Interview with Ann Lewis
By Stephanie Stepan
Originally published on Friday Best: www.fridaybestmag.com
Somewhere on a wall in NYC, a little owl with the words ‘Love Life’ next to it marks the spot of Ann Lewis’s first stencil. It wasn’t a smooth operation: In her hurry to not get caught she forgot to take the safety off the spray. All the while her friend looked on wondering if they were about to go to jail. Nerves aside, Ann couldn’t wait to do it again.
Ann is now a street artist that goes by the name of Gilf! and an activist living in New York City. If you’d asked Ann in high school what she wanted to be, she probably would have said an engineer. The reason? Her dad worked in a car dealership and she thought it would be quite cool to design cars. It turned out that maths wasn’t Ann’s thing and she felt more like herself when she wasn’t coming up with the same answers as everyone else.
This is Ann’s story about what not to do when you’re putting up your first stencil, finding your strength in being different and why she fights for the rights of others.
You seem to me like the kind of person who doesn’t hesitate to speak up for what you believe in. What kind of a reaction would you like in response to the work you’re creating?
I think it’s important to be able to create a dialogue. That’s a big reason why I do what I do. I’m very interested in people talking about issues and not just glazing over things. So really the reaction I’m seeking is public discussions that can help them recontextualise what’s happening.
What has been the best reaction you’ve received to your work so far?
The best reaction? I got an email from this girl and she was like, ‘You know, what you do speaks to me on a level that I’ve never connected with anyone on. I’ve started making art because of what I’ve seen you do. I’m empowered as a woman to watch another woman do this.’ I couldn’t have asked for anything more than that. It was so touching.
I can imagine. It’s interesting now that you’re going into more participatory styles of art where you are meeting people face to face. How is that going? I know you recently got into an orange jumpsuit to protest against mass incarceration in Times Square.
I think that was the most exciting work that I’ve done for myself thus far because I was able to interact with people and because I was able to create that dialogue instantly.
With a painting on a wall people kind of take it or leave it but when you’re standing in an orange jumpsuit in the middle of Times Square people are like, ‘What are you doing?’ and you’re able to say, ‘Did you know that this is happening? And how do you feel about it? What are your ideas?’
Some people weren’t interested and other people were excited about it. I can teach people something and there were experiences where I actually learnt a lot from the people that I interacted with.
What kind of stuff did you learn?
One of the most interesting moments happened when I was walking through a park. I was wearing a jumpsuit that didn’t have any markings on it yet. There was a bunch of guys, older guys, and they said, ‘What are you doing wearing my uniform? That’s what they put me in when I go upstate.’
To them I looked like this white woman co-opting this jumpsuit likes it’s something cool and they were kind of angry about it.
My phone was dead so I couldn’t show them pictures and so I sat down with them and said, ‘Listen, this is what I’m doing: I’m trying to raise awareness about these situations and I’m actually on my way to a protest right now.You guys should come with me.’
We were talking about how long they’d been upstate, and they said, ‘We can’t go to the protest.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ They said, ‘We’d be the first people they’d arrest.’
So what was crazy about it was that they’re the biggest victims of this system and they can’t actually fight for themselves.
What were they like once you’d explained what you wanted to do?
By the end we were joking and chatting. It was interesting to watch them totally turn and be like, ‘Oh you’re fighting for something that you have never experienced.’
I think that was at first what they were kind of giving me the stink eye for. They said, ‘You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about because you’ve never been there.’
I said, ‘I know, but it’s a human rights issue in my opinion. If I’m human and I see somebody fighting for their rights for something that I take for granted, I think it’s also my responsibility to fight alongside them.
After I got that through to them they were like, ‘Right on, cool, well good luck at the protest. And don’t get arrested cos it sucks!’ [Laughs]
Do you consider yourself to be an optimist then?
Yes, absolutely. I feel like the reason I work so hard to bring up these conversations is because I feel it can change things and I know we have the capacity to be better. I know this country can be so much better than it is. We have the resources; we just have to work for it. I see we can have a bright future.
If we back track to when you were first starting out, what kind of support did you get from other people? Did you feel like you could hold your own in what can be quite a male-dominated environment?
Well, when I first started I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know how to stencil and I was just kind of out there in the middle of the night and freaking out. And you’re right, there are more men than women but it’s changing a bit now. The female street art scene is getting stronger. I think as a woman I felt supported by the people that I spent time with but there was definitely some backlash. I definitely got some guys going, ’What are you doing with spray paint?’
But, you know, those people exist.
How did it feel putting up your first stencil and not knowing how to do it?
Horrifying! There was a safety on the can that I didn’t realise was there so I’m shaking like a leaf and I’m taping this stencil up and my girlfriend is looking out for me and saying, ‘What are you doing? This is crazy, we’re both going to go to jail!’ And I get the stencil up and I’m trying to spray the paint and obviously there’s no paint coming out so I’m all flustered. But it was a great learning experience. So then we walked out onto the street and I took the cap off and the stopper fell out and I was like, ‘Oh! Now I know how to use spray paint! Let’s do that again. [Laughs]
That’s hilarious! What was the stencil of?
It was a little owl and it said ‘Love life.’ I still have it. I have it next to my bed.
