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Art AND: Jerrell Gibbs

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Jerrell Gibbs is a true painter’s painter. When talking about painting, he gets that twinkle in his eye that you see when chefs talk about cooking their favorite family recipe or when musicians get to tell you about the inspiration behind a piece of music—his obsession with the topic sits so close to the surface, he is absolutely gleeful to get into it. He could probably go all day on the qualities and benefits of various mediums alone, but is self-aware enough to restrain himself to just a few minutes, having probably watched the eyes of acquaintances glaze over after they ask about his work, expecting a rote answer.

Gibbs has only been painting since 2014 and was entirely self-taught before attending MICA’s prestigious Hoffberger MFA program, from which he graduated last summer. He is excited first and foremost about the materiality and immediacy of the medium. He explains in painter’s shorthand that he’s “really into Velázquez” (the 16th-century Spanish court painter beloved by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Francis Bacon) the same way people say they are very into the latest Drake song or craft IPAs—if you like it too, then you know exactly what he likes about it. Gibbs paints people representationally but, like Velázquez, he’s interested in letting the paint be paint, building it up, and stripping it away selectively to create moments of abstraction within his representational work. He believes that this gives the viewer a duality—the experience of a populated scene from far away but up close, an abstracted jumble of color and texture.

 

Jerrell Gibbs, Turner, 2019, oil and acrylic on linen, 60 x 48 inches

Gibbs sold his first drawings when he was in middle school for twenty-five cents to other kids and family members, but despite his early entrepreneurial gift, he didn’t consider art as a career until much later. He believes that Black kids today have more options when considering a career path and are encouraged to pursue creative work but when he was growing up all over West Baltimore in the ‘90s, it wasn’t like that. Back then, Gibbs felt like the options he and his peers aspired to were limited to, as he puts it, “either selling drugs to get to a point where you could buy whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, or you were going to be some type of entertainer or a rapper or some type of professional athlete. That was it, those were the goals and that’s what we strived to be. If it wasn’t any of that, you would just work a regular job and be a family man or woman and just do that nine-to-five life. That was it.”

So, with the mindset of being a nine-to-five man, Gibbs went to Morgan State University to study business after high school, then transferred to Bowie State, which he dropped out of during his junior year when his then-girlfriend, now wife, Sheila, became pregnant with their daughter Reagan. To support his family, for two years Gibbs worked a punishing schedule providing direct care as a home health aide—working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at one job then from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. at a second. 

Fatherhood changed Gibbs, and he believes that “becoming a father will make or break a man.” Gibbs knows about this firsthand—his father was involved in selling drugs and was murdered when Gibbs was seven years old. Losing his father when he was still a child helped inform the kind of parent he wants to be to his daughter; it’s a priority to him to be the involved father his father didn’t get to be. 

Family is so influential to Gibbs that for the past few years, his primary source of painting inspiration has been a family photo album he found in his aunt’s basement after she moved to a care facility for her advancing Alzheimer’s. At the time, he explains, “I was kinda frustrated with my family for not passing down anything to me, [and] thinking about how in the Black community, we don’t have certain things passed down to us as it relates to finances or housing. But then I realized [our families] do leave us these gems and tools, we just have to pick them up and run with them.” Through the photos in the album, most of which were taken before he was born, Gibbs has been able to connect with his family history in a new way. By basing his contemporary paintings roughly on this documentation of the recent past, Gibbs is developing a new narrative about the everyday life of Black people in Baltimore, their celebrations and their challenges immortalized in oil and acrylic.

Over Zoom, Gibbs and I chatted a lot about the seduction of paint, his impressive sneaker collection, and which celebrities’ business strategies he is studying to steal.

SUBJECT: Jerrell Gibbs, 32
WEARING: I wore my army fatigue “Biggie” jacket created by Baltimore artist Megan Lewis, a salmon-colored “Dad Hat” by Baltimore artist Alley Kid Art, and some Nike nite joggers.
PLACE: Zoom

[Image: Jerrell Gibbs, Turner, 2019, oil and acrylic on linen, 60 x 48 inches]

 

Jerrell Gibbs, Breakthrough, 2019, oil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? What books have you read on painting or art that have been especially helpful to you?

Jerrell Gibbs: One of the most important books for me is the Bible. It’s timeless and always guides me in my decision making. In addition, self-improvement books and biographies. Self-improvement books have always been important to me becoming and consistently growing into the best version of myself. There’s always a book out there that can meet you where you are and assist in transforming yourself. A few books that I’ve read on painting or art that have been important to me are The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, The Art in Painting by Albert C. Barnes, and The Love of Painting by Isabelle Graw, to name a few.

