by Mari Reitsma Chevako
Eastbrook member Chrystal Gillon-Mabry doesn’t remember when she first called herself an artist. She just remembers being an imaginative child in a household where her mother did crafts and her father displayed his creativity jerry-rigging things around the house to keep them working.
So after working eleven years at Goodwill Industries, she went back to school, this time at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts. The art smells of the building and the intense atmosphere of making art was contagious and highly motivating. It was here she felt totally at home. Here, she experienced everything she could about drawing and painting, photography, silk screening, photography, printmaking and more.
After MIAD, Chrystal returned to work at Goodwill in order to pay off her student loan. She was at Goodwill for another twenty-three years. In her final eight years there, she served as the Art Facilitator of the Artistic Enhancement Program, a program Chrystal and her supervisor developed and which Chrystal ran, assisting adults with different abilities to create, exhibit, and sell their fine art. The program participants were paid for their art, which helped them develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments and their abilities.
It was alongside her growing relationship with God that Chrystal’s art was incubated.
That relationship began when she was about ten years old and started attending church with her cousin. She can hardly recall a time since then when she didn’t desire God. “I just remember being in church wanting more of Him,” she reflects.
Chrystal’s art is rooted in her faith and the questions it poses. It’s also rooted in stories about her personal experiences “living while black” in America, reflections on growing up, and cultural experiences and influences that have been instrumental in shaping who she is.
Her work is sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious, sometimes satirical. It brings together the comfortable and uncomfortable, the things she likes and doesn’t like.
In the 1990s, at a folk art festival in Alabama, Chrystal made her first collage sitting in a hotel room with a friend. She found the form suited her. She’d been picking up and collecting bits of things her whole life. It’s a habit born of curiosity and an urge to recycle that left family members checking twice with her before throwing anything away: is it art or trash?
When you look at one of Chrystal’s collages – or assemblages – you’ll notice there’s a lot going on. She uses conventional fine arts materials, such as pastels (dry, oil, pencil); paints (acrylic, watercolor, house, and spray); and drawing materials (pencil, charcoal, Conté, ink, and marker). She combines these with unconventional elements: torn paper, cut paper, recycled paper, wallpaper, handmade paper, and Xerox copies on paper. You’ll also find in her pieces wood, metal, beads, Scrabble tiles, colored threads, string, and other trinkets found and recycled.
You really need to study her work to identify all the parts, and then step back and put the story together. And even without knowing much about her, her stories come through: about faith in Jesus, African American history, nostalgia for the 1950s and ‘60s, and her own preferences and tastes, like watermelons and chickens.
An April 2022 exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art called “Ain’t I a Woman” included several of Chrystal’s pieces (see image at right). In fact, the exhibition’s advertising featured a detail from one of her collages. In those pieces, we find a Victoria’s Secret model keeping company with Harriet Tubman and Playboy bunnies. We find mirrors, scripture, suns, moons, crosses, flowers, stars, and so much more that together question what it means to be a woman and how women define themselves and their worth.
In another gallery show in early 2021 at Five Points Art Gallery and Studios in Milwaukee, Chrystal displayed a series of collages reflecting George Floyd’s death and police killings and the trauma endured by generations of African Americans. In a feature about the show aired on the PBS series “Black Nouveau,” Chrystal explains that the work in her series speaks with a stronger voice than usual.
“I came up through the Civil Rights Movement. So I want to teach in my pieces about our history, and though things have changed somewhat, the root causes are still there and need to be addressed. I want people to look at my work and question what’s in it and become informed.”
When Chrystal describes her creative process, she uses the words “wrestle” and “struggle.” At the same time, it’s a process that gives her pleasure and peace. “I’m a solitary artist,” she says. “I don’t go looking for opportunities to show my work or be an artist in the world. Opportunities come to me. I just want to create something true. I just want to express what God has put in me. And I hope my pieces provoke thought and conversation that can lead to change in hearts and minds.” ■
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mari Reitsma Chevako has been a member of Eastbrook Church for nearly 40 years. She’s active in ministries dedicated to promoting world missions and to welcoming internationals. She’s a writer and teaches composition to international students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Chrystal’s work is currently on display at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts as a part of the “Word and Image” show, open now through April 15.