Haitian-born Serge Gay Jr is a San Francisco based graphic artist. Together with video director Matt Stawaski, he lends his creative talents to music videos by high profile artists such as Cee Lo Green, Train, Snoop Dogg and De La Soul. His paintings are often a nod to, or reflection on high popular culture. He talks to ADA about the Haiti earthquake and some of the inspirations behind his woks.
Can you talk me through how you work, what is your work process like?
Lots-and-lots-and-lots of planning and researching, then painting coming very easily. I always have ideas, so planning to execute that idea takes work, from taking tons of photos, or searching for images, colour, size etc, to make my imagination come to life. Then I crank up my mix music on my playlist in my studio, and get to working. Sometimes I play movies or online television just to create background noise. I like loud noise when I paint. And I even stop to have a dance session for a bit. Maybe that’s why my work is so loud.
Tell us a bit about your background and your journey into art and illustration?
I got interested in art as a child growing up in Miami. There was art everywhere you looked at my parents place. My father, being an artist himself, would make and sell art all the time. My father does clay pottery and sculptures fulltime in Haiti. As a child, I’ve always wanted to pursue art as a career. There were doubts at times, but it was my parents who told me to go for it and should try to make a living doing it. When it came to college, I was exploring all kinds of mediums. Print making, silkscreen, design, photos, videos, you name it. There were times when I was painting on found objects, like wood panels and wooden gates I found in abandoned homes in Detroit. So Detroit inspired me at that time for my art. The city was my playground.
You are originally from Haiti, does the country feature in your work at all, and are you influenced by your past?
I’ve done many pieces about Haiti, like “Catching Haiti’s Beauty”, “Brick by Falling Brick” (about the Haiti earthquake) and just other subject matters that made me feel proud to be a Haitian American, the beauty of the country and people. It has influenced me in a way that I love to showcase that journey from being born a Haitian then moving to America in the hopes of “the” American life at the age of three and the changes that comes along with that. Coming from a small island to the big New York, then later to Miami, that journey, having to adjust and trying to find ways to fit in. It made a good story for my art. English was not my first language; therefore art became my new way to communicate.
We like the layered depth of your artwork “Brick by Falling Brick”, can you tell us a bit more about this painting and the ideas behind it?
It’s about the earthquake in Haiti. Which was one of the most terrifying moments in my life not only the dark outcome of the quake but also the fact that my father was there, because he works and was in Haiti during that time. It took four days to find out if he was alive or not without contact. He came out okay but it was the scariest waiting process of my life. So in this piece on the left side shows my father in his studio working on his pottery. A brick is over his head to symbolise the actual brick that did fall on his head when the quake happened as he was trying to escape out of the shop. And on the right is the aftermath of the earthquake. It shows these three children who were walking home from school and one didn’t make it. So I wanted to depict things happening so fast that it felt like the one girl was still holding hands one second and the next second one is missing. Also trying to illustrate how much of a surreal moment it was, that even a fish could be flying in the air and no one would care to hesitate the bizarreness because we were all in shock. And in the back ghostly people of Haiti are rising to the sky, showing the major death toll.
A few of your works are highly sexualised with scenes of drug taking, and depravity, for example Joe Blow and City of New Kids Town. Would you say your works show the decay in society?
I don’t see it as decay, because these things have been going on for years. I like to depict real life. Yes you can make pretty art but I love leaving a dark, real situation, that’s happened in someone’s life that someone else may not be familiar with. To showcase awareness and differences in life. Like to not hide the truth in some way, because, most people are afraid to look at reality. It’s an example of the saying “what I don’t see, I don’t believe” it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. So I am trying to get people outside their bubble of understanding. This is what I love doing in a less forceful way.
What do you think the future is for art? In what direction would you like Illustration to progress?
I always feel that art should always be going back to the fundamentals of art; for example folks don’t draw like they used to anymore etc. I think that is always important. And I think artist should be more versatile, should be entrepreneurs, having more than one style, mostly with illustration, and making it into a business.