Jeffrey Gibson: Icon Maker
Jeffrey Gibson’s life and work are profoundly shaped by his Native American origins.
Jeffrey Gibson is a noted painter and sculptor whose work blends elements of traditional Native American art with contemporary artistic references. His artworks are in the permanent collections of many major art museums, including the Denver Art Museum, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Gibson was born in 1972 in Colorado Springs, CO, and grew up near army bases in the United States, Germany, Korea, England, and elsewhere. He is a half-Cherokee member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. His itinerant youth and family heritage would have a profound effect on his art, which intermingles global cultural influences in a variety of media: paintings, fabrics, and repurposed traditional and pop culture objects, among other material.
He earned a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from the Royal College of Art in London. Gibson was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2019. He is an artist-in-residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.
Jeffrey Gibson is part Choctaw part Cherokee, a former Army brat whose father’s job took the family from Colorado to west Germany to South Korea. Sometimes assimilating, perpetually questioning Gibson eagerly embraced the unknown.
Jeffrey Gibson: You know, traveling especially not for vacation but for living, you’re humbled so many times, you know? Your voice is constantly not available to you because you don’t understand where you are, and you have to navigate on someone else’s terms.
Many did not know what to make of this young man or who he was, Samoan, black, Hawaiian, Asian? American, he would say, Native American, a proudly held distinction.
Gibson: People have I think sometimes negatively asked me why do I wanna be known as a Native American artist? Does it have a pigeonholing impact? And I answer by saying, and this is truly what I believe, that’s where we’re at right now as a culture and those terms and those affiliations mean something right now. I don’t believe in post race. I don’t believe in post nationalism right now. They are our negotiating terms in terms of representation and voices.
Gibson’s lineage is explored and expressed in his richly varied work, multi media ensembles of Native American artifacts, pop culture, glass beads, punch bags, jingles, trading post blankets, and fringe.
Gibson: I’m a collector, you know. So, moving around I would say I collected everything from experiences, anecdotes, memories, cultural objects, you know, things that I would collect, and I think of my practice now as collecting being a major part of it. So, right now I’m collecting as many wooden carved representations of native people that I can. And what happens in the studio is then all of the stuff arrives and it’s all here, and I go back to that place as a child and you have to play. And I know that I’m playing with things that already have inherent meaning. They’re already important in the context of what I do. So then I’m just crafting visual poetry or I’m making a political statement, or it can be completely absurdist. But the play is, it’s like playing, I’m playing like a 45 year old man who has experience and who, I know I’m smart, I know I know how to put things together, I know I know how to use color fearlessly. So you just call on all of that, you know? And you play.
Once an outsider, Gibson is today widely exhibited and acclaimed, and extraordinarily happy in his long relationship with the Norwegian artist Rune Olsen. The two left Brooklyn a few years ago for a small town in upstate New York where a former school house now serves as their studio. The move coincided with the adoption of their daughter Gigi, a time Gibson remembers as being both joyous and tumultuous.
Gibson: You’re going through this process for something that you know is so important but there’s so many people involved and you’re being asked to jump through hoops, what feels like being asked to jump through hoops. So you’re occupied with that, you know, and then suddenly there’s this child. And even at the last minute this may or may not be your child. So, I think that that sense of negotiating with the unknown is, probably had the biggest positive impact on me and my work.
Gibson: You’re up against another unknown that has every ability to really give you everything and take everything away.
With a new home and a new daughter with his husband at his side and his extended family near Gibson is on the precipice of a new phase.
Gibson: I going forward want to tap into some of those places of my life that are not so specifically coded as Native American. Korea, England, Germany, Norway, queerness, also religion. Both of my grandfathers started their own churches, Indian churches, in Mississippi and Oklahoma. And now I look at it and I think, wow, they really founded a space to bring the community back together. Both churches still exist. So, there’s this sort of stuff that I think is, it continues the work, certainly the content of the work, but just in a slightly new direction.
Today, Jeffrey Gibson looks ahead towards more self discovery, more world discovery, and more opportunities to live a life of his own design.