What It Means to Be Human Now

Artists as Activists By: Saad Ghosn, Contributing Writer

Gary Gaffney’s art connects matter and spirit in the world

Gary Gaffney in his office. Photo by Bill Howes

“When is your humanity palpable?/Does justice make any sense to you?/Is peace possible without your participation?/Is power more seductive than compassion?/Can art change a life?”, asks Gary Gaffney in his poem Mil Preguntas (a Meditation in 1000 Questions).

Visual artist, poet, writer, and Professor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Gaffney always resorts to his artistic creativity to reflect on these questions and many more, towards a better understanding of life and the world in general.

He was born in New Orleans, grew up Catholic, studied mathematics to the completion of his PhD qualifying exams. Later and because “art most expanded (him) as a person”, he changed course, enrolled at the University of New Orleans, then University of Cincinnati, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in drawing.

In undergrad Gaffney developed a mix of technical skills and, at the same time, forged a personal esthetic language. It was initially influenced by his mathematics background, focusing on well organized, logical, cleanly displayed patterns, shapes, connections, occupying the flat surface of his page. He progressively added to it elements extracted from his catholic upbringing, ornate and religious images, Dutch metal, red and black colors, pictures of saints, of birds alluding to souls… His artwork became iconic, showing borders with layers of full decoration, carrying meaning, like in a sacred and spiritual environment.

Consisting primarily of drawings, his imagery, for many years, dealt with nature forms, referencing trees, plants, flowers, and their relationship. Absent initially, the human figure progressively imposed itself back.

“I enjoyed drawing nature,” says Gaffney, “but wanted my work to be about something bigger. I felt an obligation for people around me; we’re all connected. I wanted my work to make sense of it, to show our central place and essential role in the world.”

This is when his series Man and Woman emerged. It reflected his concerns with humans, not only isolated skin-bound individuals, but beings integrated in the universe, products of centuries of history and interactions with the cosmos. Men and women thus, transcended their purely material nature to become spiritual entities, bearing the wisdom of generations, adding their part to it, playing a different role.

Man Resurrected, a large mixed media drawing on paper part of the series, shows an iconic central human figure, intimately connected with and merging into its surroundings, various symbols and objects, keys to the way we understand the world. These elements, ceasing to be external, flow into and out of the figure, like through a permeable membrane and not an obstructive skin. The drawing is meant to state that we, humans, are rooted in history and culture, connected to each other and the world, and as such, with our collective experience, responsible for what we know, think and do. The adjective Resurrected, in the title, points to the spiritual dimension of the “new” human, often represented in Gaffney’s works, like a soul, floating in the universe.

Man Resurrected, mixed media drawing on paper. Drawing and Photo by Gary Gaffney

Man Resurrected, mixed media drawing on paper. Drawing and Photo by Gary Gaffney

After his large drawings of Man and Woman, Gaffney resorted to more intimate, smaller collages. Reminiscent of icons, they continued his search and messages for spirituality. They included carefully selected images placed side by side: religious figures and angels, cosmos elements, all connected to each others by guiding lines, as if leading the way, creating direction maps and diagrams. Birds, spiritual symbols, often appeared in them, flying between the realm of earth and that of sky, linking matter to spirit. Gaffney wanted his collages to trigger questioning about the world and our role in it; also generate awe.

“In the 21st century we think we know everything, have control, are safe, in no need of connection,” he says, “I want to break down these passive ways of thinking; there’s more, there is still mystery, and our collective experience demands our direct involvement and commitment.”

With time, however, Gaffney found his collages limiting his messages to only a narrow gallery audience. He initially expanded their content into installations, creating thus a real spiritual space, one directly experienced by the viewer, not just an illusion on a flat page. Then, in his search of different means to reach larger audiences, he branched into words, performances, interventions, aiming at messages more direct and more accessible.

To that effect he received a Cincinnati City Arts Allocation grant to make bumper stickers, yard signs, magnet cards, billboards, all including words of wisdom, ideas towards a more humane approach to the world. Using simple and straightforward sentences such as: ‘Ask for Less’, ‘Practice Being Human’, ‘Integrity Always Costs More’, etc. he wanted individuals to stop, think about experiences and situations in their lives, about what it means to be human nowadays.

When The Art Academy first moved to downtown Cincinnati, he designed a short survey to engage the local community, communicate with its members, discover their philosophy of life, their likes and dislikes. Using numbers and statistics gleaned from the Internet and that reflected current social and political reality, he generated STATart, data he distributed at an SOS Art event in order to educate and persuade.

Gaffney is also a poet and a writer in his own right. Mil Preguntas, his poem with 1000 questions, reflects on various issues facing the planet and the role of humankind. His Short Lives of 100 Persons, in progress, features imaginary characters to be visually rendered by student artists, thus shedding light on stereotypes and prejudice, on how one sees things, how one thinks a person looks like.

He is currently seeking to implement his Wisdom Project in various settings. The project consists of individuals who share the same environment, to display, written on neck badges, their thoughts of wisdom for the day, the goal being to interact with others, express and exchange deeper ideas, generate richer discussions.

Gaffney has always held the human in the midst of his concerns. His work consistently points to humans’ essential role as active and responsible, also spiritual participants in the world; it involves direct engagement with the viewer.

“I use art to make sense of the world, to test my vision of it, to find my place in it, to share it with others,” he says. “Art has transformed my life; I hope I can offer that possibility also to others.”