New York-based artist Jeffrey Gibson (Sikkema Jenkins & Co) has long been known for work that conveys intimacy, craft, collaboration, and cultural history. His famous beaded pieces, for example, call attention to their own nature as objects of human labor, crafted by hand using techniques passed down and developed over the course of generations. The work is expressly both art and object, ready to be experienced subjectively. At the same time, it is always profoundly communal. It evokes community with those who came before and those who will come after. Simultaneously, it invokes a unity between all those viewing it in the present. They Come From Fire, Gibson’s artwork and temporary exhibit at the Portland Art Museum (PAM) running through the end of April of 2023, expresses these themes at large scale through twelve kilnformed glass protest panels fabricated by Bullseye Studio.
To achieve his visions in large spaces, Gibson generally seeks to create atmosphere, something he describes as a unifying presence of “light, temperature, sound, movement, or smell—anything that can move through a space and envelop us all.” It is a phenomenon that Gibson began to notice in nightclubs during the 80s and 90s. The lights would dim, the music would rise, and suddenly the crowd would be one. “It’s almost as if everybody became this collective, moving, amorphous entity on the dance floor,” Gibson recalls. “And then suddenly [when the lights returned], we were all back in our bodies again.”
For Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent, that sort of mediated unity echoes rich traditions of native dance. Whether people in a community knew each other individually or not, they would hold hands and follow one another, led by a shared beat. Gibson finds inspiration in this crossover between ancient custom, modern nightclubs, and the possibilities his art can unlock by “re-creating that feeling of being with people but also being an individual in your own body.”
In 2015-16, Gibson completed his first work in colored glass, designing a stained glass window for Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College. That project allowed him to witness firsthand the unique ability of colored glass to create atmosphere through pattern, imagery, and, above all, colored light. “That’s what people would come to experience,” Gibson recalls. “They came to look at the windows, but then they also came to stand in the light. It’s kind of an immediate, playful prompt for people to suddenly just start looking at their bodies…”
The Wellesley project inspired Gibson with new ambitions for creating atmospheric experiences through glass. So when Kathleen Ash-Milby, Curator of Native American Art at PAM, inquired about Gibson creating an exhibit able to celebrate the region’s Indigenous history while connecting its collections of contemporary and Native American art, he already had ideas. Big ideas. Bold ideas. And having met the fabrication team at Bullseye Studio a year earlier while touring Bullseye’s facilities, Gibson concluded that Bullseye Studio possessed the technical and artistic skills needed to realize his visions for They Come From Fire.
Gibson’s vision entailed building an immersive glass installation that could fill PAM’s two-story Schnitzer Sculpture Court. This endeavor required precise installation, retention of the handcrafted qualities of kilnforming, and a faithful rendering of Gibson’s own handwritten messages. It required suspending the glass so that it would create an interactive atmosphere while being viewable in the round. It required safety lamination, hand polishing, and seamless interactions with environmental lighting. And, to start, it required production of Gibson’s exacting color palettes.
In a complimentary remark to Bullseye Studio, Gibson noted, “I rarely meet people who understand color. And so that makes it easy—you can talk creatively instead of technically.” To facilitate those essential, creative conversations about color, Bullseye Studio undertook a rigorous sampling process, involving a lavish layering of many colors to achieve completely distinct hues. Then, once primary palettes had been established, the intricate layering process for the chosen panels was repeated at scale. This time, however, the layering process needed to do more than produce bespoke colors. It also needed to incorporate each panel’s specific patterns and hues.
Thankfully, every step of this complex fabrication puzzlework succeeded. For Gibson, the finished exhibition is just what he envisioned: “In all honesty, the original render looks very much like the final result. The glass pieces are meant to float, and they do. The colors are meant to be overwhelming, to have people turn the corner and suddenly find themselves in a completely different space. You’re meant to get sort of washed over by all of it. And I think that is totally happening to people.”
“I feel I really lucked out connecting with Bullseye,” says Gibson about his first experience with kilnformed glass. “You see the commitment and intensity that everyone puts into their work here. You see how they’re perfectionists and even the smallest detail matters to everybody. In my studio, we’re very similar.”
For everyone at Bullseye Studio, the feeling could not be more mutual. The chance to connect with Jeffrey Gibson and his team (thank you, Brian Barlow!) has been an honor and an inspiration. Their clarity of vision made the collaboration as rewarding as it was exciting. We hope as many people as possible get the chance to be enveloped in Gibson’s resonant, revelatory work of art.
They Come From Fire was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Arts (@neaarts). For those interested in opportunities to purchase this work, contact Gibson’s gallerist Sikkema Jenkins & Co.