Spotlight: 5 Plain Questions - Jeffrey Gibson

May 24, 2023 Nia Tero Season 3
Spotlight: 5 Plain Questions - Jeffrey Gibson
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Spotlight: 5 Plain Questions - Jeffrey Gibson
May 24, 2023 Season 3
Nia Tero

We’re overjoyed to share with you an episode from 5 Plain Questions, a podcast hosted by Joe Williams (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate). In this episode, Joe talks with Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw/Cherokee), an artist who exemplifies the care of community and the sharing of resources that makes a difference for so many Indigenous peoples for collective benefit. Jeffrey speaks about the progression of his art, from his formal training as a painter to his more recent work in immersive installations incorporating “a lot of materials that I would find in the vendor circuit of powows.” 5 Plain Questions is a project of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota, and we’re grateful to host and producer Joe Williams for sharing this episode with us. 

Learn more about:  

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Show Notes Transcript

We’re overjoyed to share with you an episode from 5 Plain Questions, a podcast hosted by Joe Williams (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate). In this episode, Joe talks with Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw/Cherokee), an artist who exemplifies the care of community and the sharing of resources that makes a difference for so many Indigenous peoples for collective benefit. Jeffrey speaks about the progression of his art, from his formal training as a painter to his more recent work in immersive installations incorporating “a lot of materials that I would find in the vendor circuit of powows.” 5 Plain Questions is a project of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota, and we’re grateful to host and producer Joe Williams for sharing this episode with us. 

Learn more about:  

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Seedcast Spotlight: 5 Plain Questions with guest Jeffrey Gibson

Seedcast Season 3, Episode 4

May 24, 2023

[00:00:00] Jessica:  This is Seedcast, and I'm Jessica Ramirez. We're back with a spotlight! We love to shine a light on other podcasts that amplify Indigenous stories, and today we're sharing one with you called 5 Plain Questions. I love the simple format of the show, as it features an Indigenous guest who answers five questions, and there are almost 200 episodes in their archive. That's 200 artists, politicians, poets, and scientists to listen to and learn from!

[theme music begins, plays in the background]

And today we're sharing an episode from 5 Plain Questions featuring one of my favorite artists, Jeffrey Gibson. 

Theme song by Mia Kami: There is hope. There is strength. There is power. There is change in you and I. (chorus: You and I) In you and I. There is hope. There is strength, there is power. There is change in you and I. You and I…

[00:01:00] Jessica:  Jeffrey exemplifies the care of community, and the sharing of resources that makes a difference for so many Indigenous peoples to collectively benefit. He's a Choctaw/Cherokee artist, and he pulls people through and uplifts others, and he's part of our Nia Tero family—he's actually worked with us to mentor emerging Native artists! You can find 5 Plain Questions on SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts. Enjoy the show!


 5 Plain Questions
Jeffrey Gibson
Released February 2023

[5 Plain Questions theme music begins, plays in the background]

[00:01:33] Joe Williams: Hello, and welcome again to another episode of 5 Plain Questions, a podcast that proposes five questions to Indigenous artists, creators, musicians, writers, movers and shakers, and culture bearers; people in the community that are doing great things for their communities. I'm Joe Williams, your host for this conversation.

I'm Director of the Indigenous Art Programs at the Plains Art Museum. My goal is to showcase these amazing people in our Indigenous communities from around the region and country. I want to introduce you to Jeffrey Gibson. Jeffrey Gibson's work fuses his Choctaw / Cherokee heritage and experience of living in Europe, Asia, and the US with references that span club culture, queer theory, fashion, politics, literature, and art history. The artist's multifaceted practice incorporates painting, performance, sculpture, textiles, and video characterized by vibrant color and pattern. Gibson was born in 1972 in Colorado, and he currently lives and works in Hudson Valley, in New York.  

Gibson combines traditional and digital artisanal handcraft, such as beadwork, leatherwork, and quilting with narratives of contemporary resistance, and protest slogans, and song lyrics. The blend of confrontation and pageantry is reinforced by what Felicia Feaster describes as a sense of movement and performance, as if these objects are costumes waiting for the dancer to inhabit them. Jeffrey Gibson harnesses the power of such materials and techniques to activate overlooked narratives, while embracing the presence of historically marginalized identities. Acknowledging music is a key element in his experience of life as an artist, pop music became one of his primary points of reference in Gibson's practice. Musicians became his elders, and lyrics became his mantras. Recent paintings synthesized geometric patterns inspired by Indigenous American artifacts with the lyrics and psychedelic palette of disco music. 

