Eric Gibbons: Reflecting Our Humanity, Beauty & Imperfections
It was a great opportunity for me to sit down to interview artist, educator and publisher, Eric Gibbons. I have known Eric socially for many years and have always regarded his work very highly – I love it! So, when I tracked him down after his vacation we were able to do a back and forth.
ST: Hello Eric. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with Studio Tour Magazine. How was your vacation?
EG: Vacation went well. I feel renewed.
ST: Great! So, let's get right into it. What is the reason for art? What meaning does art have in your life and how did that meaning develop?
EG: Albert Camus said it best, “We have art in order not to die of life.” Art is often born from inner struggle. Artists are often plagued by impulses they must express. Contentment does not seek action but struggle always seeks release, and for the creative like me, it can take the form of art. Some of the most unhappy artists, in the most difficult of situations, can create awe inspiring works of art.
ST: What are you intending to communicate with your art?
EG: I am both an artist and certified art teacher, so I am well versed in a variety of media, but my personal favorite is my black and white oil paintings of figures in boxes. Each figure is an allegory to the human condition, and they are meant to be hung together. Certainly one is lovely, but they do communicate something more when grouped together. My vision is to have 100 on a single wall. These pieces reflect our humanity, the beauty and imperfections. I have been very thoughtful to include diverse models from the ages of 3 to 90, men and women of different cultural backgrounds.
ST: Tell me about your creative process.
EG: Sometimes ideas spur sessions and works, and other times, a session with a model will inspire an idea or even a series. I had a 90 year old female model who loved my work and wanted to participate in my series. Blanch told me stories as we worked together about friends she lost to the holocaust, so that inspired a piece I feel is very powerful. Another model, a multi-cultural dancer, came in with long hair and beard. To me he looked like how I envision Jesus might look. We did half a session based on his resemblance. He shaved, and we did the series I had planned for the day. Being open to inspirations is important or you can miss an opportunity.
ST: Where do you create your work? Is it a dedicated studio or a makeshift one?
EG: I was very fortunate to be able to buy a Victorian Firehouse in 1994. It had no kitchen, but I was single and knew I could make it work. I had to use credit cards to buy food the first year I bought it, but The Firehouse Gallery became a modest success. Not enough to quit teaching, but good enough to buy groceries and cover some bills. I operated it as a gallery up until the housing market crashed. When that happened many galleries closed. Who wants to buy art if they might lose their home? I turned then to another passion, publishing, and that worked for me. Firehouse Publications is well known in art education circles because of my unique, holistic approach to art education.
ST: Many people, sometimes even artists themselves have the view that the starving artist’s image is true. Do you find that to be so? What bearing does that view have on your efforts in an artistic career?
EG: If you saw me you'd know I am hardly starving, and could probably stand to lose quite a few pounds. In all seriousness though it's important to be flexible. To understand your audience and either move with them or stand your ground. Those who are inflexible hold onto their convictions and starve. I realized that though people would not spend $3000 on a painting, they would spend $20 on a book. So I turned my creativity in that direction. Again, as an art teacher, I am adept in many approaches, and am able to be flexible because I own my space. Renting, to me, should be short term, when you own a space you can weather a financial storm.
ST: Did you find it to be relatively easy to get to where you are now in your art?
EG: No. My style before 2004 was very different than it is now. I used to be very pop art in my approach, and have turned very classical. I see the thread that holds it all together, but others will likely not. It was in 2004 that I spent a summer in Paris spending hours in the Louvre. I fell in love with the work of the Neo-Classicists. It was the first time I stood in front of a work of art and wept. It frightened me actually. How could a painting make me loose it emotionally? I knew at that moment that I wanted to make art that could reach inside the soul. I switched from acrylics to oils, working with black and white as a way to simplify and learn. I found I like the results and just kept doing that.
ST: What was the particular artwork that made you so emotional?
EG: The artwork I had an emotional reaction to was Nisus and Euryalus (1827) by Jean-Baptiste Roman. A link to the image is here: http://goo.gl/bdOsVF To me it was about the relationship of these two men. One dead, and the other, so overwhelmed by the loss, commits suicide to join him in the after-life. Tragic and beautiful. It speaks to the depth of their friendship, relationship, and a love that so many would dismiss in our current political climate.
ST: How have you struggled? Or what have been your greatest obstacles?
How have your struggles affected your work?
EG: Certainly I have struggled. As a teen I was bullied and depressed. I went to some very dark places. My mother recognized what was going on and encouraged me to use art as a way to express my feelings and struggles, and it worked. Through art I have come to accept myself as I am.
