I had the great pleasure of first meeting Gwenn Seemel in November last year when she came into my studio during the Art All Day studio tour in Trenton. We talked for a bit and I was so affected by her energy, just talking to her got me even more excited to be an artist than I already was. She was brimming with positivity and just great vibes about being an artist and living life as an artist and how art can affect the world. After our meeting I did a search for her art online and found that she was a well-known artist who, as well as being known for her art itself, turns up in many different places; giving TED talks and speeches, writing books and vlogging extensively on Youtube. I was so happy she agreed to do this interview with us.
STM: Hi Gwenn. What a pleasure it is to interview you here at Studio Tour Magazine. Thank you for spending some time with us.
GS: Thank you for having me! You were my favorite artist on the Trenton Studio Tour last year. “Sparkling” is the word that comes to mind when I think of you and your art!
STM: Thank you so much, Gwenn! So, tell me, what are you all about?
GS: Sharing. And I’m not talking about “over sharing” or the annoying way people talk about “sharing” their opinions when really they’re just being mean. I’m talking about true sharing, like we learned it as kids. Sharing is the good feeling you get from making sure that everybody is included and gets to participate.
STM: We’ve met in person and I’ve seen your videos all over the internet, you’re living as an artist doing portraits and all sorts of paintings, you have published books, you’ve done speaking engagements, a TED Talk… Whew! How did you make all this happen? And what keeps you going?
GS: My success is definitely a “right place, right time” kind of story, but not in the way you might think. The luck that I’ve had is combined with an openness that allows me to see many kinds of places as the right ones and a belief that it’s almost always the right time to market your art. Continuously promoting my work can be grueling at times, but what keeps me going is the conviction that my art makes a difference in the world.
STM: To you, what is art? Why is art?
GS: Art is one of the necessities for life. It’s on par with air, water, food, shelter, healthcare, and community. We literally cannot live without it, though many people like to pretend we can—they pretend and then they pay for their Netflix subscription, never missing a month! In doing so, they reveal that they not only can’t do without art, but also that they don’t even understand how much art is a part of their lives.
Art is a necessity because it’s a safe way to learn about others. When you connect with art—whether it’s a television show, a song, a painting, or any other form of art—you connect with another person via the intermediary of the artwork. Your experience of the art gives you insight into what it’s like to be someone else, and it helps you learn to relate better. Art appreciation = an empathy-building exercise.
STM: Tell me about art in your life. What meaning does art have for you and how did that meaning develop?
GS: Novels take up a lot of my brain space. They’re the main form of art in my life. I’m never not reading, and fiction is the kind of writing I consume most. I credit all the stories I’ve ever read for my turning out as well as I did. Because, though my family and friends certainly played a role in raising me, I’m pretty sure I only really learned to get outside my own head by reading.
STM: Tell me about your creative process. You have a very unique technique. Do you have a name for it? What inspires you to create?
GS: It’s called “the Gwenn Seemel” and I didn’t name it! The beginnings of my style started in a copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night that I made as a 14 year old. His distinct brushstrokes took over my hand, and then a printmaking class when I was 15 turned me into a crosshatching machine. Mix in a love for experimenting with different brushes and a fascination for watered down paint, and you get “the Gwenn Seemel”.
STM: Many people, sometimes even artists themselves have the view that the starving artist’s image is true – of the artist languishing away, starving for the sake of his art. You certainly don’t seem to be in that state of mind. What bearing, if any, does that view have on your efforts in an artistic career?
GS: I both am and am not in the “starving artist” state of mind. To explain, every successful artist that I am friends with lives very simply. They’re not starving, but they’re also not buying the latest tech toys on a whim or trying out every new restaurant. They may live simply because they prefer to be thoughtful about their consumption, but most of them also do it because they have to. The starving artist stereotype exists for a reason—and not just because many artists hate to think about the business side of art. Making money with art is hard, especially in the long run if you’re not affiliated with an institution—as a professor or a resident artist of some kind.
GWENN SEEMEL PAINTS KIRK REEVES MURAL
STM: Did you find it to be relatively easy to get to where you are now in your career?
GS: Absolutely not. That said, I am aware that I have had it easier than many people. For example, my parents have been mostly supportive of my choices, and while they don’t fund my life (and they couldn’t) they always make sure that I’m doing okay. At the beginning, that meant buying me groceries now and again. And still today I can borrow money from them if I need to, in part because they know I’ll pay it back within a few months. I am friends with artists who do not have this kind of a safety net, so I know how lucky I am to have it. It has helped me to pursue opportunities that might have seemed too risky otherwise.
STM: How have you struggled? And what have been your greatest obstacles? How have your struggles affected your work?
GS: The single greatest obstacle I’ve encountered is the deeply felt and easily expressed misogyny that permeates our world. Every day, people—men and women both—say disgusting and/or dismissive things to me online or in person. I hate it, and, many days, it makes me want to disappear. But then I make a connection with someone through my art, and I remember the good. It’s my community that keeps me creating.
STM: Money, fame, notoriety; Artists always have something they want. What do you want? What is your biggest dream that you want to accomplish with your work? Do you consider yourself to be succeeding in this and why?
GS: I want my art to create change, even if it’s just a tiny difference in someone’s mood. The whole point of art for me is that possibility of shifting things and encouraging people to be more thoughtful and curious. In that sense, I am successful and also always striving for more success—more change!
