Interview: Gisela McDaniel on Upcoming Debut Solo Exhibition “Lush P(r)ose”

Gisela McDaniel is a diasporic indigenous Chamoru feminist artist based in Detroit, MI. Her art explores how women who survive or resist sexualized violence create unique paths towards healing and reclaiming their own bodies. As a survivor herself, she dialogues with indigenous women of color, multiracial and immigrant women as a means to allow them to share their stories, heal from trauma, and explore how their experiences affect them physically and spiritually.

As an indigenous Pacific Island woman, McDaniel is also interested in exploring connections between nature, displacement, and violence against women, asserting that these factors are not only deeply entwined but can also serve as a key to healing. Her debut solo exhibition, “Lush P(r)ose” opens to the public on June 15, 2019 at PLAYGROUND DETROIT.

Detail view of “Conversation on a Couch,” Gisela McDaniel

Her large-scale oil paintings are hauntingly beautiful, lush with vibrant hues of crimson, magentas and pinks and adorned with glittering jewelry objects. Portraits of various figures stare directly at viewers, confronting them with their own collective experiences and truths. What is concealed behind each of subject’s mask are darker than what first meets the eye as she transforms their narratives into distorted and dream-like environments. While painting, she processes their individual accounts and feelings to create a body of work based on recordings of their conversations collected.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

When did you know you were an artist?

I was in second grade when I drew a somewhat creepily accurate self-portrait which I brought home to my parents to put on the fridge. Soon after, they enrolled me in classes at a local community arts program and I have been making art ever since. 

I can’t imagine life without it.

Art is a part of my life because it is a means of personal expression. As a way to say what I need to say without words. To make noise and say something loud without ever opening my mouth.

Mid July, Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches, 2018

What concept or medium are you most interested in currently?

I primarily work with oil painting, and assemblage. Moving forward, I’m interested in combining painting with other media. Found objects, specifically, found jewelry, has been a really exciting discovery for me in this work. It lends an additional and incredibly immediate element of lived experience to oil portraiture and assemblage.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

What drew you to figurative painting or portraits? What is the biggest challenge?

I think painting is a great opportunity for storytelling and re-presentation of taken-for-granted and often oppressive ideas that circulate in the world.  That is especially true when it comes to women’s bodies, especially the bodies of indigenous, queer, and women of color.

It is nerve racking to paint someone you’ve only met a couple times. When I look at an image I’ve created,  it’s difficult for me to tell if my depiction really represents them. I find it a lot easier to paint people I interact with often, although I love a good challenge.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

How does the process begin to create from initial concept to execution?

It always starts with an idea and a shitty sketch. It has to be something I’m passionate about and feel is deeply important to document.

I always think of art as something we are leaving behind, as future documentation of the now, as history.

What’s the main differences between your 2D and assemblage work to you?

My assemblage work started purely as therapy for myself. I’d been painting for several years but after experiencing some really intense trauma, I was unable to paint or really do art for the first time in my life.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

I began by collecting “female objects,” that I defined as “female.”  The items had to be something “enterable;” exclusively used by or marketed towards women; or objects referred to with female pronouns, such as vessels (cars, ships, etc). I started throwing these things together to create these “monsters” in order to depict how I felt in the aftermath of my trauma. Over time, these assemblages have become a lot less dark and foreboding and more hopeful, or even playful.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

When I’m painting, I don’t focus on myself but instead channel what the women/people I’m collaborating with share with me about their experiences.  My goal is to document and honor their stories and to visually express their relationship to their own bodies and to document their journeys towards healing.

What and/or who inspires you?

I’m deeply inspired by the women I paint, the strong women I’ve met and had the privilege to work with in Detroit, and my own experiences being in a female body.  As a biracial Chamoru woman (an indigenous Pacific Islander from Guam), I’m critically engaged with Gauguin’s gendered and colonizing legacy which I intend to explore and speak back to through my own work. My goal is to question and decolonize visual representations of the Pacific and to locate myself in that history as a working fine-artist/activist.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

Has the concept that your work revolves around evolved over time?

