Jeffrey Gibson: Artistically connecting with the land

Kimberly Nicoletti, Aspen Times, November 3, 2022


Jeffrey Gibson’s art is just another way he connects with the land. Being half Cherokee and a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, he knows no other way.


“I don’t know if I could have another perspective,” he said about his latest art exhibition, which he hopes will help connect viewers to the land. “As a queer person and as a Native American person, I’ve been exposed to so many different perspectives of ‘other.’ … A lot of people think I’m choosing this, but I’m just being myself, and this is sort of the story I was born into.”


The exhibition opens today at Aspen Art Museum and features sculptural heads incorporating stones, fossils, and other natural materials and brightly patterned flags on the art museum’s rooftop. Inside, the gallery plays a corresponding video filmed Aug. 3 at Anderson Park Meadow at the Aspen Institute by 15 color guards spinning the flags Gibson created and wearing helmets he fashioned from found metal cans, pop rivets, glass beads, metal wire, plastic, and high density foam. The gallery also showcases the physical helmets.


Jeffrey Gibson's THE SPIRITS ARE LAUGHING, Helmet 3,  2022. Made from found metal cans, pop rivets, glass beads, metal wire, plastic suspension mechanism and high density foam, 20 1/4 x 11 1/2 x 10 1/4". Credit: Brian Barlow.


The video is an extension of one Gibson completed in 2015, which featured performers singing and dancing for, and on behalf of, objects in a museum collection. In this year’s production, he decided to focus on the landscape. He collaborated with the Rocky Mountain Color Guard Association, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and musicians Lucien Dante Lazar and Ultra-Violet Archer, who wrote accompanying lyrics about natural elements like the sun, moon, stars, water, trees, animals, and mountains. While in the past Gibson has created flags, which he admits “can be loaded and are mainly about claiming things,” he has never produced them to this degree, particularly incorporating color guards, half of whom identify as indigenous. The flags carry messages like: Water Flows Through Me, Your Body Is My Body Is Our Body, The Trees Are Witnesses, and, of course, The Spirits Are Laughing.


Jeffrey Gibson’s THE SPIRITS ARE LAUGHING, performed Aug. 3, 2022, at Anderson Park Meadow at the Aspen Institute. Credit: Adrianna Glaviano/Aspen Art Museum.


“It gives the flags a human quality (as color guards) interact with the objects,” Gibson said. “It’s meant to speak to the land and connect us with the land. People shout out their statements and then do a routine in response to the statements. What’s amazing is how the formations bring people together, and then they separate and become individuals (before coming together again).”


He has never done anything like the sculpture heads standing atop Aspen Art Museum’s rooftop. Granted, he has used crystals and stones in his sculptures, but, for these three heads, which measure 34-inches tall and 32 inches in diameter, he worked with local high-school geology teacher Mike Flynn to learn more about the geology of the area. One head is covered with petrified wood and crystals, while another features amethyst, known for its properties that ease suffering, protect and bring humility, he said, and still another showcases rose quartz, known for love and compassion.


“People ask, ‘Do you believe that?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ There are magnetic and energy qualities to all kinds of stones that relate to how our bodies work with energies. It is scientific,” he said, adding, “I love the fact that crystals take so long for the earth to produce. We take them so lightly, but they take thousands of years to form. They inherently represent geological history. They speak to time and history … the incredible evidence of the history of the morphing of this planet.”


It’s just one way Gibson engages creatively with the land, intending to connect viewers with the natural environment, as well. He points out that in this “hyper-divisive, politicized time” his art is an example of co-existing in a loving and generous manner.


Jeffrey Gibson. Credit: Brian Barlow.


“Jeffrey Gibson is generously bringing his profound perspective to the Aspen Art Museum this season,” the directors of the museum, Nicola Lees and Nancy and Bob Magoon, wrote in a press release. “The work on view explores our ancient relationship with the natural world using a modern aesthetic that conveys the contemporary urgency of the messages. Gibson approaches these nuanced topics with his signature humor and engaging aesthetic that I believe will give every visitor a point of entry to this timely exhibition.”


Though Gibson knows he can’t stop climate change, he feels it’s important for people to understand what’s happening.


“It is a serious thing. I know that, in a way, visually, some people can find (my art) humorous, but my intention is in earnest to speak to the land,” he said. “I think of it as a way of engaging with the land — as an extension of our bodies. We can see harming the land as harming our bodies. When we harm the land, we are harming our own livelihoods and our lives. If we truly treated the land as an extension of our body — especially these days when self-care just means getting a facial … (if we instead) thought of self-care as planting trees, taking care of animals, and finding alternative energy sources, I think that’s what self-care should be.”


Jeffrey Gibson, THE SPIRITS ARE LAUGHING, 2022. Water-based ink on polyester duck, nylon thread and grommets, 60 x 96 inches. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio.


Jeffrey Gibson’s THE SPIRITS ARE LAUGHING, performed Aug. 3, 2022, at Anderson Park Meadow at the Aspen Institute. Credit: Adrianna Glaviano/Aspen Art Museum.


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