Gisela McDaniel Offers A Space for Healing Within Her Canvas

Gisela McDaniel uses her talent to not only share the stories of the women who sit in front of her, but share a piece of herself as well. In her work, McDaniel explores the crucial themes of life described through a wounded world of characters. Wounded, but healing. Understanding her platform was dedicated to voices of survivors, she took that literally, and around four years ago combined the actual interviews she held with her sitters into the exhibitions she held for these works. Fusing poignant audio with these visual representations of sexual assault victims, her art provides a dialogue for women, and an outlet towards healing and reclaiming their own bodies. As a survivor herself, she says below that her main goal is “to ensure that the survivors’ voices are heard – that they literally “talk back” to the viewer whose gaze they are not just meeting, but really initiating as authors of their own story, at eye-level.” A strong gaze is central to many of McDaniels’ works, but that strength is simply a reflection of what burns inside her. These works are so liberating because she is able to empathize with what the women pictured have endured, and create an open environment empowering them to tell their stories.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from originally and when did art first enter your life?

For as long as I can remember, I was always drawing. When I was eight, I drew a not pretty, but very realistic self-portrait.  After that, my parents enrolled me in drawing classes at a local community arts program.  The first two years of high school, I attended an all-women’s high school on the Eastside of Cleveland that had a strong studio arts program as well.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

You held your first solo show last summer at Playground Detroit Art Gallery entitled, “Lush P(r)ose.” What was that experience like and how were you able to create your own voice in that space? 

Since my show featured oil portraits/audio of Detroit-based women survivors of sexualized violence, it was an extremely powerful experience.  Nearly all the women who’d shared their stories with me attended opening night.  My work came out of my own experience with sexual violence.  Being able to share my story with other women survivors (most of whom were BIWOC and non-binary people) while listening to their experiences created a space for mutual healing.  Most of the women featured were overjoyed when they saw their painting. Several teared up and even wept, even though they were happy tears. My parents, Grandmother, Aunt and Uncle, and a close friend from Ohio came out for the show, which meant a lot because I was still fairly new to Detroit.  My mother (an indigenous Chamoru from Guahan) arranged to have a handmade haku (crown made of tropical leaves and flowers) and lei overnighted to Detroit from Oakland, California. A Pacific Island woman, whose knowledge of the lei-making was handed down through generations, designed both pieces after viewing my work. She, and the Chamoru woman founder of the Lei Company, are part of a Pacific Island women’s owned and operated Coop. It’s based in northern California. which has one of the largest off-island Pacific Islander communities in the U.S.  As a member of the Pacific Diaspora who grew up in the midwest, and a mixed-race Chamoru feminist painter, all of those small details added to the significance and joy of “Lush P(r)ose”.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies?

The incorporation of audio in my work is incredibly important to me and is relatively new (the past 4 years). I now consider it an integral part of my work and will not allow my work to be exhibited without the accompanying audio.  The voices and stories of survivors – whether it be from sexualized, colonial, mixed-race, and/or institutionalized racism/violence – are crucial to engage with the completed portraits. My goal is to not only disrupt the traditional white, cishet, Western gaze but to ensure that the survivors’ voices are heard – that they literally “talk back” to the viewer whose gaze they are not just meeting, but really initiating as authors of their own story, at eye-level.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

Could you take us through a perfect day in the studio for you?

On a perfect day at the studio, I wake up, grab something to eat, paint for 4-5 hours, take a lunch break then maybe go for a bike ride or visit a friend. I’d then go back and paint for another 4 hours.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

What source material do you base your work off of, and from where do you draw inspiration?

I draw inspiration from the resilience and grace of my subjects, their stories, and the relationships we create with one another.  I first stop and really reflect on what a person has shared with me as they tell their story, then I incorporate their narratives into the portrait as a way to celebrate them. I think the biggest pressure I put on myself when I’m working on a piece, is to make sure I’m creating something that the person portrayed can see themselves in, can genuinely enjoy, and can find healing in.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

Working both in 2D and 3D, how might you connect differently to varying mediums in order to achieve the same strong message?

I am very interested in the objects we wear and how they carry our spirits well after we’ve moved around and existed in the world and removed them from our bodies. Something I learned from my subjects early on is that our clothing and the things we choose to adorn ourselves with on a daily basis are part of the image and a kind of  “mask” we present to the world. These pieces can express playfulness, glamour or even irony. They can be a statement of strength as well as a kind of armour all at the same time.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

What are some of the greatest challenges or difficulties you face in creating your work?

The biggest but most meaningful challenge of my work is the emotional labor of dealing with the material my subjects entrust to me. I am literally sitting with these stories for hours, days, and weeks, which can be taxing emotionally and spiritually.  I can swing between feeling numb to being overwhelmed by the pain subjects share with me.  I have since learned to space interviews out as a form of self-care.  If I do more than two interviews/sittings a week, it really affects my mental and physical health.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

Often, warmer tones like red or yellow are featured in your work. Could you comment on your color palette and how you come to make the decisions you do regarding color and shading?

I begin all of my work with an underpainting in red, pink, or yellow. I use these colors as a metaphor for the body.  Since we find these colors inside our physical bodies, it’s my way of further “humanizing” the person portrayed in the painting, by building it up using the colors and qualities found in the body. It creates a sensation for me, that actual blood, bile, and life is embedded throughout  the work, from start to finish.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

Does your work reference any Art Historical movements or figures?

Gauguin is a primary but not exclusive figure whose work I engage.  I see myself as consciously reclaiming the pallet he used, as a descendant of ancient, indigenous Chamorus from Guahan (Guam).  In fine art, Gauguin is known as the “father of primitivism” with all that that implies.  My ancestors were not “savages” nor mindless “children” waiting for the West to “educate” or “save us.”  We were savaged by the West (which, for Guahan began with the Spanish Empire) who took over our island, called us “thieves”, infected us with disease, and demeaned our language, culture and ancient belief systems. Today, Guahan remains one of the last 17 colonies in the world, according to the United Nations.  Chamoru activists continue to fight for our right to self-govern and to protect our culture, island and ocean. So yes, I’d say that I am at the very least, in conversation with Gauguin and his artistic and colonial legacy in the Pacific.

Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

What’s next for you?

I have an upcoming solo exhibition show with Pilar Corrias Gallery in London this September.  It was originally scheduled for July but was pushed back because of COVID-19.  I was accepted into the Art Omi Residency in New York for this summer, but again, that has now been scheduled for next summer due to the virus.  At this point, I am hoping that the Anderson Ranch Residency in Colorado, which is currently scheduled for the fall, will actually happen on time. Like everyone else, I’ll just have to wait and see, since the U.S. has not done a particularly good job responding to the global pandemic.

At the end of every interview, we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you love for us to interview next. Who would you suggest?

I’ve been very interested in the work of Detroit based artist Tony Rave lately.