In Conversation With Jerrell Gibbs | Episode 27

November 12, 2023
© Jerrel Gibbs' Studio. Image: Joe Hyde, 2023.
© Jerrel Gibbs' Studio. Image: Joe Hyde, 2023.
You were drawing when you were a kid. However, at first you attended Morgan State University where you studied business. What were the reasons that made you choose a business career rather than an artist career at those times and why did you change your mind and decide to become an artist afterwards? 
When I graduated from high school, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my future. But business has always been something that I’ve been interested in. During my early years of college, my area of focus was unclear - so it was just a natural decision – to try my hand in business administration. Art came much later. I began my art career seven years after dropping out of college. What’s special about that is I used to draw as a kid. I was really artistic, and creative as a kid. Unfortunately I did not have the support needed to nurture my creative skills. The lack of support really discouraged me which led me to put art on the back burner per se. Fortunately for me, by the grace of God I decided to try my hand at it again later in life.
You also said once that you had been inspired by Henri Matisse, which makes total sense, as I understand know, where does you love to an extremely bright color palette comes from. Do you remember your first acquaintance with Matisse’s works? How you ever considered using less intense colors? And what does color in general means for you?
I don't remember exactly when I was introduced to Matisse, but I remember my wife, Sheila, introduced me to his paintings. She introduced me to the impressionists’ painters. Initially I connected more with Matisse. A pivotal moment that changed my understanding of paintings took place during a visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art with my graduate school class, professors Joan Waltemath and Stephen Ellis. There were a few paintings on display by Matisse that professor Ellis knew  I had studied in the past. His explanation of the works exposed me to a new way of understanding paintings. He explained  the importance of the way in which the paintings were executed. From that moment I began to look at Matisse’s works in a different way. I began to pay attention to the way he  created a cohesive relationship within his paintings, as opposed to it being a singular representation of a person, place or thing. It's not about one thing, it’s about all the “things” combined to make a whole. Similar to the Impressionists, my approach to painting – in terms of the way that I paint – is very haptic and active using a lot of colors, creating a sensation, a feeling of the thing that I want the viewer to experience.
As I matured as a painter, I began to think about my practice separate from the impressionists. I'm extremely inspired by them, but I don't necessarily think that highly-saturated and pure colors are essential to my practice. I am interested in using colors to create emotions, to reinforce the idea that I want the viewer to receive based upon my experiences. So, if it requires using high contrasting colors or very concentrated colors, I will. But if it calls for me to use grayscale to reinforce my point, then I will do it. Whatever is required for the viewer to experience the work in the manner that I want them to, I'm willing to do.
Thinking about Matisse, I’ve also noticed that flowers and floral patterns seem to be an important part of your paintings. What do they mean for you, and why do your return to this motive again and again? 
The floral motif, or use of flowers and vegetation were  constantly used within my works. This  started while I was in graduate school. It began as a compositional tool but overtime it became a natural and organic way to create complex compositions and relationships without the viewer being aware of it. I just wanted the flower and its placement to feel organic; and naturally that's what happened. The more I used that motif, the more I began to appreciate flowers and what they represent. Most often people associate flowers, roses etc., with beauty. As my practice began to evolve, the floral motif became more central around the representation of Black men in a context that society and the media doesn't portray them in. I started to associate Black men with these floral motifs. I wanted to create an  opportunity for viewers to experience Black men in conversation with beauty. I want the viewer to experience Black men in a new way.  I also want Black men to see themselves surrounded by beauty, so that they can perceive themselves in a different way as well.
© Jerrel Gibbs' Studio. Image: Joe Hyde, 2023. 
In one of your interviews, you said that your working process starts with searching through family photo albums, before going to canvas. Do you still work in this way? Have you depicted people on the street? How does your search for a painting subject look like?
Typically, these are people that I know. Sometimes I snap photos of people that I see in public – maybe it’s something that they're wearing, maybe it’s a gesture, maybe it’s the way that they're sitting or standing. But typically, I'm still sourcing through my photo albums. I've been flipping through those for about six or seven years now and I still find photos to use to this day. Even if I see a photo  that may not resonate with me at the moment, years later the picture resurfaces, and I'll find something that I didn't see at first and I'll use it.
To what extent do the current political and historical narratives influence your work? Do you reflect on local politics, or prefer to stay out of it?
