Capturing a Baltimore Legend

MICA alum Jerrell Gibbs ’20 (LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting MFA) talks learning to understand the medium of painting through an abstract lens, his time at MICA and what it meant to paint the official portrait of the late congressman Elijah E. Cummings.

Before he came to MICA, Jerrell Gibbs 20 (LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting MFA) had begun building his network of artists in Baltimore. Already heavily involved in the city’s close knit art scene, Gibbs was consistently painting at this time, and doing DIY shows to get his work out there. 

But, Gibbs said, he knew if he wanted to take his craft to the next level, to “speak the language in that space,” he needed to go back to school. That’s where MICA came in. Gibbs applied, and was accepted, into the College’s LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting.

“I got in, and immediately I realized that the story that I had was significant—my experiences were very valuable. What I had to offer and bring to the table was extremely valuable as an individual,” he said. “But I knew that I was lacking in the actual understanding of what painting as a medium really meant.” 

And it was at MICA where Gibbs says he was able to truly understand the medium—how paint functions, how it operates, how someone is able to create a language using paint—as opposed to just being focused on the visual component.

“My professors were very versed in the abstract conversation. That's where they're based—they're based in abstract theory, they're based in abstract thought,” Gibbs said. “The beauty of that whole experience was I was able to take abstract language, abstract theory, and abstract thought and apply it to figurative work, because I'm a figurative painter. And so I was able to combine two different languages and make one.”

Joan Waltemath, director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting, said when she first met Gibbs, she could see that he had a good combination of qualities and talent. 

“He knew what he wanted to do as an artist,” she said. “At Hoffberger, we could give him a traditional language to express his thoughts in painting. From there he could take off—and he did.”

Stephen Ellis, a faculty member in the painting MFA, said what he always remembers about Gibbs is the way he immediately responded to suggestions. He not only quickly grasped concepts, but he understood its implications far beyond what was explicit in the initial suggestion.

“Jerrell has a very disciplined, focused visual intelligence,” Ellis said. “As you can see in his work, he seizes the essential aspect of the image and works relentlessly until it’s fully realized in each painting.”

It’s been less than two years since Gibbs graduated from MICA. 

But in that short time, his career has flourished, most recently with him being commissioned to paint the official portrait of the late congressman Elijah E. Cummings. The portrait, which first was unveiled at The Baltimore Museum of Art and was on view there from Dec. 22 to Jan. 9, has since left to move to its permanent home in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington DC.

Reigniting a Passion

A life as an artist wasn’t quite what Gibbs saw for himself growing up. He’d been interested in drawing as a child, but fell out of it as he got older.

“I'm born and raised in Baltimore. At the time my level of exposure was centered around the community that I grew up in, and my family wasn't necessarily versed in fine art,” Gibbs said, something that was probably from a standpoint of it not always being a direct path to professional opportunities and a career. “So raising an artist or nurturing an artist in Baltimore City, when you have a lot of other things to worry about, wasn't necessarily the priority.”

Instead, Gibbs got involved in sports, something he said that’s perpetuated in the cities. He started playing football, and graduated from high school, and knew he wanted to attend college, but wasn’t sure what he wanted to study.

Gibbs knew he liked sports, and he knew he was business savvy. “I always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” he added.

He ended up at Morgan State University for business management, but it wasn’t the right fit, he said, and Gibbs ended up dropping out. Next, he tried Bowie State University, this time playing football, and majoring in sports management. It was during this time that Gibbs found his way back to art; While working two jobs and attending Bowie State, he began drawing again. 

His longtime girlfriend—now wife—also became pregnant with their daughter, Raegan, and Gibbs knew football wasn’t his future, and neither was sports management. Gibbs left his undergrad program to support his family, he said. 

It was his wife, Sheila, who saw how talented Gibbs was when it came to art, and encouraged and helped to get him consistently into that space. That next Father’s Day, she bought him painting supplies and an easel. That gift—a reintroduction to art—opened up the avenue for his career. 

