Paint Your Heart on Your Sleeve: A Conversation with Bryant Giles
Paint Your Heart on Your Sleeve: A Conversation with Bryant Giles
- Words Joshua Aronson
- Date November 22, 2017
Closing his eyes and “listening” lies at the heart of designer, painter, and Nike collaborator Bryant Giles’ process. The twentysomething-year-old (Giles refuses to disclose his age, claiming “I’ve been doing this for a minute!”) doesn’t use mood boards, rarely looks at others’ work, and hardly reads blogs or magazines. He prefers to keep his eyes closed; allowing himself to be inspired by whatever images lie inside. These memories and fragments, nestled deep in Giles’ brain, are the basis for his massive takeover of Nike’s flagship in Chicago, the two solo shows he’s exhibited in Chicago galleries, an upcoming show in Los Angeles and the men’s and women’s collections he’s currently designing to be released in 2018, all alongside a collaborative sneaker with Nike.
Bred in Chicago, but born in Michigan City, Indiana, Bryant Giles is the Midwest’s answer to the bubbling emerging artists’ scenes in New York and Los Angeles. Bryant, like fellow Midwesterners Kanye West, Common, Lupe Fiasco and Virgil Abloh, refuses to allow anyone to put him in a box. He’s constantly providing new surprises, which is why—just before heading to Los Angeles—(where he’ll be putting the finishing touches on his solo show) the painter-designer-musician-model took a second to speak on where he’s coming from and, more importantly, where he’s going.
I’d like to ask you about your life in Indiana, before you moved to Chicago. You’ve said that Chicago has influenced you deeply, but I want to start by talking about your life before Chicago.*
My life before Chicago was very simple. I lived in Michigan City, Indiana. I lived there until I was 10 or 11. I wasn’t much of a social person nor was I really socially accepted by my peers, so I spent a great amount of time inside the house. Watching a lot of TV and drawing all day. It was there that I discovered that art could be my outlet from reality. My second voice, so to speak. My grandparents soon realized that as well. They would supply me poster boards–by the dozens–that I would, over the span of a couple hours, fill with narrations. Private stories and thoughts that visually appeared as scribbles to anyone else who was viewing. But, it meant a place of security to me.
What did watching all that TV do to you?
The television opened my eyes to a new world outside of what was physically around me. Enlightened my imagination, as you’d say, as well as expanded my taste in music, fashion and the arts. I was watching MTV2 Indie Countdown and late night Toonami. It also started my obsession with Japan, you could say. I wanted to create out there. I was divided between what exactly, but it just felt right.
I’m interested in the way that television opened your eyes, specifically the way in which cartoons like the programs on Toonami affected you. Designers often cite anime as the inspiration behind their clothing designs. Akira, a Japanese anime, for example, was an inspiration behind Kanye West’s clothing line. Are you aware of a link between the animated programs you watched at home and the designs you make today?
Fashion-wise, the [Japanese] show Bleach really inspired me. The styling in the opening theme of season one, along with the art direction, was impeccable. From that, I explored outside the idea of a uniform. As I grew older, films like Ichi the Killer and books like Fruits [a collection of Tokyo street fashion portraits from the Japanese street fanzine of the same name] influenced me heavily–both in style and imagination.
It’s almost like these programs influenced you across mediums. There’s a strong sense of figure in your painting. Nearly every work of yours features multiple characters; characters often distorted from reality, similar to the way anime characters are rendered. Do you think there’s a link?
No link at all. My art has always derived from mental imagery and self experience. As a youth, television and music played a role but, as time progressed, I reconstructed those images into a depiction of my own. A coded language, for short. The faces are often my own or those from a particular moment from my life. It’s almost like trying to pause a movie: you want to recall that image but sometimes the moment itself and the faces blur. That movie in my case is my life day-by-day. And you’re just seeing screen grabs from it but, to me, the plot is clear.
So, is your painting a way to remember?
You could say that. Sometimes I paint to remember, sometimes I paint to forget. The only commonality between the two stands at the initial reflection process behind them. The whole ideology that says “the Internet represents a sort of memory bank” deteriorates being human. At least, to me, it does.
Do you bring a similar mindset to design? Where does your clothing design process begin?
I try not to use mood boards or anything sourced from the Internet when I paint and design. I really try to test my imagination as a creator and a critic. It’s too easy to get influenced scrolling through “insert whatever site” and that’s where comparisons derive. No one wants to be compared. You want to be your own entity. But, it’s another experience to close your eyes and draw inspiration from the darkness. You’d be surprised how much light you can concoct on your own.
You've spoken out about your love for certain designers—Rei Kawakubo and Jacquemus come to mind. Do you find it difficult to balance that need for authenticity and the influence of your idols?
There’s a fine line between respect and imitation. Do I respect these artist as inventors and expressionists? Yes. Would I dare mimic them? Out of respect, of course not. I think it’s essential as artists for us to recognize that line. The world doesn’t need more copies, it needs more innovators.
