Jeffrey Gibson (b. 1972) is a Hudson-based multimedia artist. Gibson’s vibrant art practice explores a wide range of influences, including Native American craft traditions, cultural narratives, symbols of power, history, personal identity, and contemporary social issues relevant to BIPOC and queer communities.
Her singular creative style encompasses a range of mediums of expression, such as textiles, embroidery, weaving, hand-sewn fringe, beadwork and other materials which are the basis of her paintings, sculptures, clothing and large-scale works. facilities. Gibson’s work often recontextualizes and thus reconsiders traditional Native American craftsmanship within a contemporary cultural framework, resulting in a body of work that is both conscious and celebratory. He regularly exhibits his art in major institutions around the world and his work is represented in numerous museums and private collections. I spoke with Gibson on Zoom earlier this year. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Taliesin Thomas: Please share your thoughts on your Native American roots and the Hudson Valley as your home and place for artistic creation. What brought you to the Hudson Valley?
Jeffrey Gibson: Well, you know, my ancestry is not originally from that area. My families are located in Mississippi and Oklahoma. My mom is Cherokee and my dad is from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians so I grew up being aware of those two things, but I am a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
I originally came to Columbia County in 2007 for a residency at Art Omi. We moved here in the summer [of 2012]. And then the studio started growing and then I bought this building that I’m in now, which is a turn-of-the-century school in Claverack.
At this point in my life, I was 40, so the goal was to put down roots and do some life editing and secure the things that we knew we wanted to do: my artistic career, [my husband] Runey’s artistic practice and a family.
TT: Your celebration of indigenous Native American culture through your art articulates a vibrant spectrum. How does this spectrum evolve?
JJ: I think my shift in consideration for an audience of contemporary Native American Indian art and culture is something that I know is still at the forefront of my brain now and I can feel where it has grown . I think when you’re indigenous, you’re kind of held accountable by your family, by your community, by other people, whether they’re part of your tribal nation or not.
Nobody caters to the native audience of this contemporary art world, and so it became something that interested me. Maybe not even out of curiosity, just a sort of “what does it mean to talk to other Indigenous artists? So I have to assume that to some extent we are people who, regardless of our relationship to our community – i.e. traditional or not – we have all chosen to make art and to broadcast worldwide.
This greatly increased the spectrum [and] rather than stretching out, I find the people who inspire me and then I ask them to come together and be able to do the best of what I do, and set it up as a platform for them to do the best they can do.
TT: You said you almost gave up on doing your art. Please share your thoughts on this introspection as an artist.
JJ: It really, really goes back to when we moved to New York. Runey and I moved together from London in 1999.
I was exhibiting, and I think for me the commercial success was really important because it was kind of a barrier to cross. I was pretty determined to be a part of that part of the art world as well and not just stay in non-profit spaces that talked about larger issues. I’ve tried to juggle it all all these years.
I guess it was somewhere around 2008, that’s sort of the point for me. A few times I thought about walking away. I think I also expected, growing up, that the art world would be a meritocracy. I thought it was totally inclusive, I thought it was completely queer friendly. So to come to this and come up against a kind of heteronormation, a kind of machismo, class issues and racial issues, it was really discouraging. I couldn’t find reason big enough to want to put up with it.
And, at the same time, I have these conversations with scholars, scholars who are focused on Indigenous making, historical Indigenous making. This conversation, to me, is so important and so vast – so stepping into the art world, where no one was aware of it, feels like stepping off a cliff.
It was about deciding: Am I worried that this is stereotypical, identifying as Native American. “Do I classify? is the question that came up several times.
I had to put all those voices out long enough to do the work to see, what’s it like to do this, to learn beadwork? I had learned beadwork in my teens and twenties, but applying it in a substantial way didn’t happen until around 2008-2011.
It was the first time I felt that the city I had always wanted to be an artist in, New York, finally noticed me and paid attention. It was the big change.
TT: Your art is powerful, powerful and powerful at the same time, it does all of that. How would you define power in art?
JJ: Oh, that’s a great question. Power in art: I think there are many different kinds of power, right?
And so, I think the clothes that I make, the power that comes with that…I think when somebody puts them on, which is a big part of them, somebody has to put them on, whether it’s me or someone else…these individuals that I put in the clothes, their personal stories intertwine with my personal story and that leaves a powerful archive, in the present tense, that will describe me, of course, but also what was going on in the spaces that I have crossed.
I think there are of course other types of power, but I think there is a real belief in me in the animation of materials and in the constitution of a space.
TT: Your exhibitions are a collaboration of ritual objects, costumes, paintings, installations, dance, music and performances. How does this fit together for you?
JJ: I remember the days when I did everything, don’t I?
In order to earn enough to put on a show, fill a museum space, that’s where the team came in. I think so many of the artisans I’ve spoken to and people who are really invested in craftsmanship, it’s therapeutic. This kind of repetitiveness, I think it heals. It occupies a certain place and also has the ability to heal you. And I feel like all the beading that I’ve done, all the sewing that I’ve done, have done that.
It’s not something we do in our lives. We are the smallest parts of a million transactions that occur every day, and I think that leaves us feeling fragmented. It echoes all the symptoms of schizophrenia. Crafting and the long process of making something is so calming to me, and now that process includes other people, it includes communication, it includes experimentation. My moment of realization, at this point, really happens when I see the work set up and see how people engage with it, that’s when I get the rush.
TT: The idea of futurism seems to be a growing idea in the art world. Do you have any ideas about futurism in relation to your work?
JJ: I started talking about futurism a long time ago. I think I started talking about it, about the need to be present. We can’t start thinking about a future unless we can feel really grounded in the present time, so that’s where I think a lot about materials and what kind of amazing you can do in a pretty simple way, you know, in color – that kind of stuff, stuff that can take you back to the same place.
Then looking at a future is actually quite scary because if you have clarity in the present, you see these kinds of seemingly insurmountable, mostly ecological challenges ahead of us. People who know me, I talk a lot about fear and anger. Of course people are scared, and of course they are angry. But we cannot solve these problems through fear and anger.
There is power in positivity, there is power in love, there is power in not being afraid, there is power in releasing anger. You are actually more powerful when you can release these things rather than cling to them.
TT: What advice do you have for this younger generation of artists who are rising up and struggling with all of these same issues?
JJ: I worked with a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago named Maureen Sherlock, [and] The takeaway I got from her and still cling to is: your opportunity to have freedom exists between well-mapped marked spaces. It’s before things form, boundaries are set, rules are set, and perceptions are set, that things start to get a little tighter, narrow, and stuffy. If you can find a space in between, you can define it, you can be whatever you want to be.