STM: What was your biggest setback or failure? Where did it take you?
GS: A few years ago, I was diagnosed with endometriosis, a chronic disease which affects millions of women and has no cure. It causes physical and emotional pain, along with infertility. I was 28 years old, curled up on a gurney waiting for my diagnosis in an ER triage before my mortality ever really occurred to me on a visceral level. The experience caused me to re-focus my priorities. These days, my physical fragility is a constant reminder to not waste the time I have.
STM: To what other activities have your creative abilities taken you?
GS: My painting has put me on stage more than I ever thought it would. I do a lot of talking about my process, about being a queer artist, and about making a living with art. It’s not a totally natural fit for me in that public speaking still makes me super nervous, but I do it because I know that it has the potential to inspire others in a way that a video or a conversation on social media can’t ever do. Testifying about your experience in person is powerful stuff, both for the speaker and for the audience.
STM: How important is it for young people to have an arts education?
GS: Vital. If your brain is inflexible—and it is without art—you cannot navigate change. And since change is the only constant of the universe, that’s very bad news. We’re stuck in a destructive cycle with the world right now in large part because we’ve failed to nurture the creativity of our youth.
STM: How do you feel about the opinion that all artists must be born with a talent for art? Do you think a penchant for art is inborn talent or is it a skill that is taught and developed?
GS: Maybe a bit of talent is inborn and unteachable, but most of it actually comes from the work you put in. Passion for an art, the courage to do it, and the determination to keep at it when everything is telling you to give up: those are what really matter. They’re what make someone talented in the long run.
STM: Looking back on everything you’ve done, is there anything you’re most proud of?
GS: I’m proud of who I am, of always trying to be more empathetic and of remaining curious about others even in these horrible times.
STM: On occasion, people who are not artists may ask questions which artists sometimes feel are not appropriate, like “How much do you make from your art?” or “Why does it cost so much?” How do you feel about those types of questions? How do you answer them?
GS: When people ask those questions, I think that, a lot of times, they’re just trying to understand the value of art. And I get why they’re confused about it! The value of art isn’t something that’s being taught to them. Our current culture is very anti-art and anti-artist. Also, it’s hard to understand the value of art, because art isn’t like anything else on earth. It’s not like a product or a service or anything else we usually assign a price to. It’s a whole other thing, and it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around it.
When people ask me these kinds of questions, my answer depends on my relationship to them and on what I think their interests are. I might ask them if they are artists themselves. They may not be, but the question is flattering to many people, especially if you explain that you thought they might be an artist because artists tend to be curious about the world, perceptive, and not afraid to ask inconvenient questions. I might also respond with a question of my own: what they do and how much they make?
In special cases, I explain that television is a kind of corporate art, subsidized by the companies who pay for advertising time and access to us, the TV program’s audience. That’s why television ends up being cheap for the viewer. Advertisers use it to get inside our heads and hypnotize us into buying things. Unlike corporate art, independent art like mine doesn’t use the advertising “rape your soul” kind of business model, so people have to pay a little more for it up front!
STM: We artists are a very peculiar breed. What do you want people to know about artists?
GS: We are good with money. No, really! If people only knew how much we accomplish within our miniscule budgets, Fortune 500 companies would be begging artists to come on as financial advisors.
STM: On a personal note, what gives you a deep belly laugh? What gets your heart racing? What gives you the most joy?
GS: Farting will always make me laugh—whether I do it or someone else does. I’m still afraid of the dark, to the point that it gets my heart racing if I’m by myself. Combine these with the fact that painting provides the most joy in my life, and I think I’m still basically a 6 year old in a lot of ways.
STM: Who is “Gwenn Seemel”? What is one thing you want people to know about you?
GS: Right now, the one thing I want people to know is that I am sad. Maybe that’s a weird thing to emphasize, but it’s important.
I try to find the positive in life and, if I can’t, I work very hard to at least find a lesson, something of value to take away from even the most difficult situation. On my blog and on social media, I put these goals into action every day, working to help others be more hopeful and confident. But then, last summer, I was told that I appear to be “living in a joyful serenity” in an interview on Framablog (a French free culture blog), and it really aggravated me. I knew that my response was irrational. I knew that Framablog was only naming what I was trying so hard to convey. And that’s when I realized that I needed to talk more about my anger.
Because the truth is that since November 2016, I have lived every day terrified and disheartened. So when I bring the positive, I want people to know that it’s a concerted effort, not because I’m ignorant of the casual brutality of Trump and this Republican Administration.
STM: Where are all the places people can find you and your work? Is your work for sale?
GS: My work is on my site (gwennseemel.com) and you can find out about purchasing my art there as well. You can follow my doings on Facebook (facebook.com/gwennseemel), Instagram (instagram.com/gwennpaints), YouTube (youtube.com/gwennpaints), and you can find prints and t-shirts and things on Redbubble (gwennpaints.redbubble.com).
STM: Any shows or events coming up? And what are you working on right now?
GS: I’m speaking at some colleges and at the 5eme Colloque de l’Adte in Montreal this spring, and I have some work up in Jersey City. If people want to know about upcoming events, livestreams, and all that good stuff, my mailing list is an excellent way to stay in touch!
STM: Gwenn, it’s been great to get to know you a little more and I’m sure our readers are glad as well. Thank you for taking some time out to talk with us here at Studio Tour Magazine.
GS: Thank you so much, Thom!