Interview with John T. Gibson

Editor’s Note: Visit John T. Gibson’s “A Sapper’s Abyss” in the Art section of this issue of Wordgathering. Diane R. Wiener interviewed John T. Gibson for Wordgathering.

WG: John, thanks, so much, for sharing “A Sapper’s Abyss” with Wordgathering. Can you please tell our readers/viewers/visitors a bit about what made “A Sapper’s Abyss” come to fruition?

JG: I appreciate you for having me, Diane. I’m so grateful to be here. In the summer of 2018, I was invited to attend a summer term at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. During this program, I was taught the fundamentals of using ceramics and photography as artistic mediums. “A Sapper’s Abyss” is a product of that program. I feel like this exhibit is a culmination of moments that were pivotal in creating who I am as a person. As a kid, some of my most impressionable learning moments were projects in science camps and going to art museum exhibits. The act of physically engaging with something helps translate so much more than seeing it. I felt like this whole gallery could be an awesome educational moment for patrons to step into our boots for a second. From my studies as a social worker and my experience as an artist, I have always been fascinated with the mind-body dichotomy—like, how the mind and physical space are a symbiotic system (the mind impacting the body…imprinting the thoughts…influencing the feelings, developing habits etc.). If we can break these feedback loops, or problematic thought chains, we can build or break anything we want from in there [our mind]. One of the most influential moments in my growth as a person was in 2013, when I began implementing the habit of meditation. The sensation of stepping into figurative mental space is a highly underrated experience. I think acknowledging this separation {mind and body} is vital to maturing our growth as an individual. “A Sapper’s Abyss” is a physically guided meditation through a (previously) compartmentalised part of my mind. The chains on the outside have been broken and welded back together several times over, because…to be frank…that box is hard to stay in…it’s designed to be uncomfortable. When we try to hide our experiences away in a cobweb-ridden corner of our subconscious (or, “the Abyss”), we end up only being able to bring a small part of ourselves into our daily life. This inadvertent yet half-hearted approach to life is something that many people struggle to overcome. To take the first steps toward the future we must first make peace and embrace the traumas of the past. The chains represent internal diplomacy. I have made peace with my demons; therefore, I have the capacity to leave “the Abyss” forever open. You can’t chain trauma up—you have to learn to embrace the emotion in order to take the power from it. My experiences may be a part of me, yet merely a seashell on a beach.

WG: Thanks, so much, John. I love the idea of “stepping into [your] boots,” in terms of the immersive experience. In some ways, having the virtual version of “A Sapper’s Abyss” in Wordgathering changes its accessibility for various audience members and participants. This feels different, to me, from “a simulation,” which, as we know, is a mixed bag in terms of disability and understanding. So, some folx can now experience many of the exhibit’s features in ways that might not have been possible, in person. Now, digitally, someone can read the image descriptions, decide not to access certain parts of the content, and so on. Publishing the work in an accessible, digital journal makes it differently immersive than in person. Can you say more about your decision to make “A Sapper’s Abyss” an immersive experience, in the first place, rather than, say, a two-dimensional piece?

JG: Oh yeah. I love how your team laid out the digital format of the exhibit. When it was in the gallery, the photographers had a tough time deciding how to take the pictures of it, being as it is such an elaborate piece of art. I wanted this exhibit to ask something from each person experiencing it. It asks them {the patrons} to be ok with “it” engaging with them. By stepping into an uncomfortable space, it pays homage to the vulnerability of the healing process of trauma. The immersion is a necessary element to experience my exhibit, which is symbolic, because you can’t really understand it unless you step into that space. This is why art can access each of us in ways that conversing can only scratch the surface. This is the same way for trauma—a person can’t tell you about their trauma without having to relive it in some way, but if you let them show you, then we can grow from the experiences together. I wanted people to try to get past pity and sympathy—like, “oh, those poor, disabled vets.” I didn’t want people to just “stroll through.” Instead, I wanted to encourage people to be connected to a new perspective. Including a pressure plate—initiating a light above the photographs and the sound of an explosion—accomplished this immersive goal. I thought, “if you want to know my story, you are going to step in there with me. Imma make them earn it!” In total, this is an experience that engages four out of five senses. If I had more time, I would have made the burlap smell of gunpowder. Nonetheless, the patrons who experienced—or, rather, engaged with this exhibit—left with a greater understanding of a unique perspective of the greater human experience.

WG: Can you tell us something about how “A Sapper’s Abyss” and your other artwork contribute to disability arts and culture?

JG: Oh, wow—well, I don’t think I have ever considered that. I guess that I feel like persons with acquired disabilities are not commonly represented in many artistic community circles, especially those with invisible disabilities. So, my fellow veterans and clients often choose not to identify as disabled. With that, it can be even more challenging to get the resources they need. In the academic setting, veterans already stand out as being a bit older than the rest; asking for “special” treatment can be humiliating to some who are coming from a culture where “the weak wash-out.” My “art” is an attempt to broaden the scope of what disability can look like and share my perspective in a vividly articulate format.

WG: Thank you for everything, John. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

JG: I would again like to thank the CreatiVets program hosted by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Without their support, this exhibit would not exist. Again, thank you, Diane, for this opportunity to tell my story and share a piece of me with your community at Wordgathering.

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About John T. Gibson

John T. Gibson served as a Combat Engineer with the United States Marine Corps on the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). He received a degree in Social Work from Syracuse University in May 2020, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in art therapy and counseling. John is a disability advocate. As an artist, he works across a variety of mediums. John believes strongly in the healing power of self-expression through any means. “A Sapper’s Abyss” has been described as “a performance piece”; however, John prefers to think of this work as an immersive exhibit. He hopes that the exhibit engages the audience artfully and instructionally, while the audience’s tactile and other experiences inform and embed themselves in the exhibit’s effectiveness. John’s artwork can be found on Instagram

About Diane R. Wiener

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Her poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile MagazineWordgatheringTammyQueerlyThe South Carolina Review, and elsewhere; her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, and The Abstract Elephant Magazine; her flash fiction appears and is forthcoming in Ordinary Madness. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: