Character Craft: The Colorful World of Surf City Portraitist Gwenn Seemel

By VICTORIA FORD | Sep 07, 2016
Photo by: Chris Seiz POISED: Seemel's preferred painting posture is to sit, pretzel-like, on the floor.

Gwenn Seemel paints portraits. Her goal, above all, is to remind her subjects that they are beautiful.

“I try to discover the things that people like most about themselves, and then base my portrait on that,” she explained – she aims more to celebrate unique qualities than to conceal “flaws.”

Now hanging in the m.t. burton gallery in Surf City, see Seemel’s portrait of gallery owner-operator Matt Burton, along with a handful of her other works.

Early on, she realized portraiture “is a big deal to people,” she said, chatting over freshly homemade carrot-watermelon juice. She loved the reaction she could elicit by reproducing a likeness and, later, the power (for good) she could wield with her discerning eye. The gesture endeared her to her subjects and showed her “we don’t always realize how special we are” until someone else points it out.

Relatively new to the area, Seemel is a French-American full-time artist, writer, blogger, vlogger, activist, marketing expert and teacher. Her style is at once explosively colorful and tightly controlled – expressive faces on evocative backgrounds and pleasing shapes in elaborate settings.

“I’ve always loved people,” she said. She loves their quirks. She has painted everyday folks, Hollywood types, cultural leaders, beloved pets and dwellings. She says she’s on a mission to paint everyone. She is attracted to the outspoken freethinker, the fringe character, the nonconformist, the antihero. She does not believe in copyright. The feminist mantle is one she happily assumes, the philosophy “freaks unite” one she eagerly embraces. Interesting, she noted, that deviation begets marginalization, yet all the “outcast” segments of the population, when combined, far outnumber the “mainstream.” Throughout her work run themes of self-awareness, vulnerability, tenderness, aggression and personal truths.

Tantamount to the artwork is the advocacy surrounding it.

She works in acrylics on panels or self-stretched canvas, linen or other fabric – as many as six to eight different pieces simultaneously to make the best use of her time while paint layers are drying. As a teenager, she took an intaglio printmaking class that turned her on to the crosshatch technique for shading and shaping, which became her signature style.

Seemel has California roots and Oregon values. She studied fine art and French at Willamette University and was established in Portland before she and her husband, David Vanadia, relocated to New Jersey to be near his parents, who live in Barnegat.

The couple settled in Surf City in December. Both independent makers and doers of creative pursuits, they “cobble together a living” in numerous ways. In addition to selling her artwork, Seemel is a grant recipient; produces a blog funded by micro-donation site Patreon; writes for Professional Artist magazine; collects licensing and speaker fees; does some commercial illustration; and gives art lessons. See her pie chart of income here.

Her art is a constant learning process, and vlogging allows her to document and share what she has learned, that her insights may help other artists.

In the life of an independent artist, managing the business end of the operation could be a drag, but Seemel spins it into a positive. When she makes a video about how to build canvas stretchers, for example, she’s accomplishing a necessary task while fulfilling her mission to share and instruct. With her how-to videos, she hopes to inspire others to make their art and to make a living as an artist by being driven and assertive, organized and practical. She puts her most pressing responsibilities first and uses a reward system for taking care of business. Catching up on correspondence in the morning, for example, might be followed by an afternoon of creative flextime.

Among the challenges of portraiture as an artistic niche is the power and responsibility that come along with the gig – for her senior thesis project in college, she made the bold move of painting portraits of each of her professors. But with high stakes, of course, come sweet rewards.

One of the sweetest rewards is the unveiling: She likes to see her subjects react to their portraits. Also rewarding is “to have your audience talk back to you, with their support,” she said, which is another way for fans to say, I believe in you, and I am invested in your success.

Her method is to meet and interact with her subjects, give them time and space in which to relax and open up, and photograph them while getting a sense of who they are in order to determine how best to represent them. She uses the images she captures to create her paintings, using the grid method to transfer the images onto her canvas.