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

To be honest, I think the worst bit of career advice that I’ve received was to get a job. By no way do I think there is a problem with working a regular 9-5, but deep down in my spirit, I knew working a job for the rest of my life was not the answer for me, nor was it what I was put here to do. I had too many creative ideas to be slowed down by a JOB.

Since discovering an album of family photos at your aunt’s house, you’ve been painting from them. Personally, when I look at old family albums, I don’t always know who everyone is and end up asking myself a lot of unanswerable context questions like, “Who are these people? What were they like? What was happening that day?” Do you know who everybody is in your reference photos? 

Not everybody. But I know a lot of them. To me, it really doesn’t matter because when I look at a figure in a photo album, I’m not necessarily thinking about them in particular. I’m thinking about how I felt when I saw it or I’m thinking about how this individual is looking, which makes me feel a certain way. That could be a way that I felt, or that could be something that I’ve experienced before, something that is relative to what I’ve done or been involved with. Those are the things that I think about. I’m not necessarily focused on capturing that individual. I’m focused on capturing a moment that I’ve actually experienced. 

I want people to really sit with the work and enjoy it and come back to it. When you listen to good music that’s what it does for you. I think of albums created by musicians such as Kendrick Lamar or Jay-Z, and enjoy when I am able to catch new things that I’ve missed before. I’m talking about albums that I’ve been listening to for, like, five, six, seven years. That’s what I want my work to do too. I want you to be able to come back to it and be like, wow, I didn’t even notice that. Or I saw it, but I didn’t see it in that manner. And now it’s making me think of something completely different.

 

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you plan to give to your daughter about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of life?

I don’t believe in failure. I also dislike that the term “failure” is even a word. When someone does not get the desired outcome from an action, I simply look at it as a learning opportunity. When you change your perception of an undesired outcome, it gives you the power to take what you’ve learned and move forward without being discouraged. Imagine a world where we all looked at disappointing outcomes as a learning point instead of a “failure.” Now, that is not to say that we all don’t get disappointed at times—I know all about disappointments. But having the right perspective can turn that disappointment into a stepping stone. My advice for my daughter in times of disappointment will be to practice what I have preached. Use the disappointing outcome as an opportunity to learn what decision needs to be made in order to get the outcome you are looking for.

Do you believe the personal is political, and if so, how does that manifest in your life?

I do believe that the personal is political. Any decision you make is a direct reflection of you being opposed to something else, meaning you’ve made a conscious or subconscious decision to be a part of a particular idea, strategy, or group of people. This idea manifests in my life by the way in which I view myself and how I interact with others. My spiritual gift is Shepherding. Basically, I guide and direct. I believe we are all here for a specific purpose, and it’s never really about us. It’s always about those we can help in order to get them in a position to help someone else. It’s always about living for someone else. I am not advising that you ignore your needs and well-being, but I do believe our individual mission has a lot more to do with others rather than focusing solely on ourselves. 

What material do you use so much you should buy stock in it? 

I would have to say sneakers. If I could buy stock in “sneakers” as opposed to just one specific sneaker brand, I would. I buy sneakers like art collectors buy art; my collection is pretty large. If I had to pick a favorite, I would say the sneakers that are my favorite for the year 2020 are the Fuschia Sacai Vapor Waffles and the Iverson/BBC collab Question lows.

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for? 

I want to be remembered as a man who took great pride in being a man of God, a husband, and a father. 

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it?

I believe the next big trend will be the resurgence of Classic Style [clothing that is more tailored to the individual] in terms of dressing, and the appreciation of artisanship as opposed to mass production.

What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

I would have to say a local favorite spot of mine would be Dovecote Cafe (everything on their menu is my favorite). Also Sip and Bite. I am a big breakfast guy, and in my humble opinion, they have the best chipped beef, hands down. 

 

When you change your perception of an undesired outcome, it gives you the power to take what you’ve learned and move forward without being discouraged.
Jerrell Gibbs

You have a true entrepreneurial impulse and even attended Morgan State to study business before dropping out to work. How does someone like you, someone who is actually great at the “hustle” of selling their own work, decide to work with a gallery and share the profits of their sales?

I’ve been doing this thing on my own for a long time prior to having a gallery take care of everything. I’ve built relationships with powerful collectors. I even sold work to Peggy Cooper Cafritz before she passed. But getting with Mariane Ibrahim Gallery has also taken me to a completely different level as it relates to meeting different people and obviously meeting collectors that I probably wouldn’t have met on my own.

I realized, for me, [selling work is something] I can do with my eyes closed and I’ve been doing it for a long time. But I also realized, time is more important to me than money. I can make money in my sleep, but I can’t get my time back and do all [the labor involved in selling art]. Selling is fun, but at the same token, it was taking so much time and when I was selling art on my own, it was all I had the energy to do.

