A passionate painter and sculptor, New York-based artist, Jeffrey Gibson, draws on his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, blending traditional indigenous techniques and materials—beads, hides, and vibrant fabrics—with contemporary motifs and colorful narratives. His work is exquisitely handcrafted, and beautifully unexpected. We were so lucky to tap his creative genius for our fall collaboration prints. Here he gives us a bit of perspective on his life and craft.
When did your love for art begin and how has your relationship with your work changed since you first began creating?
I have been making art since I was a child. I grew up moving around and lived in the United States, Germany, Korea, and then went to college in England. Making art has been a consistent factor in my life and has allowed me to describe my surroundings as they have changed. So much has changed and I now work with many mediums including painting, sculpture, video and performance.
Growing up in a military family, it’s my understanding that you traveled a lot as a result—residing in far off places like West Germany and South Korea. What impact did these global experiences have in shaping your identity?
Growing up abroad meant that I was often an outsider and did not understand the languages being spoken or the cultural customs of the local people. This always interested me and I would learn about a place through looking, touching, eating new foods and trying new things. Travel broadens your perspective about the world and I realized that we are all often just as similar as we are different. It also taught me that my identity is not fixed, but can shift according to my environment and what I am exposed to.
How have your experiences growing up abroad come to play in your work?
Most people see the Native American references in my work, but not everybody notices all of the other global references in my work. When making a new body of work I look at so many references including beadwork traditions, ribbon work, different fashion subcultures, haute couture designs, art historical references and print and graphic design. Things mix and cross over until they become their own new thing.
These days you’re working out of a studio in the Hudson Valley. What drew you to upstate New York?
I wanted to stay in proximity to New York City, but needed more space and a less distracting environment. The Hudson Valley is perfect for me and I have begun to settle here and have no intention of moving.
From where do you draw inspiration? Are there any places in particular that you frequently go to get inspired?
I love museums and the Met, in particular. I also have really been into gardening this spring and feel like I am learning something about time and having to tend to something regularly. I also look to music a lot for inspiration. I use text and music lyrics often in my work and sometimes will spend time just researching music and lyrics online.
You are part Cherokee and part Choctaw, but weren’t raised in a “traditional” Native community and have said that it wasn’t until later in life that you developed a strong connection to your heritage. What was it that spurred that shift for you—was it a particular series of events?
I have always had a strong connection to my heritage, but I don’t feel that they are exclusive to each other. I am interested in exploring and developing various Native American aesthetics and crafts within my overall practice so that there is representation of these things in my contemporary world. I grew up not seeing these things reflected in popular culture and so I began to include them in my own work.
What do you want people to take away from your art? What story are you trying to convey, and how does that play into your creative process?
I hope my work breaks down some of the barriers regarding how we classify each other, and gives people permission to share their own complicated stories about cultural hybridity. I understand that there are many things that should be respected about every culture and I also want to acknowledge the influence that cultures have had on each other historically and on me personally.
At Tea, we seek to make the foreign familiar and talk a lot about what it means to have a sense of belonging. What does “sense of belonging” mean to you?
I moved upstate to slow things down, and to have time to get to know my surroundings better. A sense of belonging happens when you are familiar with the world around you, and when the world around you is familiar with you. You have to choose to engage physically and mentally with the world on a daily basis, then you begin to see results.
We are so excited to be featuring your designs on our fall prints. The multicolored triangle geo pattern is so contemporary and fun. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the design, and your process in creating it?
I wanted to make fun, colorful geometric abstractions for the Tea collaboration. I have a young daughter and I thought about what I respond to as a parent who does not want to force any gender stereotypes when it comes to her clothing, but also like seeing her indulge in color and patterns and not worry about “matching”. People tend to get more and more conservative as they grow up, but I hope having fun with what kids wear is something that brings them joy and enables them to stand out. I was thinking about star patterns in traditional quilts and then wanted to play formally with the colors, pulling you in to the center and sometimes pushing back out. The geometric designs came from a lot of play and then I saved the ones that stood out to me.