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Joel Gill: The Expressionist Storyteller

Full time, Delhi-based artist Joel Gill’s real journey in art started after he opted for voluntary retirement in 2003 from his government job at National Bal Bhavan, New Delhi. His paintings are reflections on social issues and chaotic situations. An expressionist painter, he uses stylized human forms, treated with visible painterly strokes and unpretentious textures. His works are visual stories that provoke thought and emotion and, at times, even incite pain. He is the author of a bestselling textbook series on art for school children.

1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?

JG: It is not that I chose art as my professional career, but it became my preordained path since my early years. Being passionate about it, I decided to pursue it with full faith and dedication, though it was the time when art was not considered to be a financially sound profession. My circumstances didn’t allow me to join the College of Art; however, winning medals in various art competitions during my days in the University of Delhi (1979-82) made me realize that my destination was only art and nothing else.

My family never considered art as a profession; on the contrary, since I was a good student, they wanted me to pursue academics and take up a job in the public sector. But destiny had some other plans for me. When I was in seventh standard, I truanted from my school to National Bal Bhavan, a government institute that provides recreational activities for children, to find my path. Thus began my journey in art, as a child member of NBB.

The year 1979 was the International Year for the Child and Bal Bhavan opened ten of its branches in Delhi, called Bal Bhavan Kendras. I had just turned nineteen at that time and I was offered the post of a part-time art instructor in one of Kendras and I happily grabbed the opportunity. My association with Bal Bhavan ended in 2003 when I took voluntary retirement from the post of Manager (Publication) after serving it in various capacities (all my job profiles were art centric at NBB) since joining it in 1979.

Honestly speaking, I’ve not had to face any real struggle throughout my career; yes, had I gone to the College of Art, my journey would’ve been perhaps better. I came from a humble family, so joining NBB as a part-time art instructor helped me gain financial stability. I also started doing freelance illustrations for various private publications. In 1983 at the age of twenty-three I got permanent status in NBB. Earning a comfortable life was my first goal. This kept me away from painting till I left NBB in 2003, though because of my passion for painting I attended a few art events like one-day art camps organised by the Airport Authority of India (1987) and Times of India around 1990 and participated in Kala Mela (organized by Lalit Kala Akademi) at about the same time.

I admire the works of many artists – each master creation has its own value. But my bias is towards paintings which touch human life, empathize with the plight of the common man and speak about social concerns. German artist Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1947) and Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) are my all-time favourites. Indian modernists like Souza and Husain have also left a big impression on me.

2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

JG: I have presently no projects in hand but I am waiting for the pandemic to end. I have few plans but they are a bit hazy at the moment. Yet, my first aim would be to hold a solo exposition as soon as possible, maybe in 2022. Otherwise painting is part of my daily routine and whatever I am going through becomes a part of my painting.

My work is generally inspired by real-life situations. My painting is a reflection of anything around that touches me. For example, my recent work Non-Existent is inspired by the incident of bodies found in a river during the pandemic. It shook me hard. What was more horrifying was the fact that these bodies didn’t find a place in our data books. But my painting is not a literal translation of this painful incident. I worked on a wider subject with the aim to have an everlasting relevance; it won’t lose its flavour with time. To be frank, I don’t really like to talk about the story behind any of my works; I feel that can limit its impact on the viewer.

Non-Existent, 30 inches x 40 inches, Acrylic on canvas, 2021

Likewise, I Can’t Breathe is inspired by the tragedy of the American black man George Floyd in May 2020; it was painted during that period but it has an everlasting impact on its viewer.

I Can’t Breathe, 19 inches x 26 inches, Acrylic on paper, 2020

I feel that viewers connect to my work because they are able to relate their hardships and anguish to my compositions that are constructed upon my perturbed perceptions representing my personal sordid encounters with the modern urban living and lifestyle. My paintings are like open windows that allow the onlookers to peep into the shattered human values and discriminatory growth of egocentric urbanization and deceptive and aggressive styles of living.

My language is universal and my statements are constructed, brick by brick, to attain an enduring empathy for the victims and survivors, signifying primitive emotions with subjectively charged narration, confronting the onlookers with a devastating experience. Perhaps, the best example of this is Savaged, which I painted last year.

