Juanita Maxine Harris Gibson in 2018 with her artwork at the El-Scari/Harvey Art Gallery (now Natasha Ria Art Gallery) in the Center for Spiritual Living, 1014 W. 39th St. (from the artist)

An artist and poet’s Mother’s Day tribute to her grandmother’s selfless creativity

I went to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Day like I have done my entire life. In fact, I am not sure if I ever missed a Christmas at all. This year was different — the visitors had already left or were on their way, and no one was there except for me, my Aunt Jennifer, Cocoa the dog and Nana.

As I sat to talk with her after kissing her on the forehead and the cheek, the quietness of the house was eerie. Nana was insisting on folding and refolding blankets the way she used to line up cloth before she cut it to make our special something, be it a quilt, culottes, prom dresses, or wedding dresses with fabric imported from Ghana. She asked about my children, my husband, not quite remembering his name but remembering I had married only a few months before. She was so clear, remembering where my children lived and always moving Naeema up one year in school and then saying, “Oh that’s right, I keep trying to make her older.”

This is 102. We have six living generations in our family. Six! This is the gift of long living and birthing young. My grandmother would always say her dream was to kiss all her grandchildren “on down” each day before school and then send them on their way, and in many ways she did just that. We were all greeted with a kiss and departed with the same sweetness, hearty laughter and sometimes an eye roll when we were sassy.

The best lessons we received were the lessons given to us while our grandmother was in creation. So often, people don’t realize how deeply being in community during the creation and birth of art brings together a closeness and vulnerability that is unmatched. The conversations pause between the lines of, “hold this right here” and “Hand me the scissors” and, “do you like this or that” and “don’t sit on that it might have a pin in it,” “S^$#, let me turn that food off on the stove.” Time was erased when Nana co-created with our wild visions for the perfect concert outfit, wedding attire, pro-black prom wear, or whatever else we assumed she could create.

Her advice was simple, “Always have a hustle,” “it’s OK to have your heart broken,” “sex gets better after 35,” “keep your husband guessing,” and more, like, buy fruits and vegetables in season, have year marker standards for your life, invest in your retirement more and save your money. This was advice she learned the easy way and some even the hard way. Nana’s art was her hustle, and she was so committed to it as well as to all of us.

There is something deep about Black women’s art making, which has rarely just been for the purpose of art. The domestic arts are what make life sweet. Nana’s practical approach may have been what made us miss, on an average day, how dynamic, creative, brilliant and interdisciplinary she was. This greater calling of artistry and legacy and her understanding of it was passed down to all her children, women and men, and to all of us, her grands, great-grands and community. Many of us picked up on the art that Nana tried to teach us, whether it was the art of cooking, sewing, styling, knitting/crocheting, painting, quilting, needlepoint, drawing, gardening, we all carry actual tangible gifts of her pouring into us; the hustle continues.

My grandmother purchased all my books, never accepting a discount and never thinking of asking for free. Family and friends paid Nana for her art, and although the grandchildren never did, we loved it deeply and still do, priceless.

My longtime dream to feature my grandmother’s work came true when I opened my own art gallery in March 2018. It featured Nana — Juanita Maxine Harris Gibson — and my cousin from the fifth generation along with 14 other women’s works. My grandmother was ignited by the artists, and they loved her too. Recently works from my collection and Nana’s personal collection (with permission from my aunt), were exhibited simultaneously at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center and in the “H = EM2” exhibit, co-curated by Harold Smith and Vivian Bluett at the University of Central Missouri Art Gallery.

It’s difficult to avoid sentimentalism as we approach year 103. Nana has outlived all but one child, all her younger siblings, many of her grandchildren and even a few great-grandchildren. Her father lived to be 101 and recently she told me she was shocked to be 102. “Each night I go to bed wondering if this is my last night and then I wake up and say, ‘OK, God, what do you want me to do today? I’m here.’” I think that is the perfect question we should all ask ourselves as artists, as humans, each and every day.

Juanita Maxine Harris Gibson passed away peacefully on April 26. She was surrounded by family until her final moments and never alone. 

CategoriesLiterary Visual
Natasha Ria El-Scari

Natasha Ria El-Scari, founder and curator of Black Space Black Art and Natasha Ria Art Gallery, is a KC native, author of six books and four spoken word CDs. She is a life and writing coach, activist, educator, director of the UMKC Women’s Center and adjunct faculty at KCAI.

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