Studio Visit with Gemma Gené: reflective materials, balloons, and transparencies


Gemma Gené is an architect and visual artist from Barcelona, Spain, based in New York. She moved to the United States to earn a Master in Advanced Architectural Design at Columbia University. In 2014 immediately upon graduation she joined Steven Holl Architects until she focused on developing her artistic studio work.

She previously obtained a degree in architecture at La Salle University in Barcelona, Spain, and expanded her education in Architecture and Fine Art at Escola da Cidade, São Paulo, Brazil and University of California Berkeley. She is an award-winning painter and published illustrator. Her work focuses on wrapped objects and foil balloons. The series “unapologetic paintings” is a collection of realistic paintings and drawings of wrapped objects. In this series the object is hidden and the only thing showing it is it’s skin or it’s wrapping and it can only be revealed by the user’s imagination. She relies on urban art as a way to make her work accessible. Part of her three-dimensional work shares her architectural language and is a study of volume and geometry using stone, concrete and 3D print. Her work has been shown in New York at the Accessible Art Fair, The Rush Arts Gallery and Figment NYC amongst others, Barcelona and Madrid.

She is best known for her online comic 157ofgemma where she narrates in an ironic fashion her life with her inseparable pug Mochi that has a very strong following on social media.

We were delighted to ask Gemma a few questions about her art practice and inspiration. Read more about Gemma’s thoughts on her experiences in architecture and transitioning from Spain, Barcelona to the United States to live in New York and switching her focus to painting and sculpture mediums.

AMM: We are very much inspired by your background and how you made your way into the art world. You’ve moved from Barcelona to the United States to study and develop your artistic career. What impact has this transition made on your artistic life? Do you keep up with both the US and Barcelona’s art scenes and participate in art projects in both countries?

GG: Moving to the United States has had a major impact in my artistic career. The work I was doing while I was in Spain was very much influenced by Spanish abstract painters. But then, I came to New York to study a Master of Architecture, and I took figurative painting classes. That was the first time in my life I painted realistically, and it blew my mind, it was so much fun!

Being exposed to the art scene in New York, having access to all the amazing museums and galleries that a city like this has to offer really made me decide to step away from architecture and dive into art full time. My surroundings have had a major impact in myself and my work; now I live in Bushwick and that picked my interest for murals and urban art.

I try my best to keep up with the art scenes both stateside and in Spain. I don’t want to lose touch with my country of origin, and I try to participate in shows there as often as possible, I had one solo show and a group show in Spain this year. However, I feel that the art scene in Barcelona is much more closed than the one in New York.

AMM: You’ve mentioned that you moved to the United States to earn a Masters in Advanced Architectural Design at Columbia University and after working at Steven Holl Architects you focused on developing your artistic studio work. How has education and experience in the architectural field influenced your current work?

GG: I believe it has, much more than I would like to admit! At the beginning the relationship was obvious. All the work I produced while I was working as an architect was very geometrical and had a similar language to the one I used on my architecture projects. However one day I made a turn, and I started painting realistic still lives of wrapped objects. I did so as a way to rebel against the standards in Architecture I was given for the last 10 years. I didn’t want to do something serious, elegant, in muted colors, that was meaningful in an academic way, I just wanted to have fun. When I did the first wrapped object I wasn’t planning on showing it to anyone. It was supposed to be my little guilty pleasure, a secret, and after that I would continue being a “serious architect”. The problem is that I liked the result, and more than that, I had so much fun making it, that I was hooked, I couldn’t stop. So much so, that I decided I would only do that, at least for a while. There are many aspects of my work that relate to architecture, such as my deep interest in geometry, even though I explore it in different ways. The balloon series is a particularly good example of that because of its sense of space. In a way, they all start as sculptures because I make a model that then I paint and I keep them all around my studio. I’m even considering turning them into actual sculptures.

AMM: How would you describe the subject matter of your work?

