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Jessica Gath’s gift giving without a registry


By Andreea Bailuc

A few weeks ago, on first Friday, I checked out Vox Populi Gallery. Among the various Skype interviews, “open mic” video projections and a surfers’ paradise, a live performance made a mark on me. A woman comfortably installed on a stage and surrounded by a basket of gift wrapping accoutrements and empty boxes was wrapping presents for people. A green and purple banner on the wall behind her announced that “Kindness is contagious.” Jessica Gath, the artist, asked for a brief description of the gift receiver and carefully wrapped the objects provided by spectators, thus creating an opportunity for the spectator to revisit what makes a certain person special enough to have something wrapped for them. Jessica’s gift-wrapping performance aims to capture the essence of someone unknown to the artist, through the lens of the “commissioner,” who asks for the wrapping.

Jessica Gath, outside Johnny Brendas, photo by Andreea Bailuc

A few days after the performance at Vox, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Jessica about life, love and her work. Over a Shirley Temple (her own choice) at Johnny Brenda’s, I asked Jessica how she transitioned from painting to performance and how she became an artist. “I became an artist after not being a waitress, nor a doctor, and because people were telling me to,” she said.  In her journey towards artistic expression, the artist grappled with the essence of what it means to be human. “After you break down the physical human into muscles and bones, what is left? What matters? It is about love. But how does one make art that conveys love?” she asked herself.

Jessica Gath, sticker saying Kindness is Contagious. She was giving them away at the performance

Her desire to express love was part of her life even before becoming an artist. She would bake for her professors at Tufts University and would be the first one to offer to organize parties for her friends. 

People’s encouragement and their recognition of her talent became the inspiration for her performance of care: “I get inspired from talking to people. I don’t really watch TV…The art that comes from my life is more real.” Although sometimes misunderstood, Jessica’s work is not meant to be didactical; “It is not about being taught, but about inviting,” she says.

Julian Phillips, holding his wrapped copy of the zine Machete

And that is exactly how it feels. There is no sense of obligation; the act itself and the joy she brings to her performance pulls people in. She is creating opportunities and she wants to “catalyze people into feeling more loved” as a result of her translation of care from an amorphous emotion to a perfectly wrapped gift.

Jessica Gath, boxes, tape, scissors – part of the wrapping performance

We often forget the importance of giving; not the act of giving that involves someone buying you a bike for your birthday when you really need one, but the act of giving that involves someone organizing all your friends into chipping in for a bike, where the very practical gift represents the love of many people. The care lies in all the phone calls, in the collection of money, in the thinking ahead. (This has actually happened to Jessica — she was given a gift from a group of friends who pooled their money for the gift — and it is her favorite gift to date.)

The artist’s biggest struggle is to make her intentions clear and have them received for what they are. People feel uncomfortable receiving gifts or being the addressee for an act of kindness, either because we have become more and more suspicious of the “free lunch” or because we put less and less thought into gifts thus decreasing their sentimental value considerably. At a time when registries, Christmas and birthday lists and worldwide marketing strategies govern the gift-giving economy, a simple unrequited sheet of glittery stickers becomes a beautiful and genuine act of kindness. That is what giving is all about.

Andreea Bailuc is a recent graduate of Haverford College. She is a research and curatorial fellow at Slought Foundation and member of the Artblog think-tank.


andreea bailuc, gifts, jessica gath, kindness is contagious, wrapping presents