made of metal, ceramic, wood, porcelain, and stone, have been installed at Marymount Manhattan. “Warrior Afro Pick,” displayed on the Lowerre Family Terrace, promotes self-reflection of the observer while “Accessory Afro Pick,” on display outside the townhouse on 255 E. 71 Street, explores Shortt’s personal narrative as a woman of color.

The Art of Elevation

Shortt’s sculptures form the visual component of a larger concept she calls “Elevation,” an original artistic vision that strives to raise up local cultures and community voices through public art. Through her art, Shortt hopes to create positive dialogue around otherwise polarizing issues.

“I wanted to create an area of commonality where we can have conversations on issues that may be difficult to start,” says Shortt. “Art is a tool that can be used in many ways—some of those ways are for growth and healing.”

Shortt sees higher education institutions like MMC as perfect settings to seed her “Elevation” idea and allow it to blossom among students. The ultimate goal is to empower marginalized communities to create their own visual narratives in their collective spaces—in other words, to reshape public art as a grassroots practice of creativity rather than a top-down initiative imposed by individuals with power.

In her thinking about public art, Shortt raises important questions about the history of the form and the possibilities of its future.

“How has public art been used in ways to reinforce certain racism?” Shortt asks. “How can we use public art in a different way? Is there, for example, a place for monuments? Monuments sometimes seem like a way to reinforce a lot of things that we’re trying to move away from. Can public art be something that’s more reflective of the ideas, thoughts, and conversations that people are having right now today? That’s the ‘Elevation’ concept, and my goal is to create this framework whereby other universities could use it as well.”

Elevating Student Artists

Warrior Afro Pick by Yvonne Shortt Warrior Afro Pick by Yvonne ShorttAs a visiting artist at MMC, Shortt will be teaching a class in the Spring 2022 semester whose goal is to inspire the creation of student-produced sculptural pieces that will replace her work currently installed at MMC. In this way, the personal narratives of MMC students will be elevated through public art.

“I want to find out about the students—what they’re doing, what their issues are, what they’re thinking about, what they love, what they care about,” says Shortt. “You might have to talk about or create some things that are dealing with hard subjects. But if we start with a generosity of spirit and with basic premises of what dialogues we want to have, then we can start thinking about how we create spaces for conversation. From those spaces will spring a place of mutual understanding and creation.”

Through “Elevation,” Shortt wants colleges and universities to think about the visiting artist in a new way—not as an art authority who dictates the right and wrong ways to create art but rather as a collaborative partner who creates conduits to lift student voices.

“To me, a successful teaching experience is one where students are so eager to go out there and create something—to just put it on the street for somebody to pass by and smile or to pick up,” says Shortt. “My point in the classroom is to help you to grow and to express yourself and to have more confidence in doing.”

What’s Next

Shortt will be guiding students in the NYC Seminar Curating the City (taught by Hallie Cohen, Professor of Art) through a tour of her Socrates Sculpture garden piece on Wednesday, October 6 at 3:30 p.m. Shortt will also be visiting the Interdisciplinary NYC Seminar (taught by Associate Professor of English and World Literatures Julie Huntington) to engage with themes of sustainability, social activism, and creative expression on Friday, October 8 at 2:30 p.m. Members of the MMC community are welcome to join on these dates. Information about format, capacity, and reservations for these dates and times is forthcoming.

Published: September 21, 2021