This is a great conversation and I'm just really excited to jump into this! So with that said, let's jump into this conversation with Jeffrey Gibson!

Jeffrey Gibson, thank you so much for joining us at 5 Plain Questions, it's an honor to have you here!  

[00:03:36] Jeffrey Gibson: Thank you I'm super happy to be here. 

[00:03:38] Joe: Oh, great! Would you be able to introduce yourself? Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and where you're from.

[00:03:44] Jeffrey: Mm-hmm, sure! Well, Jeffrey Gibson is my name and I am an artist. I live in the Hudson Valley in New York. I am Choctaw Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, and also half Cherokee, and have grown up really moving all over the place. I've lived in Germany, Korea, London, and New York for the most part; and have lived here now for quite some time. And yeah, I've got two kids and a husband, and we're very happy up here in the semi-rural Hudson Valley. 

[00:04:22] Joe: So, you're from where I'm at—you're on the East Coast. And can you tell the listener a little bit about what you do, and the type of artwork that you create? 

[00:04:36] Jeffrey: Yeah, for sure! I'm trained as a painter, and I still continue to love painting. It's my favorite medium. But I also have grown to make sculptures that are really made from, not entirely textiles, but I would think people would describe them as textile-based. There's a lot of beadwork, a lot of materials that I would find in the vendor circuit of pow wows. And also we do performances, videos that are usually related to the performances. And then you know at the Portland Art Museum that's not an entirely new medium, but glass and photography as an immersive installation. So it's pretty broad. But that's what it's grown to; it hasn't always been that broad.

[00:05:28] Joe: It's been an evolution across time, yeah. 

[00:05:30] Jeffrey: Yeah, for sure. 

[00:05:31] Joe: Would you be able to talk about your influences—your influences early on, and currently today?

[00:05:38] Jeffrey: Yeah, I think it's—I mean it's interesting, with the Portland Art Museum, being paired with Oscar Howe. And Kathleen Ash-Milby, the curator there, and myself have known each other for over twenty years, and I remember talking to her about Oscar Howe—I don't know probably over fifteen years ago—you know, this group of painters who were kind of seen as not Native enough, and then they weren't not Native enough, you know, for their work to really be celebrated in the way that it should have been. And I think that that time period was really influential, because one, a lot of them are from, you know, the middle of the country. And so, in the art world, oftentimes it's the coasts that are celebrated. And my family is from Mississippi and Oklahoma, and so I think I felt some resonance with artists who weren't from the coasts. And so I grew up being aware of Oscar Howe for sure, Woody Crumbo like you know, the Santa Fe Indian School painting. And then also you know, moving around I learned a lot about European artists, classical art. Probably where I really gravitated to was like, post-war painting, so everything from like, Abstract Expressionism, to Geometric Abstraction, and Futurism; Pattern And Decoration; Op Art. 

And then, you know, I was born in the 70’s so I was really kind of an 80’s kid when I was thinking about being an artist. So all of the graffiti, and Warhol and Keith Haring, and Basquiat, and everything that I was paying attention to happening in New York kind of really informed me about what I felt I should do as an artist, you know. So all of that kind of combined together, and also moving around a lot as a kid, you know when you don't speak the language and you go to a new culture and you're just having to kind of figure it out in the process you know, and it’s very sensory, it's like, visual. It's touching things. It's the way things smell, the way things sound. I think that had a really big influence on how I interact with materials and maybe think about things much more atmospherically, you know. I am really interested in the kind of presence that things have and the atmosphere that they create. So I would say that's a really, that was probably a really influential experience. So. It's not all entirely art. It's also just some experiences that I've had. 

[00:08:21] Joe: Could you share about your career both in school, and college; post college? 

[00:08:34] Jeffrey: Mm-hmm, yeah. I was like, the kid that was always drawing. You know, like, as a probably even like four or five year old. My parents always gave me drawing materials. I made a lot of drawings for friends and family. I would copy artists and we would send those drawings back to my relatives in Mississippi and Oklahoma. And so I would get kind of praised for them. I was like the kid that made art, you know. And then in elementary school, that continued. High school. It's kind of the group of people who I identified with, and I would end up hanging out in like the art classrooms; and then so many students didn't want to be in the art classroom. So those teachers really loved you being there [laughs] and caring, and gave you lots of extra attention and support, and I gravitated towards that. And then when it came time to go to college, I actually didn't really—I guess I got kind of freaked out. I didn't really know how to think about being an artist, so I decided to study psychology, anthropology, and my third major was painting, and I started off at the University Of Maryland—where we were living at the time, my family was in Maryland—and it was the wrong choice for me. I never went to class, and I ultimately got asked to not return, and I ended up going to a community college, also in Maryland, the Prince George's County Community College and you know I just made a deal with my father. I said, "Let me just go and do what I want to do.” And I ended up again, being that kid that was always in the studios, and the professors really helped me and cheered me on, and I finished my associates degree there.

