Surf City artist Gwenn Seemel was changing subways in New York City when a man caught her eye. He was wearing a cowboy hat, boots and a leather vest with the words “Black Cowboy Federation” embroidered on the back. Seemel had never seen a African-American cowboy before. He was different—a perfect fit for her latest art series.
Seemel’s collection, titled “Empathetic Magic,” compiles portraits meant to promote acceptance of all people. Each individual or couple portrayed has a quality that stands out from the mainstream.
“This work is for the judger and the judged in each of us,” writes Seemel on her website.
Touching on issues of religion, race, gender and sex, Seemel addresses the many ways people are unique.
When Seemel spoke to Lenwood, the cowboy, he explained the history of the term cowboy. Originally used to describe African-American cowhands or cowherds, the word was considered derogatory.
“We all have these things that we’re born with, these givens, like race, like sex, like the kind of family we’re born into, the privilege that we’re born into,” says Seemel. “The series is meant to help people see you have your givens, and that means that you have stuff in your life and issues based on your identities [that] other people have as well.”
Seemel, 35, traveled to Geneva in 2014 to do a Ted Talk about her decision to not copyright her artwork. She also painted a mural in Portland, Oregon of Kirk Reeves, a street performer who played the trumpet and wore Mickey Mouse ears. She moved to Surf City from Oregon in late 2015 and started painting the collection this past December from her home studio.
The exhibit, which will be on display at M. T. Burton Gallery in Surf City from June 10 through July 9, is her first solo exhibition in the Garden State.
Seemel didn’t meet all of her subjects serendipitously. Some were her friends and others she sought out to represent a particular demographic. One friend, Leah, a playwright, identifies as Hapa, half Japanese and half Caucasian American. Another, Nikki, was Muslim at the time and wore a hijab. She met one subject, a dominatrix, at a technology conference.
The first person she painted in the series was Rachel Cateyes, a “fatshionista” who promotes body positivity. But Seemel feels the heart of the series is her portrait of Molly and Blue, an African-American lesbian couple. “Just this simple image of two women caring about each other is really powerful and I loved the simplicity of that,” says Seemel.
Seemel painted each subject or couple twice—once, as they see themselves and once as society views them.
Every portrait is painted on a circular canvas. “I also like the idea of two sides of the same coin,” says Seemel. “You’re not a different person when you’re emphasizing what makes you different or when you’re minimizing it, it’s all the same person.”
Another subject, Evelyn, is an activist. “When she witnesses racism she calls it out,” says Seemel. “Her activism is hopeful. She believes in the goodness of human beings.” She is portrayed as a gardener in her second painting, ripping out the weeds, or racist ideas, and nurturing a plant.
Seemel’s paintings are as complex as her subjects. Each canvas has multiple layers of paint, and Seemel uses a cross-hatching technique that looks like doodling to create detail.
Seemel is an active vlogger. She posts videos, in both English and French, explaining her painting process and what each portrait represents.
“I was ready to try to make work that would open people up about this to help them realize we’ve all got stuff, let’s be gentler with each other,” says Seemel.
M. T. Burton Gallery
1819 N. Long Beach Blvd.
Surf City, NJ, 08008