I first saw Gwenn Seemel’s work about a month or so ago and her unique painting approach to portraiture mesmerized me. Her work is unmistakable. I knew nothing about her and I wanted to know more about the artist behind the incredible images. Gwenn was so gracious enough to provide us an insight to her creative mind. And according to Gwenn, her ultimate goal is to paint everybody’s faces. Well, there’s a billion plus people in the world and growing. I think it’s safe to say that she won’t run out of faces to paint anytime soon. And that’s a very good thing. Enjoy the rest of the interview.
Welshie: I’ve only come to know the Gwenn Seemel I’ve been reading in the articles. But who is the real Gwenn Seemel?
Gwenn: The version of me that’s fit to print wants to write a very long answer that reveals very little; the real me is stumped by your question.
Welshie: You’ve done a lot of portraits (200+ and counting). Where does your obsession of painting portraits come from?
Gwenn: By painting portraits, I’m guaranteeing myself a fascinated audience of at least one. Love it or hate it, the subject of my portrait can’t help but be engrossed with it. I would rather make art that is sure to impact one person than art that may never mean anything to anyone.
Welshie: The general impression of an artist is that he/she is reclusive. You are a contradiction. When approaching your objects, you interview them at great lengths along with snapping hundreds of photos. Why do you go that far? What do you hope to accomplish with that?
Gwenn: Sometimes I think I became a portrait painter because I’m socially awkward. It might have made more sense for me to become a landscape painter or some other kind of artist who is not, by definition, required to meet people, except that the hole in my social skills is in a very specific place.
I enjoy meeting people, but not in that chit-chatty way that’s socially acceptable. I like asking the more personal questions and learning about another individual, even if it’s only for the space of an hour. My interview process allows me to do this.
I take hundreds of photos because I am looking for that little moment in between traditional images, that movement and breath that reveals the essence of the subject.
Welshie: Do you let your subjects give you their input during your painting process?
Gwenn: No. I’m very interested in their favorite colors as well as their self-propaganda–the story they tell themselves about how the world sees them–at the time of the interview, and those things definitely find their way into my paintings. But once the photo session is over, I don’t want or need input from the subjects.
And in my years of doing commission work, only one of my clients has ever asked me to change a finished painting. I told him that he might as well touch up the portrait himself, because the painting wouldn’t be my work if I changed it. He was disappointed to begin with, but, 6 months later, he called to thank me and let me know that he loved the work.
Welshie: Your style of painting is very distinct. I see a lot of bright colors and crosshatching patterns. Itâ€™s got that almost unfinished modern look. Have you always been this skilled with your style? How did it (your painting style) evolve over the years?
Gwenn: When I was 15, my parents signed me up for an intaglio printmaking class at the local art college. At the time, I was drawing a lot but without voice or visual integrity. The class introduced me to crosshatching, which is one of the primary ways of creating a tonal area in etching. I left that class with a love of acids and soft ground techniques, but most especially with a passion for crosshatching. When I started painting in acrylic a year later, I kept at it, only now I was doing it in color.
Over the years, that basic style has developed both with the tools I use and with my growing confidence as an artist, but my mark-making remains essentially the same: using line as mass instead of simply contour.
Welshie: In Mutually Beneficial, you went on Craigslist personals looking for men seeking women with the intent of painting their portraits in exchange for some kind of â€œcommissionâ€. It generated a lot of controversy among fellow artists and the media alike. How did the idea come about in the first place?
Gwenn: I was talking with a friend and he was going on and on about how fascinating personal ads are. It occurred to me that I’d never even looked at the personals on Craigslist. Once I took a peek, I was hooked. I began collecting the strangest ones I encountered with a vague idea of doing a series of painted portraits of the people behind the words. But then I started to notice a pattern: men seeking women were often keen on letting their potential dates know that they were financially stable. Once I saw the pattern, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to couple the traditional heterosexual male relationship role with the stereotype of the young female starving artist being little more than a prostitute with a quirky sense of fashion.