And then I went and I looked at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe as a possibility of where I would transfer to. I did an apprenticeship that summer in Nambe, New Mexico, and I worked with an artist in Nambe. His name was Ernest Cloud Eagle Mirabel, and he's no longer with us. But I I worked for him for three months. And at the same time while I was there, I got into a few different universities and colleges, and ultimately decided to go to the Art Institute of Chicago. So I moved to Chicago, which was a very free place. My professors there actually would come to my apartment where I would paint most of the time, and we would have critiques in my apartment. I felt very grown up, you know, that my professors, who I really had a lot—have a lot of—respect for would come over and give me real critique, and we would talk about ideas. And at the same time I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and I was a NAGPRA Native American Graves Repatriation Act research assistant, and my job was to pull together the objects for tribal delegations to come and visit, and to help them compile research, and I did that for about 3 years. And that was intense, because that was the beginning of NAGRPA which was really, pretty, I don't know what; just, you know. There was no answers, you know, it was a lot of emotional stress; didn't have too much to do with art making; but yeah, it set a lot of ideas in motion that I would say really influenced the future of what I decided to do with my art. 

 [00:12:14] Jeffrey: I then went on to be an exhibition designer at the Mitchell Indian Museum—which was a children's Indian museum in Evanston, Illinois—once I graduated. And that was also, you know, challenging because I didn't always agree with the decisions about how to show objects and material culture. And so then from there it was kind of, it wasn't quite a whim, somebody challenged me to apply to the Royal College Of Art in London. It was a very good friend of mine named [name of friend], who is originally from Ghana. And I applied, and I think to my surprise I got in! You know, when I got the interview, I remember thinking it's like “Well, even if I don't get in, this will be my chance to go to London.” And so I went to London. And I showed my work, and maybe a couple weeks later I got a letter saying that I got in, and then it was a struggle to figure out, well, how am I going to pay to go to school abroad? And I had been in communication with who was our then Chief, Chief Philip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians for a number of years. They had given me a scholarship in my undergraduate degree. And he just said, “Well of course we're going to help you!” He said, “We don't know what we can offer you, but we're going to do our best.” And ultimately they paid for my entire three years in London. They paid for my tuition, they paid for my rent, they paid for me to come back and forth to the US for visits. Totally unheard of!  

Chief Martin, he was at the time going before Congress, and he was fighting to bring labor and business to central Mississippi. And part of his plan was how it would impact the financial stability of the tribe, and having Choctaw students go into the world and in education and stuff, was part of his plan. So he told me, he said, “Well, the reason—one of the reasons—why this is worth it is because you’re proof that this is part of the plan that, you know, our youth will go out to the world.” So that was kind of an eye-opening experience, and amazing. You know, I really wouldn't have been able to do what I did without him. So I would go back and visit, you know, and I would take him an artwork here and there, and we would talk. And so in incredible gratitude. And to be honest, at the time, the tribe was cutting all arts education on the reservation in favor of trade-based education. A lot of the employment that was coming there had to do with skilled labor. So yeah, that was kind of wild. After London, I moved to New York, you know going back to those 80's aspirations, and I was like “Oh you move to New York, that's what you do!” And struggled. Worked, you know, sometimes 80, 90 hours a week to pay my rent, to like, make some paintings. Eventually, started showing here and there, had a few times of almost walking away and quitting, but ultimately kept going. And I would say it was around 2012 when I started exhibiting, which would have put me at what, 40? I was 40 years old when I started exhibiting in the way that I think people know me now. I think that's when my work, and myself, started getting more attention, and it's kind of continued and grown since then.

[00:16:09] Joe: In those years of working and hustling what kept you going? What was it that was driving your energy and your focus?

