When Graffiti Meets Fine Art: The Love Child
Tucked away off of Newark Avenue, in juxtaposition to a road that more closely resembles New Delhi than New Jersey, is Mana Contemporary. Remnants of warehouses from a booming industrial era now make up one of the largest contemporary art organizations in the United States. Amongst the singers, dancers, sculptors, painters, and other artists that utilize the facilities at Mana, is Grenadian Jay Gittens, professionally known as The Love Child. Founded in 2011 by Eugene Lemay to cultivate a collaborative creative community through exhibition spaces and artist studios, the list of ancillary services offered at Mana is almost as vast as the disciplines you’ll find its residents conducting. As a BSMT resident at the organization, Jay is but one of those benefactors.
As we sit down in the courtyard of the Mana Contemporary to talk, my immediate curiosity is how his artistic moniker came about. Most artists, including the roster of others in residency with Jay, tend to rely on their given names for recognition as their work gains traction, making his decision fairly unconventional. Simultaneously, given his background in street art—a medium which tends to hinge more on alter-egos if not anonymity as with Banksy and Alec Monopoly—it doesn’t particularly surprise me either. I learn that it was his former mentor, the artist TMNK (The Me Nobody Knows), while on a trip to Art Basel in Miami, who gave him the moniker upon seeing a montage of the word ‘love’ sketched repeatedly.
When I inquire why he has this inherent affinity for the word, he initially seems slightly disconcerted. But then he answers, cooly, calmly, and resolutely that it was the teachings of his mother, a woman who is a nurse by trade, that taught him the significance of this four letter word—particularly in comparison to the absence of it in other homes. Aside from his mother’s influence, he also admitted that he’s always loved the idea of falling in love. At a time when people’s vantage points are either increasingly divisive or shielded with opacity, his vulnerability is refreshing.
The road from Grenada—a small island at the southeast corner of the Caribbean—to New Jersey, is a long one. It’s a journey that, while shy to speak much of it, appears to have had both a cognizant and subliminal effect on Jay. At the age of 15 he moved to the United States alone, with his mother to follow shortly afterward; a decision largely based on the foundation of the American Dream. And yet, more than a decade on, colors emblematic of his island upbringing are visible in his work and his calm demeanor elicits thoughts of what you could categorize as Caribbean chill. However, Grenadian-born, British Virgin Islands-raised, United States-living is just the subtext of that which makes up Jay’s identity. While it would be brazen to say that there’s one type that makes up the art community, Jay doesn’t particularly fit the mould either. Originally having more of a propensity for photography than art, it wasn’t until an internship with that same mentor that led him to pursue another medium. Even then, his transition was largely into street art—a component that in many ways is still visible today.
The elements that largely differentiate Jay from his peers are the same attributes that for another would have eliminated them from the race altogether—namely that he has never had formalized training. He grew up in a rural town in Grenada and his desire to pursue a creative field was not born out of heritage, but rather his exposure to friends within the field. And yet, this seemingly large battle has been a creative incentive, pushing him to explore new methods and mediums until he’s satisfied with the outcome. This fearlessness and determination, despite being overwhelmingly self-taught, has given him the ability to explore outside of traditional parameters and find his own voice, which is ultimately the goal of any artist. In his work is the distinctly old with the new—a nod to the patron saints of art, with a 21st century, graffiti-laden twist. When I first met Jay in SoHo, he attributed his inspiration to the works of Pablo Picasso and Gustav Klimpt. Being an enthusiast of their work myself, it’s no wonder I was so drawn to his own paintings.
The DNA of Jay’s work is one that has seen many iterations. As with any artist, it’s often attributed to and conditional on factors or moments in life. Optimism is a tenet on which he lives, and one which he hopes to imbue through his works. “My work has a way of attracting likeminded people. I see myself in the people who buy my paintings. It’s a way to form a community of likeminded people—people who want the best for humanity, want to change the world, or just have a positive influence.”
His unconventional story and the suicide of that same mentor however, has played a significant part in the transformation of his pieces, and the ideology that frames his approach. Feeling the responsibility—not as a burden but rather as a privilege—to carry the torch forward from the loss of TMNK, he maintains his commitment to pursuing his dreams as an artist. As the end of his residency approaches, I inquired what the next step is. In true fashion, he reflects optimism and hopes to collaborate with a fashion designer, the next series of Jay’s work. Mastering fine art under his given name, Jay Gittens, is also on his bucket list, but maintaining the brand of The Love Child is a centerpiece of that because of the positivity it exudes.