At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, I came across the Pandemic Archive Project, an online collection of COVID-inspired artwork curated by New Orleans visual artist Grey Cross. As I browsed his website, which encourages artists to “always approach [their] art with a warrior’s spirit and a saint’s heart,” I became fascinated by his artwork. And so, recently, I connected with the artist to talk more about his art making process, and about using art to help refocus the public’s attention on HIV and other crises defining everyday life.
Grey Cross fell in love with New Orleans during his trips to the city, while spending many years traveling around the country, trying “to find [himself] again.” Thus, he moved to New Orleans, yet once he started to settle in, the artist realized that he really didn’t know many people, and he tried to meet new individuals and make new friends. “And then, I remember the first time I walked through the French Quarter, and somebody greeted me by name,” he recalls. “It made me feel so good. Things started to change from there on, and I’ve established my life here.”
Known by many names—Crescent City, the Big Easy, and City of the Dead—New Orleans is famous for its rich history and culture. Oftentimes mysterious and mystifying, yet always captivating, the city has become a source of inspiration for the artist’s work, and in many ways.
Nowadays, his studio, Grey Cross Studios, and his artwork are intrinsic to the city. Cross is known for using “new and innovative techniques” and pursuing art “across a wide spectrum of artistic mediums,” from photography and digital art to painting and body art.
Grey Cross is also the creator of the Assimilation Art Movement, through which he teaches artists about new ways of looking at their artwork. Artists tend to “draw a line in the sand” that tells them that their artwork is finished, he explains. “It’s a personal choice, but in reality, that piece of art can revolutionize and change over and over again. I try to teach artists that it’s ok to go back and re-explore [their artwork] later as their skill set changes.” He further comments that this kind of re-exploration ensures the continuity of an artwork. That brings up a quote posted on his website, the Immortal Artist: “Art is an extension of who I am into a future where my physical self cannot go.” He reiterates, “art is extending our physical existence in some ways. It’s an interesting way of looking at art.”
Grey Cross’ visual art does immortalize the myriad of crises defining our everyday existence—from the coronavirus pandemic to climate change, and the war in Ukraine. HIV also transcends the artist’s entire work, yet in a subtle way. The reason for this subtleness rests in the artist’s experience with the virus. He has seen, up close, what the virus can do and how it can affect people’s lives.
“It’s like a clock ticking down slowly, and getting slower and slower,” he says, adding that, years ago, the virus could threaten not only one’s life, but also one’s dreams in life.
Nowadays, with all the available medications, many individuals living with HIV live long and healthy lives. The virus is not even a “consequence” in their lives.
Still, HIV reminds us all of our mortality, and that we should not take life for granted. That’s a reason why HIV has remained a constant, yet silent presence in his work. “…If you’ve noticed, there is a lack of actual HIV-related work on my [web]site,” Cross points out. “As an artist, I didn’t want it to emphasize everything I was doing because there were so many other areas to explore.” Yet, HIV has inspired Cross to be the artist that he is today with “the zest to explore and create as much as [he] possibly can.”
It is because of HIV that Cross has been constantly making art. And while HIV is not explicitly spelled out in his work, it “colors” everything that he does. “I don’t run away from [HIV],” the artist emphasizes, “but rather embrace it.”
HIV represents only one of the crises immortalized in the artist’s work. One of his bodies of work, Crisis Point Art, is dedicated to various crises happening in the world, and captures their reality through an abstract and surreal lens.
“My original thought [behind this particular body of work] was that we are bombarded by so much news these days that we look at something and we forget about it two minutes later,” Cross comments. “And so, I started to explore crisis situations through surrealism to make people stop and look twice,” and, hence, preserve that history for generations to come.
Through the years, Grey Cross has continued to explore and re-explore his art and art making. When he originally came to New Orleans, one of his creative outlets was body painting. “At first, I was directing and producing live on-stage shows where the artist would come in and paint the subjects’ bodies. And I loved it. But as I started to develop my skills as a body painter, [I realized that] I needed to take [body painting] out of the live show and into the studio. And I [began] creating three-dimensional artwork, as opposed to a flat canvas.
“One of the most important [lessons] for me was reading an interview with Jackson Pollock. The reporter said in his article that he was in [Pollock]’s studio where the famous painter was working on a sixteen-foot canvas that was on the floor, and that he was taking the paint and literally was dancing with the paint to create the piece of art.
“And an alarm went off in my head because I was doing the same exact thing with body painting. And from there on, my work has completely changed.”
Nowadays Cross is working in a studio he created specifically to allow him to body paint. “It’s not impressive during the day,” he says, “but [it turns into] a neon studio at night. It’s like a secret garden.” The walls—and subjects—are splattered with neon paint and photographed under UV lights. The art making process is long and complex. It involves painting the subject’s body, photographing it, and transforming it into a neon-glowing, mesmerizing work of fine art.
Another series that Cross is working on is the “pup culture series,” which features young men wearing dog-looking neoprene hoods and leather. “I couldn’t understand this when I first heard about it,” the artist says, “but it reminds me, what I’m doing now, as to what Robert Mapplethorpe was doing back in the fifties and sixties in regard to the leather community. He could see a movement there even though there wasn’t one publicly seen yet and I’m seeing the same thing with the pups. They’re establishing themselves as their own subculture within the gay community.”
That brings the conversation to the ever-evolving topic of protest art. “I don’t think there is enough actual art in protest and activism,” Cross comments. “I think it could go a lot further, but it takes an artist to know specifically what works. I just think there’s a lot of room to explore art and activism in a whole new way than we’ve done in the past, because art makes you stop and think in a whole new way.
“Also, I think that art and activism can coexist. I think that any activism movement has its leadership, mission and message, but there should also always be an artist involved. An artist can craft that message into a piece of art that people will look at and pay attention to. So, I think there’s a lot of room there for it,” he reiterates.
Cross reemphasizes the importance of learning from the crises that we have survived, because there will be, yet, another crisis. It’s a matter of when, not if. Also, speaking of health crises, he reminds that HIV is still a health crisis in some places in the world.
“There’s a human reaction to a crisis, and then there’s a political reaction,” Cross says. “I would have liked to have seen news coverage about how the COVID vaccines would not have happened without all the AIDS research [data already available,]” he mentions. “I mean, it’s a simple fact, you know, that they would not have made the strides that they did as quickly as they did [with COVID] if not for the knowledge and scientific ingenuity that went into HIV [research]. I think that it was glossed over, and that was a missed opportunity. [But] it shows that we can take something negative and turn it into something positive. And we need more of that in our life.”
Learn more about Grey Cross by visiting Grey Cross Studios online at https://blog.immortalartist.com/.
Alina Oswald is A&U‘s Managing Editor. She interviewed filmmaker and activist Wolfgang Busch for the June cover story. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.