[00:16:19] Jeffrey: Well, I think one of the things is you know, being in New York, you're in a community—or I was in a community—of so many artists who are my age who we all shared a similar wish, you know, to be—to have careers as artists, to be exhibiting. A lot of frustration. Not everybody was poor and broke. Many people have money. I did not have money. And I was fortunate to receive a grant—well actually, in 2002 I was selected to be part of a professional development program with the lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and it was about just sort of people talking to you about how to manage a career which always was kind of triggering because I was like, “We don't have a career to manage. So I don't know why you're talking to us.” [laughs] But it was helpful, you know, it came in, it was worth it later. One of the things that I learned that I still hold on to today, is that you know, it is a lot of work. It is a very unfair, unequitable field choosing to be an artist. That's just the truth of it. And so you have to want to accomplish something that makes all of that work worth it, because just getting an exhibition or selling a painting is not worth the amount of work that it's going to take to do this. And I think that I've always come back to that. I mean, for a long time for me, it was about representation and inclusion. You know, of Native people in specifically New York, the New York City art world, and the market, and the galleries, and the museums. And at this point I think I have accomplished a lot. I've been fortunate. I do work very hard. But I think that I have accomplished a lot of what I originally wanted to do, and now I feel like I hope to be able to draw attention to other Indigenous artists and other—kind of provide some space for Indigenous and Native artists who maybe don't know how to do this, you know. Sort of like, create a more transparent truth about it. I can't make it more equitable, necessarily. I can't make it more fair, or easier. But I think by sharing my experience, I hope that people realize they don't have to do all—some of that work, like some of that work has already been done for them, you know. And we are here, we are available to learn from.

And so I think now you know, I'm working on a book project right now, where—it will come out later this year—where the book features about 60 contemporary Indigenous and Native artists who I have paid attention to over the past 20 years. Some of them very recently, some of them going much further back. But I think you know a lot of those artists like, in the 80's and the 90's, the context for their work to be valued and to be written about and spoken about, it just wasn't really available. So these artists were really making work without—with very little support. And so this book is really about trying to—and it's really a picture book. You know there are written contributions, but they really—this book is really like a visual, fluid, flowing picture book of artworks. And we think we're picturing over/ about 250 artworks. It's a massive book, and we're in the final stages of designing it right now, and I'm really excited to put it up into the world. You know? And hopefully, you know, we're trying to find an equitable distribution plan so that we can get it into the hands of young artists who might otherwise not be able to afford it, and let them see that these are all these people who have done maybe what they might want to do some version of.

[00:20:48] Joe: Wow! Well, I think we would be very interested in taking a look at that as well.

[00:20:52] Jeffrey: Yeah, for sure! 

[00:20:53] Joe: This is very interesting. 

[00:20:54] Jeffrey: It's a really cool book, I'm super proud of it!

[00:20:56] Joe: I'm kind of excited hearing about this!  

[00:20:57] Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah! 

[00:20:58] Jeffrey: I think that's wonderful! How have opportunities presented themselves to you over the years? Because as one has a career, early in the career, opportunities come in one form and as you move through it, it comes through in a different way. Would you be able to speak to that? 

[00:21:15] Jeffrey: Yeah!  I think in the beginning, you know, it's like sometimes I'll go back to the early advice that I would receive about having a career as an artist where, you know, you have to advocate for yourself and you have to ask for what you want, and you have to be able to walk away from things. And there's also the idea where it's like, you have to sometimes, you have to put up with some bs if you feel like there's something at the end of that relationship that's worth it for you. You know, I would say that I didn't feel that I had as many options, let's say as someone, some other artist who I was looking at you know. But, so I would look at who was responding to my work and try to figure out how could we turn this into something that I felt pretty good about; you know how could we—maybe it's the writing. Maybe it's the way the show is installed. Maybe it's trying to get people in the door and using other people's networks and contacts to get other people into the door to see your work. You have to do a lot of that leg work on your own, I think, in the beginning, and not be afraid to have a vision about how you want it to happen—and also not be crushed when it doesn't happen. You know, it's sort of that thing where it's like you know, maybe you've tried nine times and you failed, but maybe on the eleventh try is when it's gonna work out. So you give up now, you’re two tries away, and you'll never know it, you know. So, you just have to kind of continue to believe. But also I think sometimes it's hard for artists when people try to give them advice, and lots of people try to give you advice; but sometimes you don't—you should listen, but you don't always—it's not like they're giving you direction. They're just giving you advice. And you think about what part of this advice works for me, and what part of this advice doesn't, but you have to remain really open. And then at the stage where I'm at right now, I would say we get at—when I say we I'm talking about my studio—we get approached, right now, maybe two to three times a week with an opportunity. And some of those things are interesting. Some of them I'll try to renegotiate into another direction to make it interesting. Some of those things are, you know, immediate sort of like, yeah, obviously I would want to do that you know. And then it's just a question of time, and obviously money, and what kind of life you want to have; because I could be absorbed entirely by work, you know. And so I have to set some boundaries for myself. So I have some personal time as well. So I actually do work Monday through Friday, about 9:30 to 5. That's my work week.  

[00:24:13] Joe: [laughs] That's well, that's a good full schedule for sure. 

