Baltimore artist Jerrell Gibbs stands nearly six feet tall. His locs, which he says have been increasing since 2015, the year he began to focus on her painting – flowing just above her shoulders. His approach to growing and maintaining such a beautiful hairstyle, rich in history and culture, is reminiscent of his portrait approach, which he says takes both patience and practice.
MICA graduate of MICA, whose works are part of the permanent collections of the Los Angeles Museum of Art, the CC Foundation, the X Museum and our own Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) –Gibbs adapts his work from small Polaroids and turns them into life-size paintings. Throughout his career, the 33-year-old has become known for examining his blackness, class and personal life – both the joyful times, as well as the issues surrounding politics, race and economic disparity. – in his job.
It is in part for this reason that he was chosen by a BMA selection committee to paint the official portrait of the late representative Elijah Cummings, which will be on display at the BMA until January 9 before moving to his permanent home in United States Capitol. Congressman Cummings, who represented Maryland’s 7th District for more than two decades, was perhaps best known for his legacy as a civil rights leader, fighting for his constituents on issues such as voting rights , gun control and restructuring of the criminal justice system.
“We are extremely pleased with the outcome,” Cummings widow Dr Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who headed the commission, said in a statement released last month. âJerrell Gibbs is a masterfully expressive painter and his stunning portrait perfectly captures the essence and majesty of Elijah. It is a timeless masterpiece.
Before the play traveled to Washington, DC, we caught up with Gibbs to discuss his local upbringing, his artistic process, and the capture of the iconic civil rights leader and advocate from Baltimore.
Tell us a bit more about how you were selected to paint the official portrait of Representative Cummings?
They started with about thirty artists, then they reduced to the three of us, [myself,] Monica Ikegwu and Ernest Shaw. They did studio tours, and my premiere was actually on my birthday, March 8, 2021. [BMA director] Christopher Bedford, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings and others came to visit me when I was working from home in March during the pandemic. After the studio tours, we were to submit a sketch by April 2021 to render what we could do if we had the option to execute the portrait of Elijah Cummings. I chose to submit an actual painting after a number of sketches that just didn’t resonate with me. The painting really made the committee come my way.
What are some of the things that stood out for you at Rep. Cummings when you were looking for inspiration?
I met Elijah Cummings in person once at a mayoral nomination – it must have been in 2015 or 2016. He didn’t know me, but he knew someone I was with, and we all spoke. . And then we ended up taking a picture together, all of us, it wasn’t just him and me. Even during this short meeting, I had recognized that he had a presence and an aura. But he clearly wasn’t making an effort, it was just natural. He wasn’t trying to be loud or over the top to make himself known. While preparing for the painting, I did a lot of research. I have watched a lot of videos, listened to a lot of audio clips and read his delivered. What stood out to me the most was the leadership he had in the courtroom, the presence he brought, the integrity and his strength, you know? These are the things that really stood out to me. And those were the things that interested me. I could understand that he had to be very strong.
the New York Times recently reported that there were actually some components of your original concept painting for the portrait of Elijah Cummings that did not make the final cut. How much did the concept of simplicity, perhaps in the work of other artists you studied, influence this decision?
Mentors â people I really respect and admire, like my wife, Sheila, elders and others â always say things like “less is more.” Sometimes I felt insecure about something I could work on, or I felt like I wasn’t able to do something, or that I wasn’t enough. We’ve all had those times when we could compare ourselves to other people. By doing all of this, we end up overthinking or overdoing it. But when you’re really in the groove, you know how to do the right thing without adding anything more, and that’s certainly what I felt when doing this portrait. I like to focus only on what is important in my art. In fact, I’m comfortable doing less these days.
How did your family (in Baltimore and beyond) react when you were selected for this? Does the conversation at family dinners change to talking about these accomplishments?
It’s weird, isn’t itâ¦ It’s not a space that blacks outside of the artistic space really occupy. A lot of us don’t really stay on top of what’s going on in the art world. Because my family isn’t necessarily in the art business, when something of this magnitude happens it’s definitely something we celebrate and talk about. But it’s really a blessing too, because when I’m with my family, I just wanna be Jerrell, I wanna hang out with my family, I wanna know what they’re doing. [Itâs nice to] to relax and allow the family to be a family and my art world to be apart.
Where are you from in Baltimore?
I was born, raised and still lived in West Baltimore. We lived in a lot of different neighborhoods because we moved a lot after my father died. I lived in Park Heights near Hilltop Mall, Woodlawn, Liberty & Garrison, Chadwick. So many different areas, but I always say West Baltimore to keep it simple. I went to Hilton Elementary, Chadwick Elementary School, Johnnycake Elementary School. But by the time I got into high school and things started to work out for my family, we really snuggled up in Baltimore County. I have lived in Baltimore County pretty much since then. I moved back to town with my aunt for a short stay during my graduate studies at MICA, but now I’m back in the county with my wife and daughter.
Everyone has these defining moments in Baltimore. What are some of the things that you have done with your family here that have helped shape who you are today?
Something I always did every weekend was reunite with my family matriarchs and my sister. We always went to my aunt’s and grandmother’s, who all lived on Lewiston Avenue in West Baltimore. They literally lived like two houses apart. With them all living so close to each other, every Friday we had our ritual to get together and walk to the local Chinese restaurant where we would buy our foo young egg, shrimp fried rice and all that. The store was on the corner of Park Heights and Rogers Avenue. It was right across from this liquor store named Peppers. There was also this grass field with a path of bleached grass where people walked to the Hilltop Mall. One of my favorite memories growing up was walking this field to buy Lemonheads and Boston Baked Beans with my grandmother. The MVA is where that field was, and some of the store names have changed, but I still have those memories.
What inspired you to start painting six years ago?
I don’t know what necessarily inspired me, but I remember how the process unfolded. I am very process oriented. After dropping out of college for the second time, I left Bowie State University and worked two jobs: one during the day and my second shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. One night at my second job, I just wanted to draw again. I actually used to draw when I was a kid and then I left it alone. I kept drawing and showed my wife pictures of the things I had drawn. This Father’s Day, after I wanted to start doodling again, she gave me painting materials and an easel. Once I started painting I knew it was something I was excited about because I didn’t want to do anything else. All I wanted to do was paint, discover other artists, study, read about painting, watch YouTube videos. That’s all I could think of.
Who were the first artists whose work you got to know?
The first person that comes to mind is Jacob Armstead Lawrence, who was a Harlem-based painter known for his portrayal of African American historical subjects and contemporary life. The impact of his work really marked me. I turned to Lawrence obviously because he’s an African-American artist, but also because he focused on our culture, which I also like to do in my own work. Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. is another artist whose work has significantly represented African American culture.
To what or to whom do you owe your success?
Black women have supported me all my life, and they continue to do so. Black women, like my mom, wife, grandmother, aunt, and even my daughter, are all my foundation. In my formative years, when my father was killed in Baltimore, and even when I made my mark in the arts, black women were there for me. There is something about women, they have this ability to face anything of any magnitude and achieve it. Especially black women, they have the ability to do things that I have never seen done before. Seeing my mom raising three kids as a single mom in Baltimore, seeing my wife doing what she does, my step mom is just inspiring. They all helped shape me and allowed me to develop more than I could have imagined. And I’m sure Elijah Cummings would have said the same about Maya Rockeymoore Cummings and the women in her life.
[Editorâs Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]