There was no “commission” involved in the making of these portraits, nor even the promise of one. When I invited the men to participate, I told them I would buy them a coffee if they’d let me photograph and interview them. A few of the men I contacted asked me what they’d get in exchange for lending me their faces and their stories. I replied that I couldn’t pay them but that participation would give them the opportunity to see their portrait done by me–something which appealed
to just 5 of the 30 men I contacted.
Welshie: That must have been a nerve-racking experience, Gwenn. Tell us a little bit about an encounter you had with one of the male correspondents that made a lasting impression on you.
Gwenn: The subjects were sweet and mostly harmless. It was Portland’s primary art critic who crossed the creepy line. He accused me, in print, of not having the courage to see my project through since I had not slept with any of the men I met. Clearly, we did not agree on the point of my series.
Welshie: You paint portraits exclusively. Do you see yourself moving away from it and trying a different art medium in the foreseeable future?
Gwenn: Of course! But first I have to paint every person in the world. If only people would stop breeding, I might one day get to pursue my career as a mime.
Welshie: I’ve read that you regularly teach art workshops for artists hoping to go full-time and make a living from their artwork. What has been the best advice youâ€™ve given to them so far?
Gwenn: 1) Make a lot of work.
2) Show a lot of people the best of that work.
3) Be friendly.
Especially #4. The people we know as artists today are the ones who
didn’t give up.
Welshie: Describe the concept of Swollen where you painted seven women going through changes in their respective lives.
Gwenn: With Swollen, I was looking for the moment that a person becomes a woman, and I conducted my search among the physical changes that are often associated with a transition to womanhood. I found seven test subjects for study, their transitions ranging from puberty and pregnancy to marriage and menopause, but also embracing modern gender surgeries like breast enlargement and male-to-female sex reassignment.
I painted one “before” portrait of each of the test subjects and, a year later, when their transitions were complete, followed up with an “after” portrait.
I also painted “before” and “after” portraits of one subject who would not experience a major physical change during the year’s interval. I painted myself. I became the control subject for my own experiment, and, in one of those delicious moments of unexpected synthesis, learned what scientists have known for years: it all comes down to asking the right question. It turns out that womanhood has nothing at all to do with physical transitions.
Welshie: What do you want people to think about you when they see your artwork?
Gwenn: I’ve been told that my work is adorable and that it radiates happiness. I’ve also been told that it’s unsettling and offensive. That all sounds about right.
Welshie: Wow Gwenn, painting a portrait almost once a week is insane (by my standards). Thatâ€™s some dedication I admire. Do you even take any breaks at all? What do you do when youâ€™re not interpreting peopleâ€™s faces?
Gwenn: It does seem a little bit insane when you put it that way. I’m not very good at taking a break if I’m at home, but, when I get out of the city and away from my paints, I excel at not doing anything remotely work-like.
Welshie: What’s next for Gwenn Seemel?
Gwenn: Currently, I’m working on Subjective, a series of portraits in collaboration with Becca Bernstein . For Subjective, we are painting ourselves and each other, as well as our parents, partners, and other relations. Two views each of ten subjects: twenty paintings of loved ones immortalized once by a stranger and once by their kin.
The series will tour through the Pacific Northwest in 2010 and 2011. We’ll also be publishing a catalog early next year to go with the series, and Richard Brilliant, author of countless essays about portraiture as well as a much-quoted book on the subject, has unexpectedly offered to write the catalog essay. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have a respected art historian writing about my work as if I’m dead already!
Thanks so much, Gwenn! We finally got this one posted after a few delays. Hope you’re feeling better and back to painting portraits where you clearly belong. So hey guys, can you count all the portraits she has done since doing this professionally? Well, go find out by visiting her site below and while you’re there, why not get your portrait done by the one and only Gwenn Seemel.