Jerrell Gibbs couldn’t shake the feeling of helplessness and depression that he felt as reports of police brutality and the killings of black people raged across the country.
But then he saw a documentary about Pablo Picasso, and the Spanish artist’s mural Guernica, which he created in response to the bombing of the Basque village by Fascist forces. And Gibbs realized his emotions “must have been what Picasso felt hearing about his people being massacred in his hometown,” he wrote in an artist’s statement. “Like Picasso, I too hear and see my people being slaughtered like livestock, beast, bovid mammals, herd, stock. I’ve experienced days of not wanting to eat because I’m sick to my stomach by how humans treat humans.”
Gibbs is known in Baltimore for using cartoon imagery, particularly the Franklin character from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts Gang, to address elements of the black experience. But, using Picasso’s work as inspiration, Gibbs selected a dark color palette quite different from the bright hues he’s worked with, and turned his attention from realistic forms to abstracted man/beast creations. He was also painting on a much bigger canvas —six feet by four-and-a-half feet. “It seemed to embody all the of the feelings I had at that particular time,”Gibbs says. “This was all I had in me put into one piece.”
The best part was that creating his Guernica allowed Gibbs to move on. “Doing that piece got a lot off my chest, and got the monkey off my back,” he says. After he finished, he felt like he could continue exploring the black male experience and create a new series on the positive elements of the black family.
Billion Dollar Question, 2015, Howard University Gallery of Art
Guernica el negro sold to a collector in New York, and Gibbs ended up creating a second, which he auctioned off this fall to raise funds for an arts incubator he wants to start. He isn’t sure if he’ll return to the style, or subject matter, of Guernica any time soon, but will allow current events to dictate that.
“I really want my work to represent the times we live in,” he says. But he stresses being open to artistic exploration. “It was kind of almost like Guernica found me.”
About the artist: Jerrell Gibbs is a self-taught, visual artist, lecturer, and educator based in Baltimore. His most notable paintings incorporate cartoon imagery, mainly “Franklin” from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Gang, which he used as a tool to paint the picture of the American black male experience of 2015-2016. His works are in private and museum collections around the world and two of his most notable exhibits took place at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore and the Harlem Fine Arts Show in New York. His Franklin series is on display through Dec. 6 at New Beginnings Barbershop.