ST: Money, fame, notoriety; Artists always have something they want. What do you want? Do you consider yourself to be succeeding in that and why?
EG: When I was in my 20s I went to New York and wanted to be discovered. I look back at my work now, and my work was good and novel, but I didn't yet understand the market. I think though if I stuck with it and actually moved to the city, I might have a "name" for myself. But I would also be a different person.
As a teacher, I can still do my work, but I also have inspired over 10,000 students to experience art for themselves, and maybe a few will go on to make something of themselves. I have made a "name" for myself in other ways. You can see some at firehousepublications.com, firehousegalery.com, and artedguru.com. As I near an early retirement at 50 years of age, I may yet earn some acclaim for my art. I have a thank you letter from Obama for a painting I sent to the White House, and was in ArtNews a few times, but "fame" has been elusive.
I have this quote I tell my students based on the writing of Eugene Delacroix, “To be an artist at twenty is to be twenty: to still be an artist at fifty is to be an artist.”
ST: What’s working for you in your artistic career/endeavors?
EG: I think what I have that is unique is the ability to do many things well and find a way to bring them together. Publishing for example is where I combine my art and teaching. I have also written 12 original works for piano, dome some rather large stained glass windows, apprenticed and then blacksmithed for a summer, and have created work while living abroad in Japan and Egypt.
All that said though, what's "working" for me is the ability to see a task to its end; particularly in books or art. I used to have many half-finished projects, but have come to learn that I need to complete things, wrap them up, and let them "live." All too often I find artists fall too much in love with their work, refusing to sell, or pricing it unfairly. In my gallery I tell them price it $1 above painful, and you'll fill the hole in your heart with another work of art.
ST: Do you think art should address social issues? Do you ever use your art in this way? What issues are important to you?
EG: Certainly art should take on issues. I am hardly ever impressed by decorative art. It's pretty but vapid. Guernica helped get America behind the war effort. The painting I created for Obama was certainly political and historical with a powerful statement on race.
“The task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable." ~Lucian Freud
ST: On occasion, people who are not artists may ask questions which artists sometimes feel are not appropriate, like “Do you make a living from your art?” or questions not easily answered, like “How long did that take you to make”. How do you feel about those types of questions? How do you answer them?
EG: I think answering these questions helps educate buyers. It's part of the job. If however the artist is annoyed by it, the buyer will sense it and a sale will be lost; a sale that might have put food on the table, or supplies in the studio. If an artist is a poor communicator, then they need to partner with someone who is good in that area. Collaboration can be a secret key to success.
ST: Being an educator of art to children, do you think all children should be taught art or only those who seem to have a natural aptitude for it?
EG: EVERY CHILD MUST HAVE ART. My students average 155 points higher on their SATs than students who do not take art. I know this based on testing within my school. On average though students who have art outscore their peers by 100 points on the SAT, I just have a unique approach.
Art is the meeting place for all subjects. When we grid—we use geometry. When we make sculptures—we use engineering. When we mix colors—we reveal information about physics. When we create illustrations for stories—we learn about literature. When we review the styles of art from da Vinci to Warhol—we teach history. Students not only come to understand the concepts, but use them, and manipulate them for deeper understanding on multiple sensory levels of thinking.
ST: Do you think high school students should be encouraged to pursue art careers as a viable option to make a living or keep it as a secondary pursuit in their professional lives?
EG: I do not advise 99.9% of students to seek out a fine arts career. I tell them to find a creative career that will allow them to remain creative be that teaching, design, illustration, etc. One needs to put food on the table. In my 25 years of teaching I have advised only 3 students to seek out a fine arts career, but to always have a back-up.
ST: Looking back on everything you’ve done, is there anything you’re most proud of?
EG: Two I think. Marrying my spouse was the best decision I ever made, and #2 was learning to take care of myself. All other things follow from these.
ST: Who is “Eric Gibbons”? What is the one thing you want people to know about you?
EG: I would hope that anyone who has come to know me is better off for doing so. That I have had a positive impact on people, be they family, friends, readers, or students.
ST: As an artist, what do you want your legacy to be; to the art world; to the next generation, or in any area after you?
EG: My hope is that I will have made an impact on art education in the United States, and quite possibly the world.
ST: Where can people find you?
www.firehousepublications.com, www.firehousegalery.com, and www.artedguru.com
ST: Eric, I want to thank you again for taking the time to visit with us at Studio Tour Magazine.