Today on Artist Strong we welcome full-time artist Gwenn Seemel. Gwenn Liberty Seemel is named after the Liberty Bell, a cracked ding-dong with a venerable history. Born in Saudi Arabia in 1981, Seemel has lived most of her life in France and the US. She is a full-time artist who advocates passionately for free culture, feminism, and finding your voice. Her colorful work has been featured across the Interwebs, most recently on BoingBoing, Hyperallergic, and Scientific American. She will be speaking at TEDxGeneva this April.
Carrie: Welcome to Artist Strong Gwenn! Can you describe your art to Artist Strong readers?
It’s been called “saccharine” and it’s been called “dangerous.” It’s also been called “plaid.” All that sounds about right.
Carrie: You have a truly unique style for your art. Can you describe how it has developed over time?
Thank you for your kind words, Carrie!
When I was still in high school, I took a class in intaglio printmaking. Since I barely knew how to draw when I started the class, the techniques of intaglio became firmly embedded in my visual language. And since one of the main methods for creating tonal areas in this medium is with crosshatching, layering my marks in that way became second nature to me. When I began painting a bit later, I couldn’t help but crosshatch in color!
At the beginning of my career, this rigid horizontal and vertical mark-making was more obvious, but the look of my work has evolved over the years. Part of that has to do with trying new brushes, but there was also a rather fortuitous injury to my right hand just as I was trying to put together a series of paintings that softened my style quite a bit too.
Carrie: Please share one challenge you’ve faced as an artist and how you’ve dealt with it.
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with endometriosis—a disease which has no cure and which affects the reproductive organs of millions of women. My experience with this chronic and debilitating disease helped me to open up, both personally and artistically.
Soon after my diagnosis, I was chatting with a friend who also happens to have this illness. We were talking about the pain which endometriosis causes—both the physical and the psychological pain—when, quite suddenly, very earnestly, my friend said to me “whatever you do, don’t make art about it. Do not paint your vagina!”
She had a point. Fraught images of lady bits just don’t have the same impact as they did in the 70s. Still, I knew that my illness would manifest itself in my work, and it did with Crime Against Nature, a project that is both a series of paintings of animals and a book.
The various species featured in Crime Against Nature all have one thing in common: their behaviors deviate from traditional notions of gender. They’re single moms or stay-at-home dads, aggressive females and colorful males, animals that struggle with infertility as well as homosexual and transgendered species. Crime Against Nature laments the misinformation we’ve been fed about what’s natural and what’s not, but it’s also a celebration of the true diversity of behaviors and expressions.
The book can be read online here for free, and you can purchase print copies or a PDF version.
Carrie: How do you know when an artwork is finished?
Until a painting is done, I find myself making excuses for it. Once it’s ready for the world, I am happy to listen as others enjoy the work and tell me what it means to them.
Carrie: I’ve noticed you’ve been blogging for 6 years. How did you get started blogging about art?
I started blogging because I wanted to share the process photos I’d been taking as I worked. I get a lot out of looking at other artists’ process images, and so I felt it was only fair to share my own as well.
Over the years, my blog has grown into something more than a venue for my work-in-progress pictures. It turned out that creating a space where I could speak my mind energized me. I began to explore my mind more fully so that I’d have more to say!
Carrie: You appear to have a real interest in copyright and issues with the digital age for artists. What motivated this interest?
Fairly early on in my career, I came to understand two things:
1) If someone else can do what I’m doing but do it better than me, they should probably be doing it instead of me.
2) I know that no one can do what I do because: art = idea + technique + person. And it’s the person part of that formula that makes real art inimitable.
Since this is how I understand the world, copyright has nothing to offer me.
Carrie: What resources do you suggest people read about copyright in the arts?
For an introduction to the harm copyright inflicts on creativity, I recommend first watching the documentary RIP: A Remix Manifesto, which is available at vimeo.com or hulu.com. If your interest is piqued, I’d follow that up with Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture, which, among other things, relates the history of piracy and how beneficial it’s been to creativity.
Also, I’m currently working on a book about the alternatives to copyright. It should be out soon, but in the meantime I talk a lot on my blog about free culture and how to make a living as an artist who doesn’t copyright her work. For those articles and videos, visit this section of my blog.
Carrie: You have written quite a few books as well! Can you share a bit about your books with us?
I’ve published a few exhibition catalogues over the last decade, and, more recently, I’ve written two books. I mentioned Crime Against Nature earlier and the second book is called Art Marketing: It’s Not Just About Selling Art.
In Art Marketing, I talk about how learning to promote your art can also make your art better. The book is a manifesto about the deeply social nature of art; it’s short, colorful, and full of pictures. You can read it here for free or purchase the PDF version.
If your readers are interested in learning more about publishing their own art book, I put together this resource.
Carrie: How do you decide what to write about (books and blogging)?
The same way I decide what to paint. At this point, I’m comfortable expressing myself either in images or in words, and I choose my medium based on what the topic calls for.
Of course, the written word and I weren’t always such good friends. I used to really struggle with expressing myself through words, and I know I’m not the only visual artist who’s ever had this trouble.
For artists who swear they’ll never enjoy writing about their art, the best thing to do is find a friend who’s interested in their work and record themselves answering the friend’s questions. Then, they can transcribe their conversation and dive into editing what they’ve said to make a more appealing text. Most of us have plenty to say: sometimes it’s just hard to figure out how to get it from our brains to the page!
Carrie: Who/what inspires you?
People. Maybe that’s an obvious answer coming from an artist whose work is mostly portraits, but there’s more to it than subject matter. What I mean to say is that I doubt I’d make art if I were alone on a desert island—or maybe I would, but it wouldn’t be half as much fun. Art, for me, isn’t simply about expressing myself: it’s about communication. And that means that I need someone to communicate with!
Carrie: How do you define Creativity?