Gibbs’ online bio alludes to this universality, stating, “Gibbs enlivens banal representations of black identity by portraying empathy, inviting the possibility of spiritual connection.”
When he talks about his process of painting portraits, Gibbs describes something akin to an actor entering the image – and perhaps it is through this personal process that he manages to capture something transcendent.
“It’s about me,” he says simply. “That’s why there’s so much emotion in the figures in the paintings, because I put myself in their space. I think about myself and whatever I’m going through and let the figure be an avatar for me, whether it’s male or female. . . . It’s almost like becoming the thing, becoming the person to deliver the message.”
After Gibbs receives a commission from the BMA to paint the portrait of Elijah Cummings, he reads articles online about the congressman, as well as Cummings’ 2020 book. We are better than that in preparation. He had long conversations with Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockimour Cummings. He watched YouTube videos of Cummings speaking and paid close attention to his posture, even if it was a clip of him sitting in an audience.
“Becoming the person,” Gibbs repeats. “I wanted to see, hear and find out who this person was as much as I could. I wanted to become Elijah Cummings so I could portray his true nature.
Of course, Gibbs’ display of skill and portraiture technique caught the attention of the BMA selection committee, but it was more than that.
“I thought about his trajectory,” says Kent, a committee member. “The other artists were just as talented, but Jerrell was the only one represented by a gallerist, he was already being collected by museums and these things put him on the world stage as we see now. And also his work ethic. This is unmatched.”
Gibbs tells his successes have gone through a routine that keeps him sane and focused. He wasn’t always so composed. Around 2016, something motivational speaker Eric Thomas said caught his attention.
“He was talking about taking advantage of the opportunities you have in the time you have, and I realized that a lot of my losses came from not being conscious about the hours in my day,” Gibbs recalls. “Right then, in that moment, I made a deliberate change about the time I was spending with my craft, with my family, with my friends, with myself. I was just very particular about not wasting a lot of time.
On weekdays, for example, he takes his daughter to school, exercises, then spends four to five hours painting in his current space at Parkdale Studios. He also takes time every other day to be tutored in French, a practice that began after he received representation from Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, which has locations in Chicago and Paris. He wanted to learn the language to be able to hold a basic conversation, especially when his work will be featured in a solo exhibition at a gallery in Paris in September.
In April, Gibbs went to Paris for the first time with his wife and daughter. While immersing himself in the culture, something funny happened.
“What really struck me while I was in Paris was that I came to love Baltimore a lot more,” he says. “I saw what makes Paris special – the architecture, the cuisine, the artwork, the Louvre, everyone walking around smoking cigarettes, people eating out. It was beautiful. They even display the macarons in a creative way. That’s why people like to go there. Why do people like to go to Baltimore?’
He thought a lot about it. And after remembering and feeling nostalgic about his favorite pastimes back home—visiting his grandmother, picking up crabs at the Lexington market—he thought what better way to express his love for his hometown than to share his Baltimore with Paris.
Gibbs was preparing to return to Paris and work on his exhibition for a month in June (our interview was held in May). Among croissants and macarons, he plans to make paintings of blue crabs. With the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre as a backdrop, he would capture West Baltimore and people sitting on poles enjoying backyard barbecues.
“I was thinking about what I really value in an artist, and I realized the artists I gravitate towards always tell me about their experiences and where they’re coming from,” says Gibbs. “I’m thinking about Kanye West. His first album, Dropping out of college, he talked about Chicago and his upbringing and experiences. Jay-Z, same thing. Kendrick Lamar Talkin’ L.A. Talkin’ Compton. J. Cole talked about North Carolina. That’s why I fell in love with them. So why not bring Baltimore to Paris and talk about all the beauty that’s here?”