"So often, these topics are avoided because we don't know where to start," said Gaignard, formerly of Wendell. "I use myself as the subject of my work to address my own experiences and curiosities as a biracial woman."
Gaignard said she "plays with stereotypes as a way to confront the ways in which we cast judgment on people that often don't truly speak to that person's story and identity."
The local artist, who grew up in the Quabbin region and currently lives in Los Angeles, said there are different entry points to her work and the audience brings its own experiences when viewing it. She's typically dressed in vintage clothing in her photos. In one called "Glow Up," for instance, you see her silhouette in front of an illuminated cross, while in another called "Extra Value (After Venus)," she stands in front of an American flag holding fast food.
"There are no rules as to what you are supposed to walk away with, but my hope is that it challenges and shifts people's perspectives in a positive way," she said.
Gaignard, 30, said it became clear to her what she wanted to address in her art while she was attending the Yale University School of Art.
She said in 2012, she was living in Wendell and working at its country store while doing photography. She had taken photography classes at Greenfield Community College and wanted to attend Yale, but couldn't afford it. That's when friends, family and community members came together to hold "Yale or Bust," and raised enough (more than $16,000 - the program cost more than $32,000) for her to attend the two-year graduate program.
"The event was held at Wendell Town Hall," said the 1999 Ralph C. Mahar Regional School graduate. "Being a professional artist wasn't on the horizon after I finished high school and took classes at GCC. And now, here I am."
Gaignard said she was a baker in her early career, which was just another form of artistry. Now, she's a photographer - her true passion - and also does mixed media and installation art.
"During my time at Yale, I was drawn to the students that were making work about their 'black experience,' and quickly realized that I, too, had a story to share about what it is to be black in America," she said. Her mother is white and her father is black. She said her perspective is that of a biracial woman seen most often as white, though.
"I feel there is real importance in including my perspective to the conversation," she said.
Gaignard focuses on photographic self-portraiture, sculpture and installation to explore important social issues. She said her childhood was marked by a "strong sense of invisibility," during which she was never sure if her family was white enough to be white or black enough to be black.
She said she "positions her own female body as the chief site of exploration - challenging viewers to navigate the powers and anxieties of intersectional identity."
Her influences include Billy Stewart, John Waters and the provocative artifice of drag culture. She said she uses "low-brow pop sensibilities to craft dynamic visual narratives," and uses humor, persona and popular culture to "reveal the ways in which meeting and mixing of contrasting realities can feel much like displacement."
Gaignard has a master's degree in photography from Yale and a bachelor's degree in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art. She exhibits throughout the United States, and has shown at Studio Museum in Harlem, N.Y., the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and the Houston Center for Photography in Texas. In 2017, her work was included in the Prospect.4 Triennial in New Orleans. Her work is in permanent collections in Harlem, California, Miami, New York, Seattle and Durham, N.C.
Her work has been reviewed by major publications, and nine of her photos were recently featured in Vogue Italia Magazine for Gucci.
Gaignard said she has a "unique process" when creating her art.
"The unique thing about my process is that it doesn't necessarily require me to go into the studio every day," she said. "I spend a lot of time out in the world collecting vintage objects, and in that process, I get inspired for my next creations."
Gaignard said the objects that she is drawn to give a feeling of nostalgia - a concept she likes to incorporate in her practice.
"I would also say that I spend a lot of time observing others," she said.
She said she drives around Los Angeles and sees a wide array of "unique individuals" who inhabit it.
"I start to think about how I can turn myself into these characters for my photographs," she said. "That then brings me back to the gathering process to find the clothing and wigs to take on this new form. Hair and makeup are such key signifiers that define how we see a person. My characters often challenge the expectations of femininity put upon us by society. I'm interested in the performative aspect of 'stereotyped' femininity, which begs to be deconstructed. I want there to be a breakdown of what we perceive as perfection, because that's more like real life."
She said there's another layer to her work - the process of titling each piece.
"Often multi-faceted, my titles are a play on what is in the 'scene,'" she said. "Using a reference, metaphor or pun adds another entry point into the work, and it challenges the viewer to see things in a different way."
Gaignard said she will most likely return to New England someday, but probably not in the near future. She said she misses the landscape very much.
"I feel like I can pause and reflect on where I've been and what I have accomplished over the years, and I can get clarity on what I need to create next when I'm there," she said. "It's also special to be closer to my family and friends. I look forward to making New England my base in the next few years."
Information from: The (Greenfield, Mass.) Recorder, http://www.recorder.com
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