Surf City Portrait Painter Gwenn Seemel Makes Public Art in D.C.

Gwenn Seemel Completes Impactful Piece in 72 Hours
By VICTORIA FORD | Aug 15, 2018
Artwork by: Gwenn Seemel

This past weekend, 11 artists from throughout the United States convened in Washington, D.C., for 72 hours of intensive art making to bring attention to America’s rental housing crisis. Among them was Surf City’s own Gwenn Seemel, a portrait painter and political activist who moved to LBI from Portland, Ore., with her husband, David Vanadia, in 2015.

The organization behind the project is Make Room, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization working to address the rental housing crisis. The exhibition, “The Doors of Make Room,” is comprised of 11 painted fiberglass doors, representing the 11 million households living one paycheck away from losing their home. The doors will be installed in September in public and private spaces in and around D.C., and displayed in strategic locations, including high-visibility spots in touristy and/or traffic-y areas, from Sep. 13 to 28.

Seemel said the Make Room opportunity likely came through one of the call-for-entries email lists to which she subscribes, but she can’t be sure which one because she applies to multiple opportunities per week.

“The call interested me because Make Room’s mission of making affordable rent a reality in the United States appeals to me, both personally and in a wider sense. The rental housing crisis is a problem we can solve, and that solution will ripple out into people’s lives in extraordinary ways, bringing a new vitality to our communities.”

According to Make Room, in September 2017, the entire U.S. Senate acknowledged the devastating impact of the rent-affordability crisis for millions of hardworking Americans by unanimously approving Senate Resolution 312 and designating September 2017 and 2018 as National Month for Renters.

The other artists commissioned were Cathy Abramson, Charis Ammon, Hermes Berrio, Angela Faz, Lola Lovenotes, Amol Saraf, Shani Shih, Rachel Sousa, Kim Testone and ZYNB. The artists created their works in shared studio spaces from Aug. 11 to 13.

The logistics were handled by Make Room. “They took care of every detail imaginable, so all I had to do was show up and paint!”

Seemel said she was pleasantly surprised by “just how kind, thoughtful and creative the other artists were. Originally, all 11 artists for The Doors of Make Room were going to be in one studio together, but, in the end, the spray paint artists needed a ventilated space, so we were in two groups. I was with the other six brush artists, and they were all lovely. I could not have picked a better group to share such an intense and intensely satisfying experience with. I’m only sad I didn’t meet the other four artists.”

The French-American Seemel was born in Saudi Arabia in 1981 and has spent most of her life in France and on the west coast of the United States. Her first piece of public art was created over the course of two weeks in 2014, in her hometown of Portland. She has also exhibited her art throughout the U.S. and in Europe. She speaks regularly about creativity and culture, most recently at TEDxGeneva in Switzerland, the Rencontres Mondiales du Logiciel Libre in France, and the 5e Colloque de l’Adte in Quebec.

Seemel is accustomed to traveling to speak at conferences, but this was the first time she has traveled specifically to paint. “I love that I now know how to fit my studio into one little bag,” she said.

Going into it, Seemel had been worried about the short time frame, which “seemed nearly impossible,” given she’s used to spending 72 days on a painting, not 72 hours; but the time constraint was also the aspect of the project that excited her most. “I love a challenge, and this one pushed me in new ways,” she said afterward. “I am exhausted, but I feel powerful.”

The only other public art project she had done was a 10-by-38-foot mural in Portland, in 2014, a portrait of a beloved Portland artist who passed away a few years ago. “I had two weeks to complete that piece, and the composition contained just one portrait. For ‘Dirty Hands,’ I was painting 13 portraits of the 13 public officials and construction people who hurt my neighborhood.”

Seemel’s door, titled “Dirty Hands (Mayor Charlie Hales’ Legacy),” depicts the narrative of a neighborhood overrun by construction and corruption – specifically, the story of the North Pearl District in Portland, where, during a big development push, toxic dirt was dug up and left to sit out for months, coating the neighborhood. The developers (of luxury condos) didn’t want to spend the money to dispose of the cancer-causing dirt, according to Seemel, and the community was impacted.

Those impacted “were people like me, people who qualify for income-adjusted housing,” Seemel said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so our local government had little trouble ignoring our plight.”

After years of fighting to be heard, fighting for law enforcement and protection from various kinds of pollution, Seemel and Vanadia got fed up and moved east. Many of their former neighbors, especially those with children, stayed.

“Without the income-adjusted status of the building, they would never be able to afford to live in such a good school district, so close to public transportation and multiple grocery stores,” she explained. “Portland is widely celebrated as a green city where urban planning brings about true quality of life, but the truth is more complicated. Renters are not prioritized there. They aren’t even listened to.

“This painting is one way to ensure the unlawful behavior of Portland’s former mayor and his associates won’t be forgotten. Hopefully, it will encourage the city’s power players to view community not as something to be commodified, but instead as something with a far greater value.”

From the door painting experience in D.C., Seemel said she “learned that I’m not alone.”

“I’ve never owned a house, and renting has been complicated for my partner and me over the years. I’m an independent artist, and I’m married to a freelancer. When we do find a place that matches our budget, it’s often difficult to convince landlords that we’ll be responsible renters because we are self-employed and our income rarely adds up to three times the rent,” the formula preferred by landlords.

“This situation is frustrating to me, and sometimes makes me question my choices – but it shouldn’t. Safe and affordable rental housing is something America can and should make happen.

“The 11 doors of The Doors of Make Room represent the 11 million households living one paycheck away from losing their home. I’ve been one of those 11 million, and I can tell you, it’s 11 million households too many.”

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