EL CENTRO — Imperial Valley native and artist Daniel Gibson lives in his Los Angeles-area art studio.
He always tries to be “on,” stay close to his work, and write down ideas he has in the middle of the night to paint them the next day.
He describes his pieces as narrative art because they tell a story.
Many of Gibson’s pieces are about the story of his upbringing.
When he gets ready to paint, he finds a way to include a desert skyline, an image etched in his memory, and the first things he ever sketches are Mount Signal and ocotillos.
They are all memories of his childhood and of staring out into the blue sky canvas.
This could have been a breakout year for the humble 43-year-old Gibson, who before the pandemic swept away many of his plans, he was supposed to have shows in Tokyo, Houston, and Los Angeles.
“I didn’t mind,” Gibson said when asked how he felt about the change of plans. “I’m taking the opportunity to hunker down and make new work.”
Gibson was born in Yuma, but he later moved to Plaster City, and eventually to El Centro, where he was raised and attended schools, including Central Union High.
“In 1980, my dad worked at Plaster City,” said Gibson. “It’s a factory that is always billowing plaster dust into the sky. There were no stores, two channels on the TV, a truck stop, no police, all we had was a post office box and our little houses.”
He and his brother, Gabriel, would often draw to pass the time. Gibson thought that the drawings his brother did were like magic, and he just wanted to know how he did it.
“Gabriel was always drawing, he could draw anything,” said Gibson. “I thought the drawing he was doing was a magic trick, because I couldn’t understand how he did it.”
During this period of his life, he had regular encounters with those crossing the border, making their way through the desert and into Plaster City.
“When they got to us, they were beaten up by the sun and drinking their own urine,” said Gibson. “I was seeing kids that were my age, fighting for their life.”
In the corner house, they would fill up their water bottles, and his mom would make them sandwiches.
“I grew up hearing the faucet of the house turn on in the middle of the night because they (migrants traveling through the desert) were getting water (and me) lying in bed wondering what they were doing out there,” Gibson said.
When these people made it to Plaster City, they were, as Gibson describes, “half-dead.” To him their survival was a miracle.
“There is some kind of spirit that brought (them) here, that kept (them) safe crossing that border, the desert, people trying to kill you, Border Patrol trying to get you, coyotes trying to rob you,” said Gibson.
To this day, he still makes paintings about the border. His painting, “Natural Migration,” illustrates these early memories.
He described what “Natural Migration” meant to him. To him, the butterfly symbolizes migration.
At the bottom of the painting, you can see someone lying in bed, that is him listening to the immigrants walk outside his window. You can see two children squished into the bottom of the wings, as if in the back of a car. On the top right wing, you can make out a worker pulling something with his back. On the left is a woman crying out amidst machinery.
“That never leaves you, seeing those kids my age, family members, walking across to come to America to do a manual labor job and be sh*t on … for more money and a better life,” Gibson said.
To him, it is as if the people who have gone through all of that and survived have been picked up by a butterfly, put them in their wings, and brought them here safe and sound.
“Natural Migration” and other pieces are on his Instagram. Some of his other pieces include “Between Two Worlds,” “Stay Together” and “Calexico Tunnel.”
Art was never something Gibson had originally pursued. He moved to San Diego when he was 21 and worked at a sandwich shop to get by.
He didn’t know what his passion was until he got into art to try to impress a girl he met. But since then, he has painted several pieces, and has practiced every day for over two decades.
“As an artist, it is your duty, and everyone’s, to find that thing that really drives you and is your passion,” Gibson said. “And I didn’t even know what mine was, and I tried everything: photography, poetry, graphic design until I landed what I am doing now oil painting and drawing.”
To Gibson, painting is not about being the best but about getting what is in his head onto a sheet of paper or a painting to communicate with people.
“This is the only way I can have my voice heard,” Gibson said. “And knowing that is my place in the world, I can no longer turn away from it. I can no longer deny that this is the path I must take and try to get good at.”
One of Gibson’s mentors is Mario Ybarra Jr. Ybarra is also an artist and an art teacher. Alongside his wife, he also founded Slanguage Studio, a space for artists to showcase their art. It was with them that Gibson had one his first solo exhibitions.
Since meeting Gibson at his studio, Mario has been trying to advise him on things he could do in his career and include him in exhibitions.
“He’s grown so much,” Ybarra said. “One of the things that I feel is his best trait is his discipline; his work ethic is the thing (I’ve) most seen him develop over the years.”
Specifically, regarding his art, Ybarra would describe Gibson’s style similar to Picasso’s.
“His work kind of reminds me of Picasso, I call him Picoso because he’s like the Mexican Picasso,” said Ybarra.
“His work is very drawing based, even his paintings … he doesn’t keep going over and over something like a normal painter would to build it up, he works with the colors and lines,” Ybarra explained.
Ybarra also is impressed by how versatile Gibson is.
“Another thing that amazes me about him is that he makes drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures, and ceramics — different types of mediums,” Ybarra said.
Ybarra sees a lot of potential in Gibson and believes that he can reach international audiences because his works are universal.
“When you look at his work, it is about the human condition, the human condition in relation to the landscape,” Ybarra said. “He always has characters, or the figures in his paintings in relationship with plant life, fences, cars. There are always these bodies that are always relating to the world outside.”
Ybarra believes that these themes, of the human connection and outside world, are something all cultures can relate to.
“I think that that translates to every culture like right now in 2020, everyone around the world can relate to those understandings of the world,” Ybarra said.
As many continue in quarantine, our relationship with the outside world has formed a new understanding. Pieces like Gibson’s are a reminder of how art is a way of narrating a story, specifically about how humans relate to the outside.
This consistency and “openness and positivity” is what Gibson credits to his ability to make a living as an artist.
“I always tell people to meditate before they do something creative, because your mind is open,” Gibson said. “The job of (a creative) is to comment on the world but also to stay sane. You have to find a way to be calm in the mind and spirit and find a way to keep that fire alive.”
The principle of openness also applies to reaching out to others. The second he reached out to people, and invited people to his studio is when he started to grow.
“Honestly, I failed forever, what helps me to finally sell paintings now is the fact that I am open to the world and positive, there really is no other formula than that,” said Gibson.
Even though Gibson struggled to find his purpose and often failed when he did, in the end, he wants everyone to follow what their true passion is.
“If you really want to be an artist, you have to not listen to anybody, especially a young artist in the Valley,” Gibson said. “I urge people to do what you love even if it kills you, even if you are going to be poor, trust me … stay on course and be consistent. If you love something, never let up.”