Interview by Bethany Price
On my way to a Gabrielle Tesfaye’s apartment for this interview, I was expecting beauty. When I arrived I was not at all disappointed - her walls are covered with her own pieces, tapestries, artwork of her friends, and I was engulfed in their warm earth tones. Incense was burning and Gabrielle herself was as beautiful as she always is, in pictures and in real life. Born in Milwaukee, Gabrielle moved to New York with her mom around 4 years old where they lived for a couple of years. They returned to MKE, and after high school, she set off for NYC again - this time by herself. We jumped off from this point in her life, sitting down in the warmth of her incredible home to have a conversation.
Wow, that is a huge deal!
Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking [laughs]. I had this idea…I’m tapping into who I was then. I’m not that girl anymore, but I’m tapping into what she was thinking - she was just so ambitious. She made a vision board of New York, and she had it at her window, she meditated at it every day. Then a few months later she was there.
Was it really hard when you first got there?
Oh yeah, it was really hard but not because of what you would typically think would be hard - I went through a crazy life experience there that kind of changed my life and it happened to be in the beginning of my journey in New York. I’ve come a long way from that, I’m healed now, but that kind of was a soundtrack of my journey there so I went through a lot of growth, a lot of learning how to survive. My art grew tremendously and I was growing tremendously - my art did not look like that when I lived in Milwaukee, it did not look like any of this.
You've made your through a lot of obstacles. Do you think strong people are so because they’ve been through shit or are strong people given tough shit because they can handle it?
What does it mean to be strong? Definitely when you go through challenges you become strong - I have a lot of friends, who are women, they are strong and have been through a lot. Also, maybe it’s karma or maybe it’s dharma…karma is a circle. And also past life - I believe in a past life I’ve lost children before. It also has to do with…there’s just so many things. I feel like we will never be able to understand it all, the grid of this universe. It’s just - everything is a test, hopefully you pass [laugh].
What advice would you give someone trying to go to a different city?
I would say stay centered. Being centered is the number one thing you can do - no matter what comes at you, you are your foundation. A lot of people know someone there and stay on their couches, and being in a situation like that you feel like “what am I doing, I’m worthless” but just remember to create a vision board, those are really helpful. Remember to communicate with the people you love, remembering you have support. I am grateful to be from Milwaukee, it’s a very supportive city and very small and it’s like a big family community here. Especially with the art and artists here - I have a friend Shae, her music name is Queen Tut, she just moved to New York and you know, Milwaukee helped get her there, and now if she ever needs help she knows she has a community back here to help her. Keep in connection with the people you love, it can be an uncomfortable experience being around so much new but it’s ok to hold onto some familiarity. You have you, you’ve been through everything with yourself, you are never leaving you. Remembering where you come from, but not too much to where you can’t let go and grow.
What do you think the state of the Milwaukee art scene is and what do you think can improve it?
I watched the Milwaukee art scene grow from afar while I was living in New York, before I moved out of Milwaukee it was much different. It’s grown a lot and it’s nice to see the progression. I think that art is such a broad thing. I went to art high school and there was music, visual art, dance, theatre, and writing - I would like to see Milwaukee grow to a way where all 5 of those artistic things are equally active in our city, and it seems like music is the most active - and that’s not to say music is oppressing anything else, it’s just the musicians here are really active. My main reason for coming here was to lift up the visual art. I want to see the visual art rise, and I want to see a bridge created between all these different art forms, where we are all collaborating. I’m really interested in seeing what would happen in Milwaukee if visual art and music equally collaborated, and not just there’s a musician on stage and art on the walls…Some real crazy never seen before in our city shit, where you got artists behind the stage splashing art on the canvas and then you got a band rocking out on stage, and maybe some audience participation, something crazy and cool. I feel like the city is really good at staying in a comfortable place. One thing I need to be critical about from what people in Milwaukee do is….the art isn’t given enough attention as it should, even if the main reason for coming to the event is art. If you’re at a music show, where are the music shows? A lot of the times they’re at bars, and people are getting drunk and bobbing their head but are you even really listening to what the musician is saying, are you being touched by the music? Or are you just using this art as a reason to come out and drink? I’ve been to shows where people are talking and the musician isn’t given the rightful attention. I want to see Milwaukee grow into a very authentic presence.
