A rainbow…A rainbow is what immediately pops in the mind, when one first views the work of collage artist Mirlande Jean-Gilles. For the piece “Pumpkin Season”, for instance, the artist makes a grandiose visual statement with shades of brazen oranges and yellow. The work depicts two women carrying burdens above their heads. The burdens come in the form of larger-than-life pumpkins—no doubt symbolizing the overwhelming loads women have to carry throughout their lifespan. Another collage entitled “Sky Carriers” shows a market woman and her daughter, with a bright blue sky filling their head baskets to the rims. It’s yet another subtle feminist statement by the artist about women’s significance in keeping Haiti together at the seams. This theme is also repeated in Jean-Gilles’ other works “Comfort Bringers” and “Honey Comb Basket”.
Born in New York to Haitian immigrant parents, Jean-Gilles was sent to Haiti at the age of threeto live with her grandmother in Gonaives. She returned to Queens at five years of age, and says she had to learn how to speak English all over again, from Sesame Street, educational materials from The Electric Company and kiddie movies. Jean-Gilles went on to attend and graduate from Baruch College in New York. Now based in Baltimore, Maryland, the artist is a member of the collective Azia Arts which is made up of fellow artists Dirk Joseph and Azi Jean-Gilles.
Did you formally study art?
I didn’t go to art school. I actually went to college for international marketing. Art is something I just did for the joy of it. I also love writing and have had my poems and fiction published in literary journals and anthologies.
“Pumpkin Season” by Mirlande-Jean-Gilles.
Who was the first person to recognize that you had talent as an artist?
My older brother, who is also an artist saw something in my work and encouraged me early on. And my friends were really supportive when I started making collages and showing them around. They asked me to create flyers for events like poetry readings, plays, concerts they were having. They would also purchase prints of my art and the greeting cards I handmade.
The musician-painter Paul Stanley once said this of his art: “The only thing I can say is consistent in all my paintings is vivid color.” How would you describe your art?
My collages are a collection of many, many different parts that I bring together to create something that is whole and brand new.
You have a work called “Pumpkin Season” collage. What inspired it?
To create the “Pumpkin Season” collage, I used paint and also paper from magazines. This piece is part of an ongoing series of artworks called “The Basket Women”. The series was inspired by the absolute beauty, strength, tenacity and power of the Haitian women of the market, the women who go up and down Haiti’s hills with their livelihood balanced gracefully on their heads. My grandmother was a business woman, and a market woman. She was also a young widower with six children. She grew her crops on Haiti’s countryside and sold her rice and vegetables at the city market. She inspires me and my art very much.
“Big Yellow Sky and Balloon” by Mirlande Jean-Gilles.
Do you think that being a painter is something that can be developed?
Yes, I do think painting like other skills can be developed. Some people just have an innate creative ability, but with practice and passion I think a person can develop artistic skills.
There’s art and there’s the business of art.
Making art is great, ’cause you’re in the creative zone and just using your imagination, doing your art thing. It’s wonderful and blissful just being in the studio creating. At some point, you have to get out of that zone and into the business side which is a bit more challenging and rigid. The business side is marketing yourself, sharing your work, using social media, having a website, buying a domain name, maybe creating an Etsy store or some other online store to sell your work. It’s figuring out pricing for said work. There’s applying for shows and grants. You have to create business cards, give people the business cards, correspond with people, return emails and phone calls. And the list goes on.
Do you have artwork—whether yours or done by another artist—that you highly cherish?
One of my favorite artists is Romare Bearden. He did these amazing, deep and beautiful collages and paintings. There are so many of his pieces that I really love. I have a large collage of mine that I cherish. It’s called “Tent City”. It was inspired by the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. It is 20 inches by 48 inches. It’s the biggest collage I’ve done and it took me over six months to create. It captures a profound and tragic moment that happened in Haiti’s history but it also depicts the resiliency of Haitian people during that time.
Out of all the exhibits and arts shows that you’ve participated in, which has been the most memorable?
The most memorable show so far has been this art show I did last year. It was African VoicesMagazine’s 20th anniversary group exhibition at the legendary Schomburg Center in Harlem. As a young adult, I would go study history at the Center and always admired their treasure trove of information. So to be part of an art show there and have my art work up on their walls was really a wonderful thing. The show was called “Cover to Cover” and featured images of some of the wonderful cover art the magazine had in the past. One of my collages was chosen to be the 20th Anniversary issue cover. I was also part of a group art show that featured art work by Faith Ringgold, Elizabeth Catlett, Danny Simmons, Clemenza Hawkins, Sheila Prevost, Francks Desceus—and other really amazing artists!
How can those still in high school prepare themselves if they wish to make art a big part of their lives as you’ve done?
I think by staying creative, even if they are not showing their work just do art to do it. Keep practicing and honing the craft. Also researching and studying the lives and art of other artists is good. Going to museums and art shows is very inspiring. Maybe even find a mentor, someone who has experience doing what it is they want to do.
“Comfort Bringers” by Mirlande Jean-Gilles.
What’s next for you?
I have a group art show in [next month] and also another group show in Brooklyn coming up next year that I am super excited about! My first children’s book that I’ve written and illustrated will be published [later on this year]. I plan on continuing to make more art and bigger pieces.
[Artist Photo Credit: Mirlande Jean-Gilles stands in front of her collage “Tent City” at the Corridor Gallery in New York. Photographer: Dominique Sindayiganza ]