GG: I believe in the beauty and power of common objects to communicate feelings from fun to sadness or loneliness. And I am fascinated by reflective materials, balloons, and transparencies. Specially balloons because they are very humble objects but they have a life of their own (not unlike us) in which they grow towards being more and more inflated very quickly and then begin a slow process of decay and deflation. I like to use foil paper because it is very reflective, so its appearance is also affected and modified by its surroundings, again, not unlike human beings. In my work I like taking everyday objects and editing them so they become something else, changing the perspective we have of them and giving us a chance to look at the beauty of the world surrounding us with fresh new eyes. I love wrapping objects with foil paper because the paper creates a new geometry that hides the object and reflects its surroundings.

AMM: Tell us about your perfect day in the studio. 

GG: I like to keep a very specific routine. First thing I do when I wake up is walk my pugssistant Mochi, then I exercise and meditate and I am ready to work. I start the day answering emails and working on my 157ofgemma cartoon ( for the day. After that I am ready to “produce”. I usually only work on one piece at a time, because if I leave a piece half-way, it is hard for me to pick it up later. And I always finish every artwork I start, even if I don’t like where it’s going. I do so because at some point in each of my pieces I think it won’t end well, and you can only really know when it is done. It’s often the pieces that I feel less confident about and that I am more ready to abandon that become my favorites. I like to work until 9pm or so every day of the week. When I am on a deadline, my schedule changes and I work better during the quiet hours of the night. For my last solo show my work schedule was 7 days a week from 10am to 2am, it was very intense but it was great to really dive into work. The best days are full on painting days where I have all the model photos I need and I already mixed the colors the previous day, which always takes me several hours to do, and the only thing I need to do is paint on the canvas.

AMM: How does each painting come to life? Apart from sculpting the objects you paint, do you use photographic references or strictly construct the space?

GG: I start by creating a model, I arrange balloons or wrap an object, or create a foam model to be wrapped. I take some photos and I edit them in photoshop to work on the composition. I am a very bad photographer so I only use photos as reference. Since I work with reflective objects, it is hard to paint them live because they change so much with the shifting light. So I try to get the colors from the actual object, and then I use the photo for the composition and color distribution.

From time to time I am able to work with object as still lives, instead of using photographs, and I really enjoy that experience.

AMM: What are your biggest challenges in creating art and how do you deal with them?  

GG: It is a challenge for me to deal with everything that is not purely creating art. There are so many time consuming activities for artists that take time away from the actual producing — like admin work, applications, social media…I haven’t figured out how to deal with it yet, I believe they still take too much time away from what I really want to be doing. For me it works best to have specific schedules, for instance, read e-mails and do all computer work at certain time and when you are actually painting don’t open your email or deal with anything else. It is still distracting, specially with social media. I try to leave my phone far away so I don’t check it every 2 minutes.

AMM: We can certainly understand you!
How do you hope viewers will respond to your work and what is the most important thing they should take away?   

GG: I really hope viewers can get lost in my paintings and perceive them as a break from reality. These paintings were created as a happy place where objects are still and have a lot to say, and I would like for the viewers to get lost in that.

AMM: Who are your favourite artists or makers?

GG: I have so many! I absolutely love Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra and Jaume Plensa, Ron Muek and Isamu Noguchi’s work. For some reason, I’ve always seen myself more as a sculptor than a painter and that’s why most of my references work in 3D. Christo has of course been a very big influence for me. My parents were huge fans and I always loved his work growing up. However, I started wrapping because someone left a wrapped bottle at a party in my apartment and that is how the series of wrapping objects started. I also love painters like Alex Katz or Marc Trujillo.

AMM: Is there any advice or inspiration based on your travels or other experiences, which you could share?

GG: I would say to be open to your surroundings, you can learn from everything and everyone and thinking that what you are doing is good enough is what keeps people from improving. At the same time, I advice to take all the information you can in and then follow your intuition to go forward because no knows your work and what your next step should be as well as you do.

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