You’ve recently live painted at a few shows, right?
All the shows I’ve live painted at I’ve been asked to live paint, usually it’s not something I do. There was a show I live painted at in New York and I didn’t really enjoy it, I was in a crowded corner and was like why the fuck am I here [laughs]. The main attention was on the music. The shows I’ve done in Milwaukee they’ve been cool but still it’s not the kind of integration yet that I’ve seen in my mind. The last show I did was with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, it was such a cool space. It was me and Yessica [Jimenez] , but we were in a hallway that kind of looked like a shed house [laughs] and the orchestra was in there but it was mainly for the orchestra but it was a cool experience to paint and listen to them, I love classical music. But I want to integrate in a different way. I did this show with another musician in the city right before I left Milwaukee, it was kind of my going away party. It was a house show and there was a band and a group of painters. They were right next to each other and all the music they played was freestyling, and I started painting what I was hearing and more painters joined in. And as the painting grew, the musicians started playing based off what they were seeing. So there was a collaborate bridge and I want to get deeper into something like that. I want to get into energy exchanging bridges, really collaborative.
Are there any books that have influenced your art?
Well, there are people who inspire me that I learn of through books. I love Frida Kahlo, I fell in love with her after making all this art, and I realized how similar I am to her. I’ve always loved her cause she’s a woman who has shamelessly put herself so vulnerable into her work, and I have gotten a lot of criticism for doing that. I can break it up into different things - but one, I make art about things I’ve been through, so I have made art about losing a baby, art about heartbreak, and those are things that a lot of people have gravitated to. You know how you listen to a song and there’s a lyric you react to, like damn, that’s my life. So seeing an image, if you see what you are going through or have been through - a lot of people, especially women, have connected to my paintings because I show that. But also I make a lot of art about otherworldly divine goddesses, like, coming here to take shit over [laughs]. Powerful, magic goddesses, all of that. I connected with Frida because she put so much of what she’s been through into her art, and that helped me not be ashamed that I am doing that, because I have been criticized for what’s been called “getting too personal” in my work. Those people care a lot about my privacy, but from letting this out I’ve had so many people, especially women, reach out to me.
Eyes play such a huge and prominent part of your work - why would you say that is?
Something about them holds life and you know I can do a thing where I can look people in their eyes for a long time and see their soul and when I do it your entire face erases, your personality, I just see your soul and past lives. Art is a reflection and if you have seen something and you think it’s beautiful you’re just seeing a reflection of you, you can only recognize what you have within. If you see a woman who you think is beautiful, you’re seeing the aspects of you that you think are beautiful. If there’s someone you don’t like certain things about, you’re seeing aspects of you that you don’t like. Everything’s not just aesthetic, it’s about seeing the unseen - the eyes hold life. I think this [referencing painting below] is the most successful piece I’ve ever done, with eyes, because it looks like her eyes could move at any second. The piece comes alive in the eyes - even a dead body, you could tell it’s dead by the lack of life in the eyes. There’s nothing on the face I like drawing more than the eye.
Any advice for younger artists?
Don’t be afraid to be ambitious. Do whatever the fuck you want to do. I am where I am because I was just really in love with what I did and I followed it. When I was in high school I was printing T shirts and selling them, I was making things and making money off of my art. I had my first art show when I was 15 at Jackpot art gallery and after that I started having more [shows]. Just find what you love to do and do that, do what you prefer, do what you want. Don’t be afraid of anything, your art is where you can be fearless. Your art is not judging you, your art is you. Be ambitious, be bold, be loud. You can manifest whatever you want, I really want people to know that.
Want more of Gabrielle Tesfaye?