The Wonderful World of Jeff Gillette ~ Celebrating Slums and Taking Aim at Glass Castles
When that magical castle illuminated small TV sets back in the day, serenaded by magical music, every kid from Poland to Australia added a trip to Disneyland to their bucket list. It wasn’t just the castle that did it. Or the suggestion to ‘wish upon a star’. In a stroke of marketing genius, in a time when the world was more unconnected and fantasy was rare, animation, music and colour combined to create a door to another world, sprinkled with fairy dust that you just had to follow. And from then on we all knew magic was real, just like Santa Claus. We knew that somewhere out there, something amazing was in the offing — we just needed to hold on. The belief that a place existed where dreams came true, made it easier to endure ordinary, obscure or even shitty childhoods. Detroit-born artist, Jeff Gillette, had one of those and Disney got him through. Until it didn’t.
“My mum was abusive, so I was aloof. Once a teacher came up to me one day and said, ‘I know what your problem is, you’re an artist’.” Dealing with this as a kid it’s not hard to believe that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth.” So what a let down it was when he grew up and went to Disneyland for the first time at the age of 32, only to discover that the façade was a charade. The irony is that Jeff now lives close enough to the castle to hear the Disneyland fireworks piercing the California sky each night, with the dream-dashing role it has cast in his life playing out through his paintings, which feature crumbling Disney iconography towering over wastelands and slums. His Dismayland series served as inspiration for Banksy’s dystopian bemusement park, Dismaland, and saw Jeff being invited to the UK site to participate in its creation. He then went on to create the Post Dismal series, which in turn, was inspired by Banksy’s Dismaland installation.
Jeff Gillette’s love of the imagery of settlements, shanties and refugee camps is in direct proportion to his visceral disenchantment with Disney. He’s been fascinated with how real life, and even happiness, proliferates in these seemingly forsaken places ever since his two-year stint in Nepal working for the Peace Corps. “I saw how people with much less than us manage to make the best of it. It changed my perspective,” reflects Jeff. “People didn’t have much, and they didn’t have much to do. There was no evening entertainment — no Disney on TV. So they sang songs, listened to the radio, played games and spent time together just hanging out,” he says. Waiting ten days for a bus to pass through town had the effect of a meditation. “Initially I was bored. But I got used to it. There’s actually no word for bored in Nepali. You learn to live in the moment and use what you have.”
This may or may not have led Jeff to burning his body of work at the age of 32. With a family that didn’t get him, the prospect of a career as a commercial artist was something he didn’t want to get, “From my first job I knew straight away that I wanted to work on my own ideas, not someone else’s.” Jeff went into teaching art so he could do a sideline in developing his own art, independent of hassle from outside sources and money concerns. But he yearned to go somewhere where the sun shined, people were different, more could be seen and magic happened. So with the detachment of a Nepalese monk, it meant nothing to him to destroy his life’s work and start again. Without a backward glance, he set forth for the sun and settled in the shadow of Disneyland. And the rest is art history, writ large across his canvasses.
His paintings speak of the uselessness of fantasy when your reality is a home made of garbage with sewage running through it. And while the deteriorating Disney motifs limply signal the potential for prosperity, the people imagined to live in the dwellings that Jeff depicts don’t pay much attention to them. They gather hope in spite of them, making the best of their circumstances and using ingenuity to not only survive, but to even experience joy. The sprawling mass of slums effect a sea of colour and unusual architecture that creates its own kind of beauty. And Jeff’s paintings celebrate this resourcefulness. “I’ve seen, through my travels to places like India, that people have the will to prosper, even under the most difficult circumstances and in the harshest conditions. They have pride. And they inadvertently create beauty, using anything they can to make life functional. I find the way they live stunning. A lot of people haven’t travelled to the third world and I want to bring awareness to this capacity that humans have.”
Those that do travel to developing countries will be familiar with the site of settlements, if they bother to peek outside their taxi window on the way from the airport to the hotel. While most of us pass by, for Jeff, this is the destination. He’s made countless trips to slum areas around the world and gotten to know the people that live in them. “People don’t realise, that the stuff they see on the way to the airport, away from shiny buildings and cultural sites, that’s where life is happening. Slums are home to huge swathes of marginalised society. And they show us just how beautiful humanity can be without camouflage. A lot of uplifting things can come out of poverty-stricken areas.”
Disney might have brokered multi-million dollar deals to go global but in the alleys of Dharavi, it’s Jeff Gillette that introduced Mickey to the masses. “I wanted to give people in the slums of Mumbai anything I could that might make life better. So I decorated. I spray painted castles and Mickey Mouse figures on the walls. The kids and adults loved it. I don’t think they care about the characters or even know who they are, but the images intrigued them.” In fact, as well received as this free public art was, Jeff discovered that he was the one receiving a gift. “My Mumbai artist friend Samir shared an insight with me: that people with less, view those with more as unlucky because more things means more fear. We may have more, but we have more stress instead of living in the moment and enjoying the little we have to be responsible for.”
That’s not to say that Jeff’s paintings suggest that life is better living in a slum. But he conveys a Hindu taxi driver’s wisdom: that without death and decay, there would be no new life; without the dismantling of false idols we cannot find genuine hope. “In a perverse way, I like the idea that I get to shit on things that people love, like Disney, in order to draw their attention to places like Hiroshima or the outskirts of Delhi.” The magical kingdom is not in Southern California; it’s out there in unlikely places that get razed and rebuilt by people who have cultivated hope, no thanks to a castle.