Savaged, 26 inches x 26 inches, Acrylic on canvas, 2020

My other paintings given below similarly reflect social concerns.

Golden Flower, 36 inches x 48 inches, Acrylic on canvas, 2020

Red Monkey, 15 inches x 16 inches, Acrylic on canvas, 2020

Black Apple, 13 inches x 18 inches, Acrylic on paper, 2020

Social Bodies, 24 inches x 36 inches, Acrylic on paper, 2020

Ritual Dancer, 19 inches x 25 inches, Acrylic on paper, 2020

Naughts and Crosses, 31 inches x 42 inches, Acrylic on canvas, 2021

Adorned, 7 inches x 9 inches, Acrylic on magazine paper, 2020

Bitten, 21 inches x 29 inches, Acrylic on paper, 2020

Flag Bearer, 19 inches x 27 inches, Acrylic on paper, 2020

The Machine / Cycle, 29 inches x 37 inches, Acrylic on paper, 2020

Story Retold, 19 inches x 26 inches, Acrylic on paper, 2020

3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?

JG: An artist is born with a highly creative mind and a tremendous amount of inquisitiveness, a different kind of intelligence and passion that can sometimes be construed as madness. These traits make artists explore other possibilities, sometimes impossibilities, and urge them to express their mind. This has resulted in diversity and a multidisciplinary approach in contemporary art. This is a welcome development as art is a mode of communication and anything which embellishes an idea or a thought for an artist becomes art in itself.

My process of painting is surely very contemporary but it yet has a base in the traditional style of treatment. I am very much interested in exploring new mediums and techniques but presently my focus is entirely on what I am practising now.

4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?

JG: All artists are different people with different mind-set and practise varying methods to express. So their works too differently impact society. Sometimes the creations are mere self-expressions and at other times they have a greater social connection. All art pieces are perceptive. A painting can bring a smile on your face and on the flip side it can also confront you with an ugly truth. Artists are capable of creating a cultural awareness and bringing communities together; they make you go beyond your boundaries and infuse creativity in an urge to quench your intellectual thirst. Art gets you connected to your roots, provides you a different way to look around and often introduces you to a surreal world. At times, they become voices of their fellow citizens and articulate social concerns.

My sole aim is to paint and enjoy my creation and play my role in society. My work mostly depicts a sort of subjective and meaningful story; my canvases carry stylized human forms treated with visible painterly strokes and textures created with deliberation.

5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?

JG: Initially I was using my old Delhi house as my working studio, but due to the lockdown situation I shifted my painting to my residence in Dwarka. I’m now using one of the bedrooms (LOL) as my studio. Though it is very small, yet I’m comfortable working in it – something is better than nothing.

My style of working is completely random. My process of painting doesn’t allow me to follow a schematic pattern. Believe me, sometimes I begin my journey from Kashmir and end up landing in Kanyakumari. My paintings have numerous layers of paints and multiple thoughts hidden underneath. I keep building my composition stroke by stroke, layer by layer, until it starts a conversation and leads to the final formation of my work. The medium I love most working with is acrylic on any surface.

6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?

JG: It has changed everything. Almost every human being on earth has been affected by the pandemic and artists have been no exceptions. They have also borne the brunt. But they’ve soon started accommodating themselves to the situation – exploring new ideas, new themes and new platforms to quench their thirst. They are transforming the state of confusion into an opportunity. This has given way to a new normality that has given birth to an online art fraternity. Pandemic has brought together all art practitioners. Today, social media sites are new galleries and platforms and artists are getting more viewing, both nationally and globally.

Though the world of art is available on my cell phone anytime, anywhere, I miss visiting art museums and galleries. Viewing an art piece physically is far more enjoyable than watching its photograph. Watching masters in NGMA physically is like going on a pilgrimage.

7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected

in your art?

JG: Since childhood, I’ve been passionate about reading. I love to read everything, from literature, science and history to politics . . . just about anything. This worked to my added advantage as an illustrator. As a painter too, reading helps me understand the world better and communicate my feelings and thoughts through visual images.

(All images are courtesy of the artist, Joel Gill.)


The artamour questionnaire is a regular series of interviews with visual artists across disciplines, who share their views about art, their practice and their worldview on a common questionnaire template. Like, comment, share and subscribe to stay updated.

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