Where does that need to innovate come from?
It never became an intent when I first started creating. In all honesty, I was just doing so for me. I recall my paintings weren’t so accepted, four to six years ago, at galleries. My peers didn’t understand it quite as much. I was the only person I knew expressing myself in the way that I did. Slowly, I started to realize that—as long as I stayed true to myself artistically, stuck to my own gut and kept a consistent marketing system—I was always going to be able to reach, at least, one person a day. Fast forward, years later, that one person is hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions. It’s quite odd how time works and you never truly know what tomorrow will bring. You kind of just have to say: “Fuck it.” If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this–one hundred percent. I find some artists today are quite often scared of experimenting with themselves. They are often hiding behind someone else’s greatness or today’s trend.They need more people to show them it’s O.K. to do otherwise, that your chances of success are—if not equal—greater.
When did you first realize your interest in art could extend to clothing? You were a painter before you began designing clothing.
I was actually a design student in school. I began designing around the eighth grade, drawing my own designs by hand and proposing them to local “it” streetwear shops in my city. [Those designs] gained interest. But, when they found out my age, it became less about respecting me as a designer and more about taking advantage of me. I learned that lesson then and have moved independently since. I’m currently working on my Fall/Winter women’s and men’s collection, which is completely cut-and-sew. I’m designing sneakers as well. As for the whole painting on clothing experiment, that was just a tradition I did before starting an exhibition. It gained a lot of traction and I dropped about 20 pairs of the trousers. I’ll never do it again though.
By women’s and men’s collection, do you mean to say one, gender neutral collection?
Two separate collections. But I view both as gender neutral. I’ve designed both with the intent that a male could cop from either/or and feel comfortable. Same goes for a woman.
Right. So, effectively, the “men’s” and “women’s” collections are just labels. I shouldn’t even be able to tell the difference?
Yeah—I like that mindset. I just want to create a collection of emotions you can style together to represent however it is you feel. That’s all.
You've said that clothing is one of the purest canvases. Can you elaborate?
I view clothing as a blank template. A white T-shirt is a white T-shirt, right? The emotion and feeling that you put into it makes it yours. It turns a plain regular T-shirt into a piece of art. Something worth hanging or, perhaps, even showcasing.
Do social media and marketing impact your designs in any way?
It’s like learning to walk for some. I’ve been marketing and strategizing through social media since the MySpace days. It’s quite easy to assemble a project and get it seen by the right people for me. Media execution is just as essential as putting out good product. I think it’s always been like that.
That’s true. But, I get the feeling that, in spite of your following, you would delete your social media if you could.
Eventually, I will. When everything’s set in stone.
Suppose you'd never moved to Chicago and lived your whole life in Indiana, do you think you'd still be painting, designing and collaborating?
I’d like to think so. Then again, I guess I’d never know—I could’ve been doing the exact opposite.
Recently, Nike invited you to overhaul their flagship in Chicago. The store features your art, but I understand you had a hand in the overall architecture and design of the space as well. How does a collaboration like that come about?
They just hit me up. I was like, “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
What was it like? Does a corporation like Nike give you free reign to do as you pleased?
It was cool envisioning the end result from the beginning. And, yeah, of course, I was doing the architectural design and the overall piece itself. Since it is a household brand, and my art is a tad risqué, we had to cover up some of the nudity.
What about Pharrell? I know you’re a big fan of Pharrell’s. Do you remember what it was like finding out that he wanted you to model his latest collection of clothing?
It was tight. Pharrell was the guy that let you know: “It’s cool to be different.” That saved my life.
Before we close, I want to talk about the term "black artist"–a label that can, oftentimes, be complicated. Are you okay with being referred to as a "black artist"?
I’ve never been labeled as a “black artist,” or, at least, I’ve never been referred to as one directly. I do think that categorizing artists based on their race is a bit closed-minded and delusional to the bigger picture. That said, if my experience being an artist of color can inspire both the black community and the overall art community–I’m satisfied. I just want people of all races and ages, especially black youth, to know that you can do it. We all, as artists, have a vision and a story that deserves to be seen and heard and, most importantly, respected.
Are there any artists working today who inspire you to continue working?
I think, for as long as I live, that I’ll always have something to say. I will always resort to expressing my thoughts and feelings artistically. But, as far as “artists with a capital a” people that I’m a fan of today? I’d say André Benjamin, Erik Jones, Donald Glover, the Lebon brothers—Tyrone and Frank—and, of course, Frank Ocean.
What can we expect from Bryant Giles in the coming months?
To make history. But, with that said, I try to give myself breaks and remind myself that I’m human and I need those. Overworking yourself is a thing, and it’s very dangerous if you don’t know your boundaries.
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Photography by Joshua Aronson.