We all have messages we live by. Things we tell ourselves, or even subconscious thoughts that guide the way we navigate the world. Meditators and consciousness-seekers try to hone these messages for optimum outcome. For artist Chris Gesell, the motto "keep your eye on the prize" has both a literal significance, and is also a powerful mantra to live life to the fullest. Calling himself "The 1Eye Pikasso," Gesell has turned a hardship into a message of resilience.
In 2015, Gesell lost an eye to melanoma. As one can imagine, this journey brought with it a slew of negative thoughts and fears, but for a visual artist, the loss of an eye is particularly intense. Below, Gesell talks about his childhood growing up in Northern New Jersey during the nineties, his art, and the transformative power of positivity that this health crisis brought him.
1) Where were you raised? Can you paint a picture of your childhood?
I was raised in Wanaque Nj by two amazing parents (Patti and Ray) and two brothers I would be lost without (Ryan and Evan ). I had an amazing childhood growing up on Grove street. All the neighbors would get together for birthdays, and cookouts. Our parents would just yell down the street for us. There were no iPads and cell phones, just simple childhood games. I can still smell the warm, hot pavement when we would play roller hockey in the street in front of the house. I think if I had to paint one last masterpiece it would be a very large painting of everyone in my backyard swimming in the pool listening to music and cooking on the grill.
2)Did you always create art as a kid, or did you come to it later in life?
Growing up I couldn't draw to save my life. My brother Ryan would draw hockey goalies, and it would frustrate me to not be able to do the same. Somewhere around the age of 13 I became better. I drew my first picture for a magazine at age 15 for USA HOCKEY MAGAZINE. I was honored to be in it. Flash forward 15 years I was painting more, but just for fun until recently when a coworker said I needed to sell what I do, that I'm crazy for not doing that. So I listened, and now I'm here.
3) In what form were you exposed to pop culture?
I grew up in a time when cartoons were at their finest: DuckTales, Darkwing duck, Doug, and of course the Ninja Turtles, to name a few. The colors on the TV would POP!! I feel like the 90's were all about NEON, and bright clothes and shoes…a trend that I'm very happy is back again. I would head to the city and just stare at all the bright lights of time square and broadway. All the giant billboards and colors made me want to live in the city, until I realized how much fun the traffic is, LOL.
4) Can you tell the story of your positive attitude after your illness?
I've always been an upbeat child, super energetic— hit by a few cars and quickly bounced back! But of course, I'm human. I took the news about the cancer pretty awfully. No one wants that news. The only thing I didn't do was shut myself out from the rest of the world. I had the support of my family and friends, and not to mention my girlfriend at the time, who stuck with me and is now my wife of almost a year.
5) Do you have any art heroes?
I think I would have to say Andy Warhol pieces are my favorite. The first painting that caught my eye (no pun intended) was the Marylin Monroe painting. I always had a thing for her— she was just a classic beauty— but when I saw him take such a simple thing and alter the colors, it popped to me and this always stuck in my head.
6) Do you create mainly murals, or do you make smaller pieces?
I started out using sheets of plywood as a canvas. I would tape the whole board, draw in image, cut out where I wanted the paint to be, spray away, and hope for the best! I later switched to 18"x24". And I now mostly paint on bigger canvases. I like to really get into detail, and larger canvases help with that.
7) Is your positive message about bouncing back from life's challenges, related to your work thematically?
For a while, it was just whatever came to my mind. Now on almost every painting you will see a mechanical right eye followed by my logo. I like to have this theme throughout my paintings. I like to keep the paintings light and fun, like my attitude!
8) Can you describe the process of painting one of your images?
I use acrylic with a splash of spray paint here and there. I love that it dries fast and allows me to get more done in a smaller window. I usually paint late at night, but try not to stay up too late so I can be at the gym in the morning, which is very important to me in beating cancer. Healthy body, healthy mind, healthy outcome. The process of my paintings isn't too crazy. I start with a sketch on a canvas, I then paint everything I can until my brain runs out of ideas. I then take a picture of it, and the next day I stare at it constantly deciding what I want to do next. Usually on my ride home in the car listening to music is when I have my best ideas. I feel like the lyrics in the music help me decide my next step. Once I have everything done, I then go back and add black outline and all my accents. Last but not least, my 1 Eye Pikasso logo.
9) Do you mentor in ways other than your art?
I don't necessary mentor people, but I try to keep my positive attitude moving forward in helping others to eat right, stay healthy, put down the fast food, and take care of their bodies. We only get one life, and our body is our machine. If the machine shuts down, we are in trouble.
10) Can you tell us your cancer story?
Well, I was sitting at a computer one day, and I noticed this fuzzy line. I thought maybe I scratched my eye, so I went to the eye doctor. That weekend they said that I had a melanoma behind my eye. (After a series of operations) they told me it was Stage 1. So that was kind of a relief. I vowed to change my life: eat healthier, be healthier. A few months went by and the tumor was shrinking like they wanted it to. Until I went one night and the doctors said it didn't look like the mole was responding anymore. I had two options: remove the eye and be rid of the cancerous mole, or keep the eye and have this uncertainty of what was to come. A few days later, I decided I'd rather have my life than an eye I can't even see out of. A couple more weeks later I went to have my prosthetic eye put in. Wow, it looked so real. I was filled with complete joy. I went home that night and had a full conversation with my wife and it took her a few minutes to even realize it was there!
There are things that happen everyday that aren't as big as people make them out to be. When something happens I say to myself: Hey it could be worse— you could lose an eye! LOL. This is why I decided I won't let anything hold me back. I want to show people that anything is possible. My motto is you gotta keep "One eye on the Prize."
Artist Chris Gesell, "The 1Eye Pikasso,"creates murals and large pieces based on cartoons and pop culture. He will exhibit his work at the ArtFactory during the 2018 Paterson Art Walk.