[00:24:16] Jeffrey: And I have done that for a very long time. I've done that for a very long time. Yeah.

[00:24:20] Joe: So the consistency there, too. But it sounds like you're making space for yourself, as well as far as…  

[00:24:16] Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, myself and my kids and my family for sure. 

[00:24:30] Joe: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, this leads us to the fifth question, is, what advice would you have for the 18 to 22 year old that's listening to this conversation?

[00:24:43] Jeffrey: Oh I think, well, let's just like—I always tell this, you know—it's like, one, I think there's too many artists in the world. I really do, because I think what people think of as being an artist is maybe someone who could function in a more product-oriented commercial world, more along the lines of design, which if that's really your calling, if you want to go produce a product that can be sold, that's a little bit different than making an artwork. I think when you're making an artwork, you want to be really honest with yourself, and you want to bring to the table something that you feel like is truly you; like it's your combination of things that you can bring to the table. And when people don't understand it, you have to realize that, in my opinion, the understanding of it is important to us as makers. Like, I do want people to resonate with my work. I want my work to resonate with people. So if it's not resonating with people, I take on the responsibility to think about what is it I could do to not compromise my work, but what could I do to get the impact that I want to happen? I take that on. I don't look at other people and criticize them for not getting it. That's taken a long time to be able to do, because there's a lot of emotions involved when you let yourself be so vulnerable, and it feels very prickly. But ultimately, I realize that that's a real privilege that I get to take. I get to be honest, I get to make something that I'm genuinely excited about, something that I genuinely want to see in the world. And it hasn't always been accepted by the public, but I have—I think after a while, people understand your work. Maybe they didn't understand the first thing they saw, maybe they didn't understand the second one. But eventually they're interested enough to keep watching, and one day something clicks and they're like, “Oh I get it!” You know for me that was like the punching bag series. The punching bag was like the first thing that I feel like people just immediately got. They understood that there was like, a power relationship, and that relationship with power could be personal. It could be about love. It could be political. People understood that right away. And putting something that looked like it was drawn from Indigenous aesthetics onto the surface of the punching bag immediately made people think about those particular power relationships, and that to me was like, just amazing. It was sort of like, you've been working really hard to find a sentence that people can understand, and now you did. And now you can change the nouns, you can change the pronouns, you could change the verbs, but the basic sentence was there, if that makes sense.  

[00:27:51] Joe: Oh absolutely, absolutely! So where can the listener find your work, and be able to connect with you and the work that you do? 

[00:28:03] Jeffrey: I mean, I have work in a lot of public collections right now. I know I just talked to a podcast in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where there's a piece apparently that's been in the vault at Philbrook and has been on view now for years. They move it around, apparently, from exhibition to exhibition and reinstall it. 

[theme music begins to play in the background] 

I have an installation and video at the Aspen Art Museum in Aspen, Colorado, which will be up almost through the end of this year. I have a quasi-survey exhibition opening up at the Frist Museum in Nashville; it opens up at the end of this month, and it'll be up for about four months. And then I'll do a gallery exhibition here in New York City in September of this year at Sikkema Jenkins, the gallery that I work with here in New York. And then in November, I'll be doing a solo exhibition in London at the gallery I work with there, Stephen Friedman Gallery so, thank you. 

[00:29:00] Joe: Wow well congratulations on those, that's wonderful! Well, Jeffrey, thank you so much for this. It was great to connect with you.  

[00:29:06] Jeffrey: Of course. Thank you. It was great to talk to you!  

[theme music continues] 

[00:29:10] Joe: And that does it for this episode of 5 Plain Questions! 

I wanna thank Jeffrey again for his time in sharing his story with us. He's an incredibly busy person and to be able to have time with him and to listen to his story and his perspective is deeply, deeply appreciated. So, Jeffrey, thank you for this, this was a joy. I also wanted to acknowledge the Stephen Friedman Gallery for the biography at the beginning of this program. Now, I wanna thank Brian Barlow for arranging this conversation, and for the photograph that we used for the podcast. It was great working with both of you to make this happen. I also want to thank you for joining us and spending your time listening to what I feel is a very important story and perspective from our community. 

So please, join us next week, as we speak with another incredible person. I'm Joe Williams. You can find me on our Facebook page, our Instagram account, which is 5 Plain Questions Podcast over at the website. There, you can see our programming or past videos and these podcasts. If you have a suggestion for someone for me to interview, please look me up on Facebook or at our websites; and my email’s at the website there. Message me, I’d really like to hear from you. Alright, that's it, you take care and we’ll see you next week!

[theme music continues, fades out]

 This has been an Eleven Warrior Arts production.