Cape Cod Tech Senior Gigi Preston’s paintings focus on black subjects
HARWICH – When the bell rang Cape Cod Regional Technical High School Streams of students filed through the main lobby on Tuesday morning – many pausing to admire the mural of fellow student Gianna Preston.
The students pointed to different sections of the piece and were amazed at the level of detail, content and inclusiveness offered by the 4ft x 8ft piece. As she answered questions and charted her work for viewers, 18-year-old Preston beamed and said the painting “represents the school’s culture and educational offerings.”
The piece, described by Preston as “abstract painting” and “pop art,” will be the first mural to grace the school’s walls since the new campus was built in 2020. Although school officials decide where the painting will hang – possibly the school library – it will have a permanent home at the school.
A member of the school’s STEAM Academy (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) program, Preston created the mural as part of her graduation project – an endeavor that took three months to complete.
Using acrylic paint skillfully and colorfully on plywood, the mural depicts a young woman working on a vehicle and boat engine in the school’s auto technology program; another part of the painting shows a young man working with food in the Culinary Arts program; another student is shown carefully styling hair at the cosmetics store; and other scholars are painted in the gardens of the school, the dental office and the design and visual communication studio.
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“This mural was meant to represent the 15 careers that we have at the school and the many career paths that the technical school shows us on a daily basis,” Preston said. “I wanted to represent my friends and all of the efforts of the teachers and staff so that we have professions and skills to draw on.”
Preston ‘takes visual talent to another level’
Because of its size, the preparation for the piece was extensive, requiring graphic design components, grid work, and more Charcoal to sketch the images—all subjects she learned during her time at Cape Cod Tech—largely under the tutelage of Scott Nagle, a design and visual communications instructor at the school.
Although Nagle, who also owns the design company Surfline designSaid that traditional painting was Preston’s forte, she challenged herself in other areas to complete her senior project.
“Over the years, she’s had to step out of her comfort zone and take some of her visual talent to another level,” he said. “She rose to that challenge on most occasions and we worked our way through it.”
Cape Cod Tech director Billy Terranova also observed Preston’s growth as an artist and said the mural was “just an example” of Preston’s “raw talent.”
“She gained a lot of knowledge from her art teachers and from her design teachers and has risen,” he said. “But I also think her talent comes from both an intrinsic commitment and creativity.”
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In addition to the school’s interest in preserving her mural, Preston was one of three students to be recognized nationally as an “Outstanding Artist” by the 2021 American Scholastic Press Association; and also received an honorable mention from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University after submitting portrait pictures through the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.
“A Natural Talent”
As a teacher investing in Preston’s growth as an artist, Nagle said he enjoyed watching her success “on a larger scale.”
“The great thing about teaching juniors and seniors at the high school level is the period of time that students are deciding how seriously they take things,” he said. “I look forward to seeing someone like Gianna, who is a natural, going to art school and moving into a larger pool of artists.”
Inspired by artists such as Melissa Falconer, Riley Holloway and Afro-Latino artist Raelis Vasquez, Preston, who has Haitian and Cape Verdean ancestry, prioritizes creating collections and pieces that reflect inclusivity and a variety of racial backgrounds.
In the past, Preston has created a series of works centered around black mermaids, black queens and is currently working on an African-inspired portrait series. The mural, which includes figures of a variety of skin tones, shades and nationalities, is no different – it impressively demonstrates her life experience as a woman of color.
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“I love making people happy with my art. I want people to want to hang it on their walls,” she said. “I also love it when people appreciate my art. But I also want people to remember that representation matters.”
Lisa Preston, Gianna Preston’s mother, said her daughter started doing it when she was 9 years old To create works of art composed of people of color. What started out as a reflection of herself has become a “statement in many ways,” Lisa Preston said.
“Gianna’s voice has grown stronger over the years and her content reflects that. She’s like the voice of youth,” said Lisa Preston. “She has a mind of her own and she’s drawn to what she thinks is beautiful, and those are works of art that surround her people.”
Preston’s black mermaid paintings are selling
When Gianna entered high school, families of color from across the Cape began contacting her, either to buy prints of her various paintings or to commission pieces that reflect both collections, Lisa Preston said. The Black Mermaid series in particular drew interest across New England due to a lack of art depicting black people, Lisa Preston said.
What also encouraged Preston to create the Black Mermaid series in 2019 was a controversial backlash to Disney’s live-action film The Little Mermaid, which starred Haile Bailey, a black woman, for the role of Ariel, the main character of the Films, was cast . Lisa Preston recalls noticing a shortage of black mermaids throughout the Cape region at the time and said her daughter felt it was important for every little girl to see themselves as “mermaids, princesses and queens”.
“When my friends and acquaintances saw what Gianna was drawing, they wanted their kids to put those pictures on their own walls,” she said. “It’s something that’s overlooked by mainstream society but is so important to people who look like us.”
Chantal Joseph, founder of the give mercy, first became acquainted with Preston’s work after purchasing several of the young artist’s pieces. Not only was Joseph impressed by Preston’s skill and ability, she said she “felt the emotion Gianna painted on the canvas.”
“I think it’s the details and her use of color when she creates different shades of brown to represent the beauty of black women,” Joseph said. “The way the light hits the skin is beautiful, striking and progressive, especially for someone her age. I was blown away to be honest.”
When Joseph was growing up in the Cape, the pictures that Preston paints were “not available or tangible” until she left to go to school in Boston.
“It wasn’t until I left that I felt really proud to be a young black woman,” she said. “Having art like this outdoors shows that beauty can come in all shades and colors. Beauty can be anything we say.”
Joseph was so impressed by Preston’s talent that she, through her nonprofit, helped fund an academic scholarship to enable Preston to attend summer courses at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.
“We gave her money so that she could attend the program with the right materials and tools that she needs,” Joseph said. “We knew she had the ability, but we wanted to make sure she got there.”
Tara Vargas-Wallace, Managing Director of Step up POC Cape Codsaid the breadth of Preston’s art makes people of color visible in a largely white community.
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“Diversity and equality are important to the arts because they unlock the true potential of our community’s artistic and cultural talent,” she said. “It is important for us to step out of ourselves and see the world through the experiences of others. It offers unique opportunities for cultural growth and innovation.”
For Terranova, the mural helps create a “learning element” for all students.
“We want to make sure that all students have an opportunity to learn and that we give all students an equal opportunity to access technical education,” he said. “We also want a welcoming environment where all students know they can be successful.”
Contact Rachael Devaney at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @RachaelDevaney.