Choctaw and Cherokee multi-disciplinary artist Jeffrey Gibson was in a rural area when he got the call from Chicago. He didn’t really think it was real when he learned he was being named as one of the 2019 fellows for the MacArthur Foundation. To be recognized is a more-than-reputable accomplishment that comes with an ample share of credibility, recognition, and a no-strings-attached $625,000 fellowship stipend.
His biography is filled with a long list of accomplishments as listed on the MacArthur website page featuring Gibson:
“Jeffrey Gibson received a BFA (1995) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA (1998) from the Royal College of Art. Gibson’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions at such institutions as the Denver Art Museum, the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, among others. Gibson is also represented in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and the National Gallery of Canada, among others. Currently, he is an artist-in-residence in the Studio Arts Program at Bard College. Gibson is Choctaw-Cherokee and is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.”
In an interview with Gibson, Indian Country Today’s Vincent Schilling asked what it was like to be named a fellow, and what Gibson will do with the boost in exposure and finances.
Vincent Schilling: First of all Congratulations. How did you find out what happened? What was the experience there?
Jeffrey Gibson: Well, I have a three-year-old daughter who was in her first day of daycare. And so that was the day I dropped her off and it was a very tough morning. So after that, I went to the studio and I was just really wiped out. I was looking forward to picking her up. I was with my partner on the way to pick her up and I saw a call from Chicago. I thought it was a friend of mine and I answered the phone. The first thing they said is, "Hello, this is the MacArthur Foundation," and I was on speakerphone so I looked at my partner and I said, "Yeah, pullover."
They said, “Are you someplace where you can sit down?" and then, “Congratulations, you've been selected to receive a fellowship for 2019." And I was just kind of speechless, and they were saying that it's a nomination, by the recipient's peers and they asked me, “Did you know you were being watched?” And I said, "No, not at all." And, then my phone dropped out of service.
Vincent Schilling: Did you call them back?
Jeffrey Gibson: It took me about another 15 minutes to get my phone powered up. I called back. And then we went through the formalities of them reading the biography and telling me details. That was three weeks ago. And then it's a race to get the video together, information about my work, and then of course not telling anybody.
Vincent Schilling: Did you know you were being watched?
Jeffrey Gibson: I think the whole process is something that I've never really tried to figure out how it works. I just know that it's an anonymous nomination and no one really knows. It's probably a multi-year process that they're really paying attention to what you're doing, in my case an artist.
Jeffrey Gibson, Visual Artist | 2019 MacArthur Fellow
Vincent Schilling: What are your thoughts considering this exposure and this financial boost?
Jeffrey Gibson: I've never received anything like this. And I don't know really what to compare it to. So once we hung up on the phone call, it was kind of like, “It didn't really happen or something really surreal just happened.” I just started thinking about how many people have been just incredibly supportive of me and how grateful I am for all of the support that I have received. Also, I know a lot of people who I think would deserve this kind of recognition because over the years I've met a lot of people who I think are doing really incredible work and they've been very inspiring.
On the financial side of it is interesting because I've built my studio and my practice over the last 15 years, and I'd like to try to find something to do with the financial award that I'm not already doing. Maybe take some time off. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I work a lot, and I work very hard, and I travel a lot. And having two small kids, just to be able to take some time off with them would be good.
Vincent Schilling: Every athlete, from Olympians to track stars in high school, knows that it's just as important to rest and recoup as it is to actively train.
Jeffrey Gibson: I've had to talk to lots of people who care about me and yeah, they're always like, "You need to slow down, don't take on too much."
Vincent Schilling: I was looking at a lot of your work, and you represent a lot of marginalized communities to include Native and LGBTQIA2S.
Jeffrey Gibson: It’s one of the more daunting parts of my work because I think it's hard to balance as an artist. A lot of the information, a lot of these materials, they're representative of larger communities. I absolutely feel a commitment to those communities.
Vincent Schilling: As an artist, sometimes we work hard to break through a membrane of sorts to get recognized, to get noticed, or to get exposure.
Jeffrey Gibson: I think there’s something that made me realize that I broke through that membrane a while ago, and it's not that I'm not busy highlighting the subjects that I'm interested in, but now it's just going to get amplified.
Somebody from the MacArthur asked me, "What do you think is next?" And I said, "Well, honestly I don't even know what the options are." This is coming to me at a time in my life when I'm actually pretty happy, and I'm probably in one of the best places I've ever been in in my life. And so it's not like it's just this cherry on top, but it is sort of like, there are no holes filled with this award, personally.
Vincent Schilling: You receive a $625,000 stipend for this recognition.
Jeffrey Gibson: We don't get it all at once. But I do think, especially in the Native community, money can be a very sensitive topic.
