Your Turn :^) :: GEMS

Your Turn :^) is an entirely collaborative art exhibit, where no piece will remain the same after it is hung. Local Graffiti artist and muralist, GEMS, invites you to “tag” over their art with your interpretation of the original imagery. Similar to the drawing game of Telephone, each piece can be reinterpreted an endless amount of times by multiple artists. Viewers of all ages and skill levels are encouraged to participate. GEMS is a product of its environment and cannot continue to exist without its supporting community.

Max Emiliano Gonzales, also known by his artist name “GEMS”, can be classified as an activist, art educator, muralist, graffiti writer, printmaker, curator and much more. Originally from the Southwest side of Chicago and raised in latino communities, Max brings a unique perspective to Pittsburgh as a queer identifying, Chicano artist.Max was brought to Pittsburgh in 2012 to attend Carnegie Mellon University’s Fine Art program on a full ride Scholarship. By 2016 Max had graduated with honors, secured multiple positions with the University, and was arrested as Pittsburgh’s most wanted graffiti artist. Rather than let the notoriety of his graffiti dwindle, Max has gone on to develop a career from it as practicing artist, muralist, curator, and art educator. Max has presented as a guest artist, lectured, and run workshops at locations including The University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Winchester Thurston High School, Youth Places North Side, McKeesport, and Homewood, Assemble Pgh, and The Environmental Charter School. Max is also a member of Boom Concepts, Flower House Gallery, Wicked Pittsburgh, Hemispheric Conversations Urban Art Project, and Pullproof Studios. Currently, Max works for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as a Labs Mentor, servicing local teens with workshops and art programming. Through his different roles as an artist, Max seeks to give value to underrepresented voices, movements, and art forms to challenge any established socioeconomic barriers, elitism, or bigotry to redefine the role and importance of art.

Assemble’s Unblurred-Crafternoon Residency is made possible in part by the A.W. Mellon Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Meet Max Gonzales




April’s Unblurred Gallery was originally scheduled to feature works by GEMS in the interactive exhibit appropriately entitled, Your Turn :^). With the cancelation of many events due to the COVID-19 epidemic, we’re left to reschedule this exhibit for a future date when we can all be together again. So now what? 

Assemble’s Monthly Programs Coordinator, Tom Ndiaye chatted with Max to see what the life of an artist looks like during COVID-19. Learn Graffiti Basics with Max at Saturday Crafternoons, April 18-May 2, 2020 on our Instagram account. @assemblepgh


Who is Max Gonzales outside the artist GEMS?

As a person, honestly GEMS has its own identity–its own thing. But Max, I guess, I’d associate as being the fine artist. A lot of what my personal identity is, besides GEMS, I do outside of GEMS. I express that, just not quite as much. Max is a queer-identifying, Chicano artist from the south side of Chicago. These are unique experiences to me, and especially in Pittsburgh, they make for a unique experience. Being Latino in Chicago is not a big deal, but being that in Pittsburgh is a much more different experience. 


How do you define yourself as an artist within the city of Pittsburgh?

As far as being an artist in Pittsburgh, like I was mentioning, there are two identities. If I’m showing my fine art, that’s Max Emiliano Gonzales. But if I’m showing my GEMS art, that’s GEMS. I see myself mostly as GEMS in the city of Pittsburgh. As a curator, as a public-facing person that has the most impact and resonance with people. Because of that, because more people know GEMS, that’s what people think can speak to them stronger and add more influence. I acknowledge that I’ve been put in this place where I am a public figure, almost as a consequence of being arrested. Since I’ve been given all of this, I want people to know that it’s not just about me. 

Right after me and [Chu] got arrested, we were given plenty of opportunities to do solo shows. But we said no. We don’t want to make it about us two, we want it to be about a collective of artists. It’s not just about me. My whole following is about a community. 


Can you tell me anything about the show that you’re going to be broadcasting on Friday? What is Your Turn :^)?

Initially, Your Turn :^} was gonna be a show where I had ten different pieces all on display. They’re very simple black and white pieces–images from my tagged graffiti, characters, etc., where the audience would be asked to erase the imagery and recreate it, like a game of telephone. But obviously, due to coronavirus, there’s no way to do the show without viewer participation, so I had to switch it up a bit. The original pieces are still created–the imagery on the wood panels. I’ve decided to show those ones as is because those pieces can’t really be completed until they’re publicly displayed with viewer participation. One day I’ll have the pieces finished with viewer participation. 