I’d rather cut that dollar short to have more time doing what I want to do, whether that’s traveling, spending time with my family, or being in a studio. When I was promoting, marketing, and shipping paintings on my own, it took time. You have to literally dedicate days to do it and now I don’t have to think about any of that. I can just go to the studio and paint when I want. And once they’re done the gallery will send a truck to pick the works up and they take the works and I don’t have to worry about it. It’s just a different lifestyle and I’m very grateful and appreciative of it.

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?

I would have to say my most unusual hobby would be that I love to study other creatives. I’ve always studied other creatives to the point of exhaustion and then I’ll move on to someone else. I’ll watch biopics, read books, watch YouTube videos, anything I can get my hands on, and then one day I’ll just be done with it. I don’t know if that’s unusual or even a hobby, but it is something that I’ve noticed about myself and it’s something that I enjoy. 

Lately, I have been studying musicians that venture into businesses other than music. I’ve been studying Berner a lot; what he has done as an independent recording artist, and what he’s been able to do with his Cookies brand is very impressive. I’ve been studying Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg and taking notes on their brand. It’s exciting to see how they’ve continuously been able to rebrand themselves. Jay-Z and Kanye West as well. I am studying them with the intent of applying the information to my future career. I am preparing myself now for moves that I plan to make in the future.

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

My favorite piece of clothing by far is a coat or jacket. My love for coats and jackets has become a problem. It’s just something about having the right coat or jacket to set off the outfit.

What are the last three emojis you used?

Smiley face emoji with sunglasses, fist pump, and prayer hands

Jerrell Gibbs, Lady in a Blue Dress, 2020, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 80 1/4 x 70 1/4 inches
Most painters that I’m really into have an affinity for using paint in a manner that is beyond illustrating something—it’s like they create a language with paint.
Jerrell Gibbs

You’re from Baltimore originally. How has the art scene changed in your lifetime? Do you think we’re entering a different stage of the Baltimore art scene?

I do. I can only say this because I’m involved in it. I wonder what it looks like to someone who’s not in this space. What does it look like to, like, my grandmother? Does she see it? If I’m involved, of course I can see the shift and the change. But if someone who doesn’t even know about art or paint, someone who’s not a part of the scene, if they know about certain things that have happened, if it reaches them and is making a significant impact in their day and they are aware of it, then I feel like there’s really been a shift and a change.

I can say I’ve noticed a lot more unity, a lot more community-based things. And I feel like that’s only going to continue to propel us to a bigger platform. I think when it comes to creativity in Baltimore, one of the things that we’ve messed up is our lack of being able to come together and unite and make something happen, as a team, as a unit. But I feel like now, more than any time, there is a lot of unity and people coming together. It takes time but I feel like we’re on a good track in terms of collectively getting together to make something happen. That could really be the foundation for a great future.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

My sign matches my personality 100 percent. I am a Pisces and if you look up the definition, my face will be next to it. I am all of the characteristics of a Pisces. Fortunately for me, I have been able to acknowledge it and make it work for me. I am very laidback around people I don’t know. I am extremely generous, and sometimes that can be a bad thing. I am very emotional, but I’ve learned over the years how to control it, and of course, I am very creative. I have been creating all my life. I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to play football so bad. I would make my own football equipment from things I found laying around the house. One day, I made a football helmet out of a bike helmet and the facemask was made of a clothing hanger. I would watch football games on TV and play along with what was happening.

I see an influence of Kerry James Marshall in your work in the way you mix the figurative with moments that are clearly about the application of paint to the surface, but who else has been an influence on your painting?

Too many to name, but for the sake of the interview, I would say Henry Taylor, Noah Davis, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Henri Matisse. I love Picasso. I love Picasso because he showed me that it was okay to continue to evolve and change what you’re painting about based on what’s happening in your life. Most painters that I’m really into have an affinity for using paint in a manner that is beyond illustrating something—it’s like they create a language with paint. The paint is working with itself to create something. It’s beyond me making it look good—it’s putting paint right here and putting paint right there and they’re going to mesh and jel and have this beautiful interaction, and mesh and play and come up with things that I couldn’t even do on my own. That’s what I’m really into, those that are artists that I really lock in with.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

All of my jobs were learning experiences. I think the most formative one was doing direct care. I did that for about eight years. It really taught me to appreciate the mundane. I am grateful for that opportunity.

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind? Or if you haven’t learned anything recently that surprised you, what did you learn the hard way?

Lol, most recently I’ve learned that the top celebrity earner of 2020 was Kylie Jenner, bringing in $600 million this year. That was mind-blowing for me.

*****
A collector of Gibbs’ work, Michael Sherman, donated a painting to the BMA’s Collection in 2020. On March 4, 2021, at 6:30 p.m., join BmoreArt and Gibbs for another Connect + Collect Zoom (link and more info to come).

 

Photos by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt; art images courtesy of Jerrell Gibbs

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