Gisela McDaniel – Art as Therapy

Conversation On A Pink Couch. Photo:
Conversation On A Pink Couch. Photo:

When you’re a survivor of violence, particularly sexual violence, it’s your duty to try to reclaim your body and your life, and McDaniel’s remit is exactly that.

In a statement on her website, McDaniel says, “Practice lies in social research, oil portraiture, emotional aesthetics, and the use of technology to fuse audio and visual representations of her subjects”. As a survivor of sexual violence, she creates safe spaces for women survivors to forge paths towards healing.

As part of this process, McDaniel has created an immersive experience allowing the subjects to choose how they are portrayed; right down to choosing how they sit or stand and with various levels of anonymity while incorporating the voices of the survivors through the use of technology. The hope is that the interaction of the voices and the painting combined will create greater understanding. 

Gisela McDaniel. Photo: Pilar Corrias Gallery

Born in Cleveland and based in Detroit, McDaniel received her BFA from the University of Michigan. She describes herself as “a diasporic indigenous Chamorro feminist artist”. A proud member of Detroit Art Babes, an intersectional feminist art collective that gives women the opportunity to be creative regardless of their background or social standing.

A Nod to Gauguin

It would be impossible not to recognize the similarities to Gauguin. This early 20th-century artist is famous, and even infamous, for the sexualized portrayal of Tahitian sitters and the lifestyle of the Pacific Islands. McDaniel is of dual heritage and feels empathy with Gauguin’s abandoned 13-year-old wife and child.

Every painting is in rich jewel tones and the sitters are in various stages of undress. McDaniel is quick to point out that the sitter chooses the narrative right down to the props. Offering a safe space for expression, her work has become less of a personal therapy session and more of an opportunity for everyone suffering from abuse to be heard.


Exhibiting in 2019 at Playground Detroit an art gallery and creative talent agency, McDaniel shows the paintings for which she is now famous. By choosing this space she has left nothing to chance. Playground Detroit and McDaniel appear to have the same mission statement: no other space would suit as well as this does for this groundbreaking debut solo exhibition.

Looking through the painting, your eye is immediately drawn to the face covering of the individuals painted. Portraits of various figures stare directly at the viewer through the brightly painted mask, almost daring comment but also inviting an understanding by listening to the accompanying voice of the person or persons involved.

Many artists use their art as therapy, and lots say they can’t imagine life without art. This is never more true than in Lush P(r)ose. By choosing to replay over and over again the trauma felt, perhaps we are better placed to understand the resilience of the participants and those immediately affected by sexual violence and misogyny.

Working in 3D

Recently McDaniel has taken to collecting lost items on the street that are considered to be female; earrings, jewellery, false nails and even bra pads to create a depiction of womanhood. Using mainly red tones these 3D models are both attractive and disturbing at the same time. Suggesting a cluttered mind the purpose loses the way a little; everything is covered in red paint symbolising motherhood and in particular, the womb. This reminds me of Anish Kapoor in his red phase, but without the violence; which is, of course, the point.

Nevertheless, any form of art is relevant to the artist and McDaniel’s work with the Detroit Art Babes allows close proximity to women from every ethnicity and background. Founded in 2016, this is home and a safe space for work.

The Art Babes talk about their mission “to close some of those gaps citywide, without losing the intimacy that makes them a tight-knit and egalitarian group”. We’re talking about how to get things done without needing a hierarchy”. Meaning both artist and community go hand in hand.

Complex Faces. Photo: Pilar Corrias Gallery

So What’s Next?

The last exhibition “On the Road II,” curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah in 2019 in Miami, was the final exhibition before lockdown to show work by McDaniel. Here we see more intricacies in the work; more detail throughout the paintings, almost picture-postcard beauty and right there in the latest paintings is the most powerful statement. No matter who you are, what you look like, what you’re wearing, no means no and will always mean no. 

For McDaniel, until sexual violence against woman and girls stops, she will keep painting these portraits, giving those affected by violence a voice, My hope for her and her fellow survivors is that the work can bring some peace and, ultimately, closure.

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