Detroit painter Gisela McDaniel creates art with big messages

Jul 6, 2021 at 11:16 am
click to enlarge Gisela McDaniel. - Tatiana Stephens
Tatiana Stephens
Gisela McDaniel.

Artist Gisela McDaniel gives her subjects and collaborators a safe space to tell their stories.

Born in Nebraska, raised in Cleveland, and based in Detroit for the past four years, McDaniel, whose ancestry is CHamoru/Chamorro, the indigenous peoples of Guam and the Marianas Islands, integrates audio of her subjects’ stories to bring her oil paintings to life. She wants her paintings to “talk back” to viewers.

“Painting has always been a language for me when words felt like they were stuck or just couldn’t come easily to talk about,” McDaniel says. “It’s something that I struggle with especially under duress. Painting helps me communicate. It also allows me to engage people I will never even meet through exhibitions, social media, or my website. Above all, painting and art, more generally, is a critical outlet for me to celebrate folks who I love and am proud of. Far too many of them, of us, have been silenced. Painting allows me to shatter those silences.”

As a survivor of sexual trauma, McDaniel wants to also give her subjects a voice to combat censorship of women’s and non-binary people’s bodies, voices, and stories.

“Everyone I work with is so much more than a muse,” McDaniel says. “I seek people out because I want them to be heard and remembered for their brilliance and strength, although I wish so many didn't have to exist in a world that required them to be resilient. I hope to imagine and build that kind of world together.”

In addition to painting others, McDaniel also paints herself as a form of healing and expression.

“When I paint myself, I use my figure to heal and rebuild my own relationship with my body but also as a character to address important issues, including questions linked to being a mixed-race CHamoru woman and my identity as a survivor,” she says. “I feel comfortable using my own likeness to speak about difficult and even vulnerable things. When working with other folks’ likeness, I am more focused on their comfort and protection.”

McDaniel has an intricate painting process with not only the canvas but with her subjects and collaborators.

“The first layer of each painting is the relationship I have with each person who sits with me,” McDaniel says. “I find people mostly by word of mouth. We sit and share stories in either my studio or their home. These intimate spaces and moments can only exist through mutual trust and care. It is important to spend the time to make sure the process is personal to every person and fits their comfort level. They are able to share and give as little or as much to the piece as they wish. It is a process of creating space to set down heavy experiences, so ultimately we can hold them together as a society. I visualize the words rolling onto the floor so we can both walk away from them, and they can leave feeling a bit lighter.”

Once she begins the painting, she uses anything she can to emphasize that person on the canvas.

“Each painting is made to celebrate each individual so they are inherently all very unique to the person, there are many hints in objects and embelishment but I often choose not to explain them because they are ultimately for the subject and their loved ones knowledge,” she says. “Like intentional and consensual artifacts they get to choose to be remembered with. After our conversations, they sit for the paintings. Some donate broken jewelry and old clothing to integrate into the piece. It feels like an exchange and a practice of gift-giving.”

McDaniel is currently represented by Pilar Corrias in London. Through them she has had an exhibition in London in 2020, and will have another next spring in 2022.

She’s also participated in many group and solo exhibitions, artist residencies, and commissions. Some include MOCAD, Playground Detroit, US Detroit Art Week, The Schvitz, and many more. Her current exhibition is at Los Angeles’ The Mistake Room until December 2021.

As of July 2021, McDaniel and several other artists were awarded as the 2021 Kresge Artist Fellows for visual arts.

As an artist, McDaniel says she has many inspirations such as Frida Kahlo, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Paul Gauguin.

“We live in a world where so many folks wake up every day not feeling safe because of who they are or what they look like,” she says. “Imaging and speaking new futures and care we need as survivors and as a collective inspires me.”

She also has many goals not only for herself, but for her subjects.

“I have multiple goals for the work,” McDaniel says. “First and foremost is to create pieces that every sitter/subject/collaborator of mine will see themselves, hear themselves, and feel celebrated and beautiful. With respect to the sound pieces I produce that accompany and exist alongside every painting, I hope that it provides a deeper sense of perspective beyond the visual. The narratives shared by the subjects will hopefully evoke empathy and understanding. It’s such a gift to share the wisdom(s) of survival, hard-won knowledge from coming out of heart-wrenching journeys.”

McDaniel puts strong consideration into her subjects, and wants viewers to have that consideration and empathy as well.

“When subjects share these stories, they are no longer just one person’s responsibility to carry or to address,” she says. “My goal is to create a call to action for all those who interact with the work. Above all, what’s most important to me is to treat people with dignity. I create work that, because of the presence of the voice, you must interact with respectfully — you cannot just consume and enjoy the beauty of the piece. When people leave the installation, presentation, or exhibition, I ultimately hope it changes the way they see, respect and interact with the people around them — even strangers. I hope to instill care and understanding in the ways we treat each other, you never know what someone else is carrying.”

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