‘They Loved It’

That career, in recent months, has been launched into the spotlight. 

The committee created to choose the artist who would capture and memorialize Cummings did so out of an initial group of more than 30 individuals. In February 2021, the finalist list was whittled down to just three artists, which included Gibbs, and also included MICA alum Monica Ikegwu ’20 (Painting BFA). 

Next came individual artist studio visits, which included the usual elements, Gibbs said, like getting to know who he was as a painter, his vision, and what he’d bring to the table. From there, he was asked to make a sketch of what he would create, if chosen.

It’s this part of the process, Gibbs said, that set him apart. 

“The initial sketch, obviously, you know, was supposed to be on paper. It didn't have to be, but most sketches are typically on paper, just to give you an idea,” he said. “I'm not really into sketching, that's never been my thing, I really like to just paint and work my way through a painting and allow the painting to exist. And because of that, I ended up just submitting a painting instead, I didn't do a rough sketch on paper and pencil. I did an actual painting, and they loved it. And that's how I was selected.”

For Gibbs, the process of creating what would become the final portrait was a winding path. There were months spent trying to figure out just how to capture all that was the great Elijah Cummings. The final piece was finished in September in 2021. But the process began back in April 2021, he said. 

Those months in between were spent honing in about what should, and shouldn’t, be included. There were different concepts—original plans featuring flags and a lion statue in the background were scrapped for a design that included only Cummings filling the portrait, his larger than life presence coming through loud and clear. 

And once he had the design in mind, Gibbs created the portrait in one go.

“Once I got back from a solo show in Chicago, I immediately got back into the studio, and you know, I made the painting in a day,” he added.

Capturing a Baltimore Legend

For a born and raised Baltimorean, getting chosen as the artist to commemorate Cummings, while nerve wracking, left Gibbs immensely proud and grateful to be “tasked with something of such importance.” 

And, he added, this commission made him understand that people appreciate and value what he has to offer. 

“And I think that was the biggest thing for me. That there are people in the arts who’ve made careers in this field longer than I've been painting… and for them to appreciate what I have to offer and what I bring to the table—it meant the world,” Gibbs said. 

But it was a lot of pressure, too, he said, because a piece of this magnitude for someone of such importance—someone who has done so much not only in the world of politics, but for the city of Baltimore—left him nervous. 

Gibbs wanted to make sure he did right by Cummings, he said.

“I put a lot on my shoulders, in order to get into the space and get mentally where I needed to be in order to create it,” he added. 

In the months since the painting was finished, and shared with the public, Gibbs has gotten emails, messages, phone calls, and more. 

“To hear the reviews and to read the responses and the messages that come from people saying that they cried when they saw the painting, hearing that people really had chills, or just describing the work as if it was lifelike, you know, all of that resonated with me, because that's what I strive to do as a painter,” he said.

“And that's been the biggest thing for me,” Gibbs added. Just having thoughtful, intellectual conversations with people, collectors, directors, journalists—just having all of these great conversations that stem from a painting.”

Even as Gibbs has advanced in his career, his roots are in Baltimore, and it’s where he’s still based. Baltimore is his home—his everything—Gibbs says. It’s given him everything he has.

The art scene in Baltimore is unlike that of other places. Everyone knows everyone, and even if you don’t know someone personally, you know of them, he said. It’s like a family—they support each other, and they share resources. 

That’s really what separates Baltimore from bigger cities. Because they have that small community, he said, they’re able to consistently help each other. There aren’t new waves of people coming in every few months like you see in other places. Baltimoreans in the art scene are planted here—it’s a grassroots movement working continually to build together, he added.

“We stick together, we build each other up, we involve each other in everything that we have going on. And we just continue to grow together, and we're not afraid to offer resources or connections or network in order for us to collectively build and win together,” Gibbs said, “We're really focused on winning as a unit. When one wins, we all win.”