You’ve obviously found your strength in making art for other people. What qualities do you maybe wish you had that you don’t have?
I think it would be really nice to stay focused [laughs]. I am notorious for coming up with a million ideas and trying to do all of them. It would be good to stick with something.
So who do you turn to if you need to feel a bit more grounded? Where is the advice most likely to come from?
My older sister, Molly, she’s actually spending some time in New York right now so we’ve been able to get close again. She’s usually the voice of reason and she’s the voice that I typically don’t want to hear. Which is great because I always need someone to say, ‘Well have you thought about this? Or this?’ And then I’m like, ‘Oh right.’
And sisters can say stuff to you that no one else will, I think.
Yes, exactly! It’s great because I’ve gotten to a point now where I know I can’t take it super personally.
What’s the toughest bit of advice that your sister has given you?
She is in the ad world, or she used to be, and so she is always trying to get me to think more about myself as a brand. I had a hard time with that for a while. I thought, I’m not a brand, I’m an artist. She’s like, ‘Yeah, but you’re an artist in 2015. You have to think about your public persona and curate it well.’
Somebody said that street artists are just graffiti artists with publicists and that’s not what I want. So that’s where the push back came from. I didn’t feel like I was allowed to be myself.
So what’s been the conclusion for you since that conversation with your sister?
I’ve now taken a step back and said, ‘I can do things for me. I can do work that doesn’t have to go out to the public.’ I think so many artists for hundreds of years have worked like that and I’m just now sort of realising that I don’t have to share everything!
What do you feel like is the biggest misconception about you?
I think the Gilf! name really confused a lot of people. Gilf was actually a word I came up with with two of my dear friends who are still friends to the day. We were little kids, like six or seven, and two of us were going through difficult things at home.
One had very challenging parents that were expecting a lot of her even as a little kid and my parents were going through a divorce. So we kind of created this wonderful world where we could be completely free and super creative. For me the word Gilf was our placeholder, it was part of our secret language. It was a very special and dear example to me of what true creativity is and the special and safe place which you can make where you’re free to create. That’s what it really means to me. And, of course, then the Milf word happened.
I can’t believe it’s been taken out of context like that. It’s such a beautiful meaning behind it.
Yeah, I know, but when I started doing street art I wasn’t thinking that it was going to end up being my career. I just thought, Fuck it, it’s Gilf! Of course, now I’ve got to deal with this branding issue. But it’s something that I stand behind. I will still do Gilf! work any time I do stuff outside.
So look at your life and hopes for the future, what are you most afraid of?
That I won’t get enough done while I’m here [laughs]. I feel like there is so much to be done, so many things to change. My biggest fear is that that won’t happen.
I wanted to skip back about what you were saying about Gilf! and the influence your childhood had on what you do now. Were there other things you feel like were formative to who you are now?
I think my parent’s divorce had a very big impact on me. We had a tumultuous few years. It created this bond with my sister and I but it was also very divisive. My childhood was very much just parents yelling back and forth at one another and using us as pawns and it was challenging. That’s part of the reason why I fight so hard for things. I didn’t have anyone fighting for me when I was little. That’s just where those sorts of things come from.
Where did art fit into your life as a kid?
I was actually very much into music, and I never really liked visual art classes. I thought they were kind of dumb! [Laughs]
I later went to college as an engineer. I really wanted to design cars because my father owned a car dealership [laughs] so I thought that would be cool. It turns out I hate maths and I’m really bad at it.
I dropped a class and at the last minute I picked up an art class. What I found so amazing about it was that I wasn’t supposed to get the same answer as everybody else. We were drawing a model and the teacher would make us stand up and walk around and look at everybody’s stuff. He would say, You’re never going to have the same perspective; you’ll never have the same eye, or anything. Just allow yourself to be you.’
Yeah, instead of convergent thinking, it was divergent thinking. It was the quintessential, Yes, finally I can be myself moment. I don’t have to be something I’m not.
You eventually left a desk job as a project manager at an interior design firm to stencil and support yourself by bartending. Were people supportive of you when you said, ‘I can’t sit at my desk anymore’?
Ummm..no! Everybody said, ‘Get a job. Keep a job. Why are you going back to bartending?’ I mean, I didn’t tell my family right away that I was running around at night hoping to not get arrested. My mother still thinks that everything I do is legal and not because I haven’t tried to tell her. She says, ‘Oh well, you get permission, right?’ Well, not all the time! So, you know, you kind of have to keep some things secret for a bit.
The jobs my parents had were all jobs that they were told to take. My mother’s a nutritionist because my grandfather told her she had to be. And my dad worked in the car business because that’s what the family did. So when I found something that really spoke to me they were both really excited. They’ve always been supportive of my decisions: my good decisions and my bad decisions.
What advice would you give your younger self going into engineering? What did she need to hear?
It’s ok to fail. Learning what you want is sometimes a process of learning what you don’t want through a process of elimination. Your biggest fear of being different is actually your greatest strength.
Any final words of wisdom from Ann Lewis?
Use your energy, your talents, your privilege or power to make the world better for others. To serve oneself is not nearly as fun or rewarding.
See more of Ann’s work at http://gilfnyc.com/