At first it was all about my own healing. Through painting my own body I found I was able to reclaim it.  As I began interviewing and painting other women, my focus broadened to understand the strength, beauty, and resilience of survivors in the face of sexualized violence and misogyny.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

What are your favorite techniques to make such detailed and layered paintings?  

Each painting I make seems to develop a little more than the last one. Over the years I’ve been playing with more texture and the paints I’ve applied have gotten thicker and more layered. I always start with an image that I capture right after I interview someone. From there, I add additional elements based on our interactions and how and what they’ve inspired me to think about. 

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

Lately I’ve been incorporating dried flowers, found jewelry, and even soil. This physical layering comes after I’ve painted the woman’s body and most of the background is done. At that point, it feels as if I’m adorning the painting itself. It’s my way of further honoring the subjects portrayed by taking time to develop the final piece.

What’s the inspiration behind your color palette?

I’ve always been drawn to the color red since I was a child.  Red can represent a lot of things, but for me, red symbolizes elements and feelings related to the body.  Specifically, red captures a wide range of temperatures… from the assuring warmth of being inside a womb to heat, as if you’re inside an oven.  

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

What about your creative process have you found to be the most successful for you?’

Speaking to others and sharing stories with other women has been such a rewarding experience for me. Establishing a space of deep mutual trust with someone I may have not known very well beforehand is such an amazing experience.

Most of the people we walk past and interact with everyday have pain and struggle in their lives.  It’s hard but gratifying to make the time to care for others in all the hustle and bustle of daily life. Doing so through the process of creating a permanent testimony to that part through art is my small contribution.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

What is the concept behind your debut solo exhibit, “Lush P(r)ose?”  

The main concept informing my installation is healing from sexual and domestic trauma through painting and story-sharing. I really want to create a space that will hopefully elicit a sense of empathy from viewers who have not experienced what these women have endured.  

My goal is to highlight the powerful resilience of the subjects portrayed, women whose voices and stories will literally envelope viewers in the space and teach them what it means to survive in a world where sexualized violence is routine. Above all, I want to demolish the idea that these women are merely victims while challenging all of us to eradicate violence against women as a society.

When did this topic and narrative become important to you?

It became important to me when I was in a position of needing help and not being understood by anyone around me. Experiencing violence at the hands of a stranger made me look at my surroundings and wonder what everyone else was going through. I also thought about how many other individuals were going through the same thing as me and how could I do something about it.

Photo credit, Franchesca Lamarre.

What outcomes or results do you hope that this body of work has on people or individuals?

Empathy and awareness.  A refusal to tolerate sexualized and other forms of violence against girls and women.

What is your role in the Detroit Art Babes Collective?

The Detroit Art Babes has been such a joy and honor for me to be a part of. The fact that the Art Babes is made up of Black, Arab, White and indigenous women is especially meaningful to me.  It’s provided me a safe and loving community where I can think deeply about my own experiences as a diasporic, biracial Chamoru woman raised in the midwest.

Being able to engage with perspectives from other female/femme artists of color who refuse to accept how the dominant culture views our respective cultures and bodies is a gift for which I am beyond grateful.

Coexist, Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches, 2018

Anything you would like to add?

I recently gave a guest lecture in an undergraduate course my mother (a sociologist) taught at John Carroll University in Cleveland.  The focus of the class was Intimate Partner Violence and the students had been reading about survivor narratives during the semester and had engaged in a community project to raise awareness about IPV at the campus and beyond.  The fact that the students’ project involved art therapy made for an especially interesting conversation after they viewed my slides of paintings featured in my exhibition.

“Lush P(r)ose” opens to the public on Saturday, June 15th from 6-9pm.

**TRIGGER WARNING: content includes sexual assault, violence**

*DISCLAIMER: This exhibition contains sensitive material and topics including adult themes and content, including nudity, sexual assault and violence. Content may not be suitable for anyone under the age of 18. Please view at your own discretion.*

LUSH P(R)OSE OPENING RECEPTION: JUNE 15 2019, 6-9PM

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