My work is about my personal experiences, so obviously I am not immune to what is going on. The color of my skin – being black is political in itself, especially in the USA. So that comes with it, and all of it influences my practice, because I live in a society where it’s important. Whether I want to be involved or not, I am. Now what I'm painting about at any given moment may not reflect what is taking place at the time. I spend a lot of time experiencing life and reflecting on it. I have periods when I'm painting about something that may have happened years ago, that took time for me to digest the experience and articulate it in a way that makes sense to me. I'm involved in everything, and it's just by default. But I'm also intentional about the voice and platform that I have. I want my voice to be heard and I want people who look like me and who've grown up where I've grown up, – I want them to be able to feel like someone is advocating for them. I'm not trying to speak for everyone, but I want my community to feel as though I do have their back. So, I am active in that way as well.
Let’s have a look at your work “Man with Red Roses”, presented at Human Tapestry group exhibition at BODE, Berlin. Could you tell us the background of this painting? Who is the man on it and how was the painting created?
The figure in the painting – I've never met him before – he was my aunt's partner, who passed before I was born, or he passed before I was old enough to know him. A lot of the motifs that are present within my work are specific to my culture and my community, like the clothing that the figure in the painting is wearing – a cultural signifier that speaks to hip-hop culture in the early 90s. I was born in the late eighties , so a lot of what I experienced growing up – the clothing that my father wore, Adidas tracksuits, e.g. the music that we were listening to – is a part of that painting. Even the chair that he’s sitting in– it’s a green chair that my aunt had in her house. Actually, her chair was a tan color- I  used olive green because it creates better color harmony throughout the painting- but it also had that plastic over it - that's typical for Black homes as well, especially  grandparents’ homes. Keeping plastic on their couch was a way of preventing it from getting dirty. A protective layer so to speak. Whenever I visited other family members' homes or traveled to my friends’ houses – it was the same way. What’s amazing is, I showed that painting to  a friend of mine from India, and he told me that he experienced the same thing during his childhood. His parents didn't want the children messing up their couch, so they kept it secure with the plastic on it. Unknowingly the  presence of plastic on the couch became  a way to create dialogue with different cultures, so I thought that was absolutely amazing. The wallpapers on the painting are also specific to a very particular era – seventies style wallpaper. A lot of my personal history influences my paintings and this one is no different . 
© Jerrell Gibbs, Man with Red Roses, 2022, Acrylic, oil stick on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm. Image: Giannina Mihalic
You’ve once said that you would like to use both figurative and abstract painterly language within your work. If we look at the evolution, that your art has gone through, it becomes obvious that it has become more abstract. Would you like to move forward in this abstract direction?
I think the two can co-exist, and I believe that they can function on their own as well. My goal is to continue to develop my practice and to speak both languages, so that I can use them to my advantage. I don't want to get to a point where abstraction is the only thing I deal with. I think both figurative and abstraction can be merged, in order to create a new language. I also believe that they're both  languages in their own right, and I want to be able to use them simultaneously. Best of both worlds.
Last year you painted a portrait of Elijah Cummings, that is now in the Capitol. It’s surely a significant milestone in your career. And what do you consider your greatest achievement so far and what are you striving to achieve in the future?
That was a major milestone for me and a great experience! Elijah Cummings and myself both come from Baltimore. His experience growing up in Baltimore,  the way he grew up, and what the city  means to him really resonates with me. He’s had such a great  impact in his hometown and beyond… It's amazing! And to be able to participate in that was a blessing! However, I would say that my biggest milestones have been, first, marrying my wife and second is having our daughter. My family is one of the reasons why I do what I do, and without them I wouldn't be painting right now. Those are my two biggest achievements,  the rest is secondary.
Speaking about the future, would you like to explore any other medium rather than painting? If yes, what would it be?
My experiments with sculpture began January 2023. I took a ceramics class and began making ceramics, which went very well. It's still a work in progress. I made a series of black roses, which were beautiful, and I gave them out to people who had helped and supported me along my art journey. I'm not stuck on only painting, I'm an artist and I know that there are other ways that I can express myself other than painting. I want to explore video, sculpture, and photography. Painting has just been the first way for me to express myself, and I feel comfortable and confident doing it. I don't know for sure what the next stage will be, but I would say sculpture. I'm really interested in being able to do it all, because like I said, I think there are different ways to articulate what you've experienced.
 © Jerrel Gibbs. Image: Mike Jon, 2023. 
Interview conducted by Valentina Plotnikova