Jan Gilbert is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, and educator from New Orleans.
Native New Orleanian Jan Gilbert is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, and educator whose work mines memory, loss, and transition in mixed-media pieces that are at once personal and collective, private and public, place-based and global. Gilbert combines painting, printmaking, photography, and installation to create two- and three-dimensional forms, including paintings, book projects, and found-object assemblages ranging in size from a few inches to hundreds of feet. Gilbert’s mixed-media and photographic works repurpose photographs and other ephemera, which are often transferred onto and “embalmed” within thick, wax-like acrylic skins. Her pieces have been shown in galleries, museums, and cultural centers; her public artworks have appeared in bus shelters, hotel lobbies, public libraries, and storefront windows, and on building facades. Gilbert has received numerous awards, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Louisiana Division of the Arts; the Warhol, Ford, and Pollock-Krasner Foundations; and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.
Jan Gilbert was born on June 28, 1953, to Helen Basilo Gilbert and Charles Mader Gilbert, and she grew up in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. Several of her works are dedicated to her father, a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, and to her maternal grandmother, Mary Azzarello Basilo, an Italian seamstress. As a child, Gilbert watched her grandmother, a devout Catholic, slip into a reverie as she worked repetitively at her machine. Gilbert took great inspiration from these early sartorial sessions—using a vocabulary of patterns, laces, and fabrics in her artworks, employing the notion of time-based ritual in her art-making process, and adopting her grandmother’s knack for “rummaging” (that is, hunting, gathering, and assembling remnants in multiple layers) as her own signature technique, which allows Gilbert to, as she puts it, “record the texture and fabric of a life.”
A Career in Art
Gilbert earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Orleans in 1980 and a master of fine arts in painting from Tulane University in 1982. In 1984 she held her first professional solo exhibition, concurrently displayed her first piece of public art in guerilla fashion in the French Quarter during the World’s Fair, and formed the VESTIGES Project with former fellow graduate students/artists Debra Howell and Kristen Struebing-Beazley, and with invited writers. Since 1984 VESTIGES has served as a forum for visual artists to produce collaborative works with such writers as Andrei Codrescu, Carolyn Maisel, Danella Primeaux Hero, and Charlie Bishop. That same year, Gilbert also began a long career of teaching at local colleges and universities, with appointments at Tulane University and Delgado Community College.
In the 1990s, Gilbert’s personal experiences with death and dying led her to take a performative turn with her art and to more explicitly incorporate ritual. Light in the Head (1995), which honored a friend lost to AIDS, featured Gilbert making and burning commemorative photos/candles for eight hours in the gallery. In 1999 Gilbert was diagnosed with stage-IV breast cancer. She created her Offerings series when a friend asked for objects to deliver to two mountaintops—offerings to implore the gods for healing. Gilbert turned two leaves into pockets, filled them with such items as hair (Gilbert’s and others’) and loved ones’ cremains, and stitched them together.
The ritualistic nature of Gilbert’s work often invites interactions with others beyond a simple viewing. Similarly, the collaborative nature of her processes supports her commitment to public artworks. Primed by twenty years of collaborative, ritualistic, public art making, Gilbert was ready to respond with arts activism when the Hurricane Katrina-related floods of 2005 inundated New Orleans. She called upon her vast networks to bring resources into the recovering city and to convene multiple parties in large-scale projects. She initiated the VESTIGES Think Tank, a multi-sited, three-year residency with the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans that included installations, lectures, artists convenings, and performances. As part of this residency, Gilbert also co-founded HOME, New Orleans? (HNO?), a community-based, arts-focused network of artists, neighborhood centers, schools, and universities. One HNO? project was LakeviewS, A Sunset Bus Tour. One stop on the tour was Gilbert’s Biography of a House, a 300-foot ribbon of enshrined family photos wrapped around the flood line of her girlhood home. The piece included a sound installation designed by her nephew, drummer/composer William Gilbert, which utilized quotidian tape recordings made by her father. In 2012 Gilbert exhibited a retrospective of her public artworks, including Biography of a House, in her solo exhibition, 30 Years / 30 Blocks, at The Front gallery in New Orleans.
Gilbert has been instrumental in founding, developing, and sustaining several major arts organizations in New Orleans, such as A Studio in the Woods, the New Orleans Women’s Caucus for Art, and the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). From 2012 to 2013, Gilbert served as the CAC’s interim director of visual art. While living and working in New Orleans throughout her life, Gilbert has participated in numerous exchanges and presented lectures and workshops in Switzerland, France, Italy, Sweden, and the Republic of Macedonia. Since the 1980s many of these international collaborations have included Gilbert and her husband, documentary filmmaker Kevin McCaffrey, working across disciplines with Dr. Jacques and Monica Arpin. The team delivered a presentation at the World Transcultural Psychiatry Forum in Paris (2011) and in Mexico (2012) on the Cajuns of Louisiana as a model of resilience and collaboration. Gilbert and McCaffrey serve in Dr. Arpin’s inaugural special interest group to explore the role of the arts globally in cultural psychiatry.
Throughout her career, Gilbert has deepened long-standing collaborations and continually formed new ones with far-flung partners as well as those close to home; however, she claims that New Orleans itself is her primary collaborator. The city’s traits have been imprinted on her, leaving a preoccupation with dense layers beneath the surface; an appreciation for the unvarnished and idiosyncratic; an impulse toward preservation, with a simultaneous respect for the corrosive; and, perhaps most of all, a life imbued with commemorative ritual.