She feels working from photographs gives her paintings a certain kinetic (and therefore more lifelike) quality, whereas paintings from live poses tend to end up looking stiff, heavy, or lackluster, due to the sheer difficulty of sitting still for long periods of time.

On display throughout her home and studio space is a sampling of the many different types of paintings she makes – be they commissioned, open market pieces, or gifts for friends or loved ones. Her oldest piece on the wall is from 2001, her newest a work in progress. Her latest series, barely begun, will examine how so-called limitations might be masked or flaunted. One subject is self-described feminist, vegan and body positive activist Rachele Cateyes. Another is Caitlin Wood, a disability rights activist and filmmaker.

The differences over the course of 15 years show a clear path of growth, not only in confidence and mission but also in technique. More recently she has taken to creating wide-brush backgrounds and embellishing with drips and dots.

In her career she has embarked on projects that probe topics of heritage, body image, human sexuality and relationships, feminism, and plain fun (See “Cat Hat” on Instagram).

Her series “Apple Pie” is an inquiry into second-generation Americans, layered notions of patriotism, and the question of what it means to be American. Subjects of Algerian, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Haitian, Indian and other descents – 20 in all – are represented as classic American figures. Her friend Jimmy (with his Chinese and Australian background) is Elvis. Zan (a Canadian-American) is Babe Ruth. She included a portrait of herself, looking proud and green in oxidized copper as the country’s most iconic statue, and named it “Liberty.”

Self-discovery is a function of the art form’s reciprocal nature, she mused. By asking questions of others, she arrives at a better understanding of herself.

A series titled “Swollen,” chronicles women undergoing physical transitions, their feelings echoed in changing landscapes. The power of the individual to change the world around him or her is a well-defined focus of her work. Another is to make viewers question their paradigms.

“Every single person is a treasure, for me,” she said.

Her Crime Against Nature books take her messages about human diversity and relationships in the animal kingdom multiple steps further. One is “a more accurate telling of what’s natural,” the other a companion coloring book, filled with line drawings of her paintings for the reader to fill with color as they contemplate such ideas as gender roles, sexual behaviors, mating and reproduction rituals, anatomical design and family structures.

Is it for kids? That’s for parents to decide. Are the concepts important for everyone to “get” on some level at any stage of the game? Decidedly so.

A published collaboration titled “Subjective,” with friend and fellow portrait artist Becca Bernstein, brought forth not only the fascinating tripartite relationship among portraitist, subject and viewer but added a fourth layer by virtue of the two artists’ relationship to one another. For Seemel the excitement lay in “delving into another portrait artist’s head,” she said. They each painted themselves and each other, as well as their loved ones (parents, partners and others), resulting in 20 works – two views each of 10 subjects – that prove “there is much more to portraiture than mere imitation.”

Her work also lives in the collection at her university’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art; has been written about by portraiture scholar Richard Brilliant (whose essay is published in Subjective); and has been featured on intel and intrigue sites such as Scientific American, Techdirt and Boing Boing and the online arts and culture forum Hyperallergic.

Seemel speaks regularly to large audiences about art and culture, most recently at TEDxGeneva and at the Rencontres Mondiales du Logiciel Libre in France.

As influences she cites Brooklyn- and L.A.-based author and comedian Sara Benincasa; visual artist Arnold Mesches, whose style reflected her own artistic ambitions; and sculptor, painter and printmaker Louise Bourgeois, whose work is intense, funny, even childish.

In 2014, she was given a wall to paint in Portland and decided to create a memorial mural in honor of a famously cheerful Rose City street musician. Last year she participated in the “Painted Poetry” exhibit at the Long Beach Island branch of the Ocean County Library. Recognizing words as another essential creative tool, Seemel combines language and imagery to complete the picture, so to speak.

Visit Seemel at her online home at, and find her on Insta and Facebook to stay close to her painting adventures and more. Stop by the m.t. burton gallery or call Seemel directly at 503-784-9248 to set up an appointment.

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