Gwenn Seemel, Kirk Reeves, and other Artists Pursuing Their Dreams (Interview)
Interview and Story By: Lauren Royer
Artist and Cover Image: Gwenn Seemel
Without art, there would be nothing of value in the world. Truly the vast and all-inclusive form is one and the same with our existence. Whether art is great design, paintings, a mold, an idea, a fleeting performance, a fantastically brilliant composition, a functional piece in a machine, a story, a movement- anything can fit the description and therefore art is everything and everything is art.
On my daily commute to work, I pass by a mural of a man smiling brightly. He wears a white suit jacket with a darkly colored sweater and a stream of musical notes and rainbow colors consume the background behind him. When I first started seeing the mural I felt comforted. I felt like everything would be okay because of his smile and the light he seemed to emanate. Soon, I wondered who he was and what he did to get a mural painted on the side of a Dutch Bros building. It was time to go to the horse's mouth.
The artist behind the mural is one Gwenn Seemel. An artist of a higher caliber than imaginable who has been interviewed by more reputable publications than this one *sly smirk*. She is an artist's artist with 15 years under her belt! It's because of this, Gwenn is multi-dimensional and describes herself as a 'queer artist, writer, feminist, and free culture advocate. Free Culture, a concept I was unfamiliar with until Gwenn, is the belief that art should be part of the public domain. Doing away with copy-write and believing that culture can only evolve further with imperfect imitations overtime. We'll dive into Free Culture another time though. Besides giving a TED talk on creativity through imitation, Gwenn's portraits are a particularly noteworthy aspect of her career. I decided to interview Gwenn on the pursuit of her artistic dreams in contrast with the man she painted, 'Working Kirk Reeves.'
Kirk Reeves was an American street performer known for playing the trumpet in busy intersections of Portland. He was loved and appreciated by many, even in his state of homelessness. From what I've gathered, Kirk inspired people to pursue their dreams and spent more than 10 years pursuing his before taking his own life. Reeves suffered from a number of medical issues and when he passed, the Mayor of Portland named November 3rd, "Kirk Reeves Day". Hundreds of people held a candlelight vigil under the bridge he often trumpeted his jazzy tunes. Ultimately, the conclusion I've drawn from this story is that we must persist and fight for our dreams. We must build a community of support and inclusion. We must pursue good and pursue art. I hope you enjoy and feel inspired by this interview with the artist; 'Working Gwenn Seemel'
When did you decide you wanted to make art your career? Do you have a side hustle?
There wasn't one glorious moment when I suddenly knew that I would pursue an art career--not that I remember anyway. It sort of just became my post-graduation plan sometime in my senior year of college. The steps were:
- Move back in with my parents.
- Become a professional artist.
My parents have never been wealthy enough to pay for my life, but they were able to give me the gift of not owing anybody rent for eighteen months after I got out of school. That year and a half were what allowed me to launch a full-time art career directly out of the gate. Sixteen years later, I have never had a day job, and I am forever grateful to them for that.
What is the single most challenging thing for artists in 2019?
The same challenge as for every other kind and generous person in the US: navigating the casual cruelty and unending greed that is the Trump administration.
Your paintings are so detailed, talk about what it takes for you to stay in your groove and keep your artistic stamina going with larger projects.
There are three modes to my creativity:
- Stupid mode: "Everything I make is trash; I don't know why I don't just disappear."
- Amazing mode: "I am the source of all things wonderful; you're welcome, universe, you're welcome."
- Routine mode: no fancy self-talk, this mode is all about showing up in the studio and doing the work.
Routine mode may not seem as exciting as stupid mode or amazing mode, but it is much healthier and more creative. It's through doing the work that I find flow. Everything else falls away, and I am focused.
Like many artists, I try to stay in that mode as much as possible. And while there are plenty of little daily rituals that keep me on track, the most important thing I do every day to stay in routine mode is make money with my art. Knowing that the only way I can pay my bills is by selling art is what inspires and grounds me. (I'm not saying this is the only way to stay in routine mode, just that it works for me.)
Your mural of 'Working Kirk Reeves' describes his work as influential in the notion of pursuing your dreams. Why do you think Reeves was so influential? Did you ever have a chance to hear him play? What can you tell us about him?
Kirk embodied the keep-on-keeping-on that every artist needs in order to succeed. He was out there most days, making his art in one form or another. His consistency invited his audience to make him a part of their lives and rely on him. You can't build an art career without a community to support your endeavors, and Kirk nurtured his community.
All that said, it obviously wasn't easy for him--and I'm not just saying that because of how he died. In the years before he passed, he would send out detailed emails to his list, sharing his problems as well as his successes. For those of us who invited him into our lives that extra bit by signing up for his mailing list, we got to see his vulnerability. Not everyone wants that, but, for those of us who appreciate that artists aren't the social media success robots we sometimes pretend to be, Kirk's messages were an important part of how he made our lives better.
What advice do you have for artists that are struggling with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts over their artistic careers? Perhaps also for people who are afraid to express themselves based on "not being good enough"?
Fall in love with other artists' work. The most damaging thing you can do to yourself and to all of art-kind is to allow your passion for art to sour into envy and resentment. That way lies anxiety and all the bad! If you make a practice of enjoying other people's creativity and celebrating it, you open yourself to your own creativity in a new way.
What does it actually mean to pursue your dreams? Let's talk about the good and bad.
When you are doing what you love, there is a pleasing sense of certainty. The road may be hard, but the knowledge that you are pursuing your dream takes the edge off of many difficulties. That said, I refuse to pretend that art-making is effortless.
Every full-time independent artist I know lives very simply. There's not a lot of extra money to spend on the latest gadgets, and most of us have not had our hair cut professionally in years. We never go to the grocery store without a budget in mind, and medical issues are overwhelming because health care in the US is so outrageously expensive.
Whenever someone chooses to take a job instead of making art for a living, I cheer them on, just like I cheer on my fellow artists. I do it because I know that those who work other jobs are making a different kind of sacrifice to the one I make being an artist, but that they are making a sacrifice nevertheless. Neither choice is easy.
You're also a writer! Your blog has many entries and articles over the years. Is there any article in particular you think would be helpful for PE readers to see?
I'm particularly fond of the article "7 Reasons to Try Being an Artist Even If You Don't Think You're a Real Artist" from 2015
When painting portraits, what helps you understand the person you're painting?
More than the color of their eyes or the shape of their lips, when I'm painting a portrait I am looking to capture a person's self-mythology. I want to create a portrait that is the best kind of mirror: one that will show them that they are beautiful and loved.
To do that, I ask them lots of questions about themselves. I ask them who knows them best and how that person would describe them. And then I ask them if they would agree with that person's evaluation of them. I want to know about their favorite colors, but also about their favorite artists, books, or video games. I am looking for anything that gives me a clue as to where they see themselves fitting into this world.
What are some artists you find especially inspiring today?
I *heart* Amy Sherald so hard, as much for the way she dealt with the criticism of her portrait of Michelle Obama as for the painting itself. I also love the art of Christi Belcourt, Joi Murugavell, and Mariko Paterson. Octavia Butler is my all-time favorite author, and both Aparna Nancherla and Kashana Cauley keep me going in these troubling times with their commentary and their comedy. Santigold's music is the soundtrack of my studio, along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer which I have listened to countless times over the years as I paint.
Beyond painting and writing, how do you express yourself and what do you fill your time with?
I love dancing alone in my studio, figuring out new vegan recipes to make for my partner, reading memoirs and science fiction, and taking walks with friends.