Collage artist Mirlande Jean-Gilles uses her art to cope with tragedy

For Mirlande Jean-Gilles, who moved to Baltimore from New York City in 2004, what began as a dare from a friend three years ago-to post collages of eye-catching images of Haitian tent cities, working women, and families-started a domino effect toward the world discovering her vivid work.


Layered and textured with glossy pictures collected from vintage Ebony, National Geographic, and other publications, she rarely uses anything from the internet for her art. "I like the way the paper feels, the way it smells," the married mother of two daughters says. "Riffling through the images, maybe I'm looking for a piece of sky or some green grass, and then the way I cut it out, all of that makes me happy."

Yet, while she had a Flickr account, her artistic talents weren't well known even to her friends before 2010. "When I showed some of my collages to one of my homegirls, she said, 'How the hell did you hide this from me for a year?'" Her friend pushed her to share her images on Facebook. "Truthfully, I didn't think anybody would care one way or the other."

In between looking at snapshots of other people's dinners or pictures of children, however, folks began paying attention to Jean-Gilles' cityscapes and scenes from Haiti, the island from whence both of her parents hail. She was invited to participate in a 2011 group art show at the University of Baltimore and has since shown her work in various New York City shows.

Currently, Jean-Gilles, who sells her prints on Etsy, and her art are featured in the upcoming documentary Imagine a Future, which airs on BET on July 5. Asked how the creators of the film had discovered her work, she smiles and answers, "Facebook."

Co-directed by Lisa Cortes, an executive producer of Precious, the film documents the life of 17-year-old Janet Goldsboro as she examines her own beauty and self-esteem issues that she and other African-American girls deal with every day. "When I learned that Janet was an artist who had come to collage as a means of creating positive images of black women to surround herself with," Cortes says, "I thought, Why not bring these two women together to continue the conversation about beauty and also about the healing power of art?"

The documentary shows Goldsboro, an aspiring collage artist, traveling to South Africa and later visiting Jean-Gilles' home studio in Baltimore. Jean-Gilles shows Goldsboro various collages that tell the tale of her former life in Queens and Brooklyn, her present life in Baltimore, and various periods in the history of Haiti. Having lived there with her grandmother when she was a small child, the troubled island looms large in her artistic imagination.

"Right after Haiti's earthquake in 2010, I tried to write about it, but I couldn't. It was so stressing and depressing, I couldn't find the right words to express it, but then I realized I needed to do it visually so it would catch their attention." Haunted by the thousands of deaths, millions of dollars of damaged property, and horror stories that still affect the country, she tried to process it both spiritually and artistically. Her images are a delicate balance of good vibes and bad dreams. 

"I wanted to catch people's attention, hoping to keep the conversation going on what was happening with the island. That earthquake was a nightmare." In Imagine a Future, as Goldsboro looks closely at Jean-Gilles' interpretations of the devastation, the camera moves freely from images that are often serene yet sometimes sinister.

There are images of homeless people, refugees literally living on top of one another in "tent cities," where scattered skulls remind us that death is always lurking. In other pictures we see strong native women carrying entire houses on their heads as they roam the broke-down landscape, searching for a better way. Yet, even at Jean-Gilles' most bleak, the brilliant greens and blues of the sky or a blazing sun (or moon) hovering above symbolizes that there just might be a better tomorrow. "As I pointed out to Janet, the brightness of the sky or the clarity of the stars indicates that there is hope."

African Voices publisher and editor Carolyn Butts fell in love with Jean-Gilles' piece Autumn in the City, which features a regal woman walking through a chaotic metropolitan city and graces the cover of African Voices' most recent issue. There is a wild beauty to the picture, as though the overlapping images are about to spill out of the canvas.

"When I saw the picture, I just thought it was perfect for our 20th anniversary," Butts says. "Her husband, Dirk Joseph, who is also a wonderful artist and teacher, did a cover for us a few years ago. I find their relationship very beautiful. It's not easy balancing doing art and having a family."

The importance of family, especially her daughters Sequoia, 13, and Azaria, the 6-year-old who stays home with mommy, is another recurring theme in Jean-Gilles' work. "I think being a parent has influenced my art," Mirlande says. "There are a lot of kids in my pieces." Even while she is working, it's not uncommon for Azaria to act as in-house art critic, giving her opinion on works-in-process. "I'm a mom, so I don't expect a lot of quiet time."

In more than a few of her collages, we see mothers and daughters together: working together, playing together, learning together, and walking together. One personal favorite hanging on her wall is "Big Yellow Sky and Balloons."

Vivid as a Matisse canvas, the portrait depicts a mother literally wearing her heart on her sleeve as she guides her oblivious child, distracted by the helium balloons she carries, toward their destination. While the child can afford to be whimsical, the mother takes her role quite seriously, keeping her head high and her eyes focused. Indeed, the same could be said for Jean-Gilles.

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