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Art in Focus: The Joy and Humanity in Joel Gaitan’s Terracotta Vessels

By Julie Smith SchneiderJan 23 2023
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In the icy heart of January, a new art installation envelops Rockefeller Center with life-affirming warmth. Featured throughout the campus on murals and lightboxes and inside a trio of vitrines, artist Joel Gaitan’s terracotta vessels take on gender-nonconforming, human-like forms that burst with personality, each presented against vibrant backdrops in a palette of lush greens, guava pinks, and glowing mango-oranges. The works serve as homages to pre-Columbian Central American pottery styles, with modern twists, and explore intertwining themes of spirituality, sexuality, taboos, identity, and ancestry, all with a buoyant sense of vitality.

“It's cold right now in New York, so we're bringing the tropics,” says Gaitan, a self-taught ceramicist and first-generation Nicaraguan-American based in Miami. “We're bringing the heat and the sun and bright colors.”

The installation opened January 17, kicking off the 2023 Art in Focus season, for the Center’s fifth consecutive year of visual art installations produced in partnership with the Art Production Fund. This year’s program centers on the theme of abstraction and spotlights the works of three artists with solo exhibitions; collage artist Basil Kincaid and painter Dominique Fung’s work will be displayed later this year. Expect dreamlike environments, the familiar turned uncanny, and entrancing physicality, textures, and hues. Gaitan’s vessels launch the new season with a reverberation of joy and tenderness and humanity.

Born in 1995 in Miami, Florida to a Pentecostal family, Gaitan says, “Art is something that has always been with me since I was a child.” Their grandfather was a pastor, musician, and painter of Nicaraguan landscapes. Similarly, a creative life also beckoned Gaitan. As a child in church, he would pray for crayons and jars of Play-Doh. And this early love for the color-saturated sculpting material eventually morphed into working with clay professionally.

After working in retail and hospitality for seven or so years, while making art in spare pockets of time, Gaitan landed his first solo exhibition in April 2021 at KDR305, a gallery in Miami’s Little Havana, after the owner, Katia Rosenthal, encountered his art on Instagram. They installed the show, titled “La Pulperia Doña Pina,” as an operational shop with bubblegum-pink walls, in homage to Gaitan’s aunt’s pulperia (similar to a bodega), and populated it with the artist’s signature anthropomorphic pots—many donning braids and bold accessories—mingling with classic grocery items and beverages. The exhibit “really opened every door for me,” Gaitan says. “I had the opportunity to quit my two jobs—at Whole Foods and a restaurant—and go full-time after that.”

Since that first show a year and a half ago, which Gaitan crafted at home in his small, pink-walled studio apartment, Gaitan has shown his work at galleries and museums in Los Angeles and New York, including at El Museo del Barrio. And he’s become a resident at Bakehouse Art Complex in Miami, an arts organization located in an Art Deco building that once housed an industrial bakery. Gaitan typically spends about 12 hours a day in the ceramics studios, among a community of fellow artists.

Gaitan’s creative process involves slipping into an intuitive trance-like flow state when working on his sculptures. For each new piece, they start with a slab of clay, but no sketches, preferring instead to see where the material leads them. “Clay sometimes just takes its own direction,” they say. “It might start falling in or to the side. So, even though I usually start with an idea, I might end up with another one because the changing shape might inspire me to do something else.” 

Each personified pot, with its elaborate hairstyle and accouterments, like gleaming gold jewelry and designer bags, exudes a certain charisma. “All my pieces are divas. They have a lot of attitude,” Gaitan says. “The people who I grew up around, bigger people, inspire the shape of my vessels. I add breasts and belly buttons to my vessels, and double chins and bellies and back rolls. Big bodies were not really represented in the art world, but there's a movement now.”

After firing the vessels, Gaitan paints on gold luster, a form of 22-karat gold diluted in pine oil. “Then, I put them back in the kiln to fire and it’s magical—it creates this beautiful shining gold.” The final step, Gaitan says with a laugh, is prayer—a nod to his Pentecostal upbringing, but with his own spin. “I like to bless the works with oils and herbs and pray for the works,” he says. “I always give thanks.”

Learning from his elders and seeking wisdom from his forebears and the divine is an important element of Gaitan’s art practice. “I’ve learned a lot about Indigenous practices, art forms, and customs from word of mouth and conversations with my elders, who have kept traditions alive and passed down teachings,” he says. “My work today is an offering and thanks to my family. It's a ‘thank you’ to the higher power and the ancestors who watch over me. It’s a love letter to Nicaragua.” He often inscribes poetry in Spanish and Indigenous languages on his sculptures and draws from Nicaraguan lore and mythology. “Each of my pieces is a storyteller, an altar, an offering. Each piece is a portal; it takes you to something else.”

Having their work displayed at Rockefeller Center means the world to the emerging artist. “Getting to show my art in a historical building in the heart of New York, it's just really cool,” Gaitan says. “I love New York City and its beautiful history of immigration and queer culture. It's beautiful to share Miami culture and migration stories here…  You don't have to be from where I'm from to understand the things that we share. We all have our own story and upbringing, but at the end of the day we come together as a community.”

Joel Gaitan’s artwork will be on view around the Rockefeller Center campus through April 23, 2023. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

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