But for now, I’ll have a large wood panel and ask the audience to direct me how to create that piece. It’ll be very literal in that I will take directions from the comment section of the stream. For instance, move your hand up, left, down, right; help me make a wizard. I want to see what we come up with. I want to make it as authentic as possible. It’ll be chaotic, but I think that’s what makes it fun. It kind of forces the audience to work as a team. They have to respond to one another, and they have to respond to me. But that’s a way to have a hand in my art from the audience, even if it’s a digital one. This will be a finished piece on its own. I still want to make a piece that is responsive to the audience. 


How did you come to be involved with maker-spaces? Why do you think that they’re important?

Actually, my first involvement in maker spaces and art education was with Assemble. I think it was 2012, which was my senior year at CMU. I’d started working with CMU and the print shops, and Assemble had reached out to CMU’s print shop to ask if someone could be sent out to bring print-screens to the site. The technician said no, I can’t do that, but I know this guy Max who’s going to be the technician. I was working with Jess Gold, who worked there at the time. I screen-printed t-shirts with a bunch of kids, and that was my first experience. So thanks, Assemble!

From there, I went on to teach pre-college, and I did that twice. Assemble would continue to hit me up, and that would help build my portfolio and resume as an arts educator. I started doing things with Winchester-Thurston. At this point, I was doing things with all ages: first graders to undergrad to grad level classes for the University of Pittsburgh and CMU. I started doing work for Youth Places, teaching at a bunch of different sites. So I’ve had a lot of work teaching in both formal and informal, drop-in situations. And in the end I ended up getting work with the Carnegie Libraries as a teens mentor. Maker spaces have become a very large part of my arts practice.


How are you lately? How are you responding to such a drastic change in lifestyle and society induced by COVID19?

Although I have asthma and have been on immunosuppressants, which means I’m immunocompromised (and so is my partner), and despite the scariness and precautions, this has been a moment in my art career that’s been kind of nice because I’ve been able to take the time to devote myself to certain projects that I’ve been pushing off. Luckily, I had a bunch of outdoor murals already lined up which I’ve been allowed to complete, and I’ve still been doing murals. So I’ve still been able to create art and do my practice, despite COVID19. It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but like most things in my life, I try to find the positives in it and not let opportunities go to waste. I’m finishing up commissions and getting murals done.


Do you have any hobbies that you’ve picked up or things you’ve discovered that you’re good at during this time?

Organizing and more community involvement. Even helping out some friends with their first mural jobs and helping some of my friends who have been interested in what (Chu) and I have been doing in starting their careers. Letting things grow.

Another thing I’ve been doing, having started this volunteer group, is taking a bunch of graffiti writers to places, mostly in Wilkinsburg, and cleaning up the sites (walls, garages, etc.). When they’re cleaned up, we do really nice graffiti pieces on the walls. So far we’ve done five sites. Right now everyone’s stir crazy, so we ask ourselves how we can take that craziness and do something good with it. Graffiti only looks as good as the context, so if we can leave a space better than we found it, then we’ve done something nice, pretty, and good for the community. We have some more walls lined up. It’s been rewarding for the people involved as well. We’re taking all the safety precautions we can, with gloves, masks, and not touching one another. But I wouldn’t have had the time to develop or lead something like this if I were preoccupied with other things.


Tell me something that you wish people knew about yourself?

I wish people knew more about my fine art because a lot of the shows I get are focused on my GEMS art. I guess, like I said before, I see the importance of that art and the social impact that it has. I recognize that my Max Gonzales art does not resonate with people as much. They don’t immediately associate it with anything; they don’t understand it, because it’s abstract. But I wish that more people were more attuned to what my fine art was trying to say and identify things within it. It’s like the whole Eric Andre meme “let me in” to those fine art galleries. That isn’t to say that I’m upset to show my GEMS art–I’m not going to force anything on to people that’s not important to them. I think the best kind of art is one that people can have the most relationships with or the most personal impact with.