Vincent Schilling: Yes, certainly.
Jeffrey Gibson: Within my family, we represent the spectrum of extreme poverty to the middle class. I think if you're a Native person connected to your community at all, all of those social challenges and health care and mental health care and abuse still exists. I think a lot of people who I talked to in the art world who were not Native, they just have no connection to that. There's no understanding of why a dollar means something different on a reservation than it does in New York City.
As an artist, I think for me, those things are really not to just accept them quietly, I think generally people like to think that there's an equal playing ground. Even though many people know there isn't. I'm not trying to win an argument, I'm just trying to present facts. Stuff like, “No, this is literally the history that happened, this is literally the result of it, this is how it's impacted people. And then, of course, there's also the “What do we want, what do we hope for, what do we think about?”
It's very scary because we don't have a kind of cultural muscle, as far as being given lots of opportunity for individual talent. So it is very scary.
Vincent Schilling: Yes, so what do you do when things are scary?
Jeffrey Gibson: I always tell people, because I teach, and I have taught for nearly 20 years, usually when you learn about an artist, it’s the moments of their lives when people are celebrating their success, or you're reading the story of how they went crazy, or they were poor. The real reality of anyone's life happens in between those two things. And that's where we spend most of our time. So I think most of my self-criticism coming up has been, “Well who is the market for this? Who's going to buy this? What does slave culture have to do with this? What does this have to do with Native American history? What did we even have to do with politics? I think that’s what I have dealt with for 20 years now.
So I think what's kind of great about this is, is that I feel like I got a stamp, and I have something to look at.
Vincent Schilling: Yes. A stamp of recognition.
Jeffrey Gibson: I can honestly say, I don't think I've ever compromised. I certainly am making the work that I would be excited to see whether it was by me or somebody else.
Vincent Schilling: You've never compromised. That's inspiring. I love it. I think I'm going to put that in the headline. So, all said, what does 2019 and beyond look like?
Jeffrey Gibson: Right now, to be honest, I have exhibitions scheduled into 2022. I want to leave space for just possibility, for just figuring things out. I realize I'm 47 now. So as I get older I realize I move very fast, but I'm moving very fast between many things. So on each individual project, I really liked having a year and a half, two years, for things to kind of come together. I've also been talking to people about working within design, or within fashion.
I think it always comes back to the same thing. I had a conversation with someone the other day and I said, "Well, look, if you're going to talk about the Native community and you want me involved in this, I would feel really uncomfortable if it was just about Jeffrey Gibson. I'm happy to come in and be an adviser and direct you and put you in touch with different kinds of people. But I think that is just asking for criticism if you're not acknowledging multiple identities and, people understand that there's specifically very different sides and different perspectives on things.
To lump us all in as indigenous Native Americans, we're very different in our own specific tribal identities, our own individual narratives.
About Jeffrey's work
Jeffrey Gibson is a multidisciplinary artist and craftsperson merging traditional Native American materials and forms with those of Western contemporary art to create a new hybrid visual vocabulary. Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent, is forging a multifarious practice that redresses the exclusion and erasure of indigenous art traditions from the history of Western art as it explores the complexity and fluidity of identity.
Gibson’s pieces range from garments and sculptural objects to paintings and video and often involve intricately detailed and technically demanding handwork using materials such as beads, metal jingles, fringe, and elk hide. Mixed with references from popular culture, queer iconography, and contemporary political issues, the materials take on a different meaning while also calling into question the line distinguishing contemporary art from traditional modes of cultural production. For example, Gibson transforms the punching bag—a common symbol of male heterosexual norms—into anthropomorphic sculptures ornamented with brightly colored beads and fringe skirts that evoke fashion, play with camp sensibilities, and speak to shifting gender identities.
Many of the bags include text, pithy phrases, or song lyrics, such as “From a whisper to a scream” or “I put a spell on you,” that speak to societal hopes and anxieties and serve as springboards for viewers’ associations. In a series of oversized, tunic-like garments created between 2014 and 2018, Gibson derives the basic form from nineteenth-century ceremonial Ghost Dance shirts, which were believed to deflect bullets. They are constructed from fabric custom printed with original photographs and newspaper headlines, some of which refer to the continued marginalization of Native Americans through the destruction of sacred lands at Standing Rock and Big Ears National Monument.
Gibson’s painting practice foregrounds affinities between patterns, colors, and materials long used in Native American art and those characteristic of contemporary Western and global art traditions. His investigations of color relationships and use of the grid as a structuring device engage with the history of geometric abstraction, but the pieces also recall weaving and use materials (such as elk hide canvasses, sinew, and beads) found in indigenous art. In resisting preconceived notions about what the work of a Native American artist should look like, Gibson is prompting a shift in how Native American art is perceived and historicized.