Doing “the Gwenn Seemel”
Six and a half years ago now, I googled myself. This wasn’t my first time going down that dark but necessary path, but it was the first time I was rewarded with something really surprising, a teenager’s blog post describing her experience of “Gwenn-Seemel-ing” her painting. I’d never seen my style imitated by another artist before, so this encounter provoked a jumble of emotions. Despite the overwhelm, there was one clear theme: I was downright astonished.
To be clear, the surprise I felt on reading the post had nothing to do with someone using my name in reference to my style. For years, people had been telling me I should create a photoshop filter called “the Gwenn Seemel” that would automatically do to a photo what I did over the course of many months with my paint brush—a suggestion that I found both flattering and annoying.
In other words, it wasn’t the way it was said so much as the heart of the the content that caught me so off guard. I was shocked that anyone would think my art was worth copying.
But someone did, and the now-grown-up-and-with-an-official-website Tiffany Everett was that someone. The piece she was blogging about was this delightful self-portrait. At the time, I wrote about my experience of discovering her blog. And, from that post, it’s clear I was already on my free culture path: I was happy for the imitation and open to learning from it. That said, it wasn’t until a year and some later that I clarified my feelings about copyright publicly.
But when I did come out as a free culture advocate, I did so in a big way, and, by late 2010, around the time that another high schooler created this portrait, I had established myself as a vocal opponent of copyright. Amanda was part of a high school class in Illinois that I Skyped with, giving the students pointers on how to make their art look more like mine—an unexpectedly difficult task.
Since then, my name has appeared on high school art curricula and on lists of living artists who are approachable and whose style can be imitated.
As a result, I receive fifteen or twenty queries every year from students who have to research an artist’s life and then copy their style. It is unquestionably one of my favorite parts of being an artist who sets her work free, especially when the students send me images of the work they’ve created based on our exchange.
Sometimes older artists take inspiration from my art too. When they do so, they enter into conversation with me, much like the high schoolers do as well.
And when I say “enter into conversation” sometimes I mean it literally as when these artists talk with me about how I’ve influenced them, but sometimes I mean it metaphorically. Because the fact is that when you copy someone’s work, you are inviting them into your life. Your work says a visual “hello” to the other artist’s work in a language that they understand only too well.
Of course, some artists will answer your visual greeting by slamming a door shaped like a © in your face, making it a short and rather hurtful conversation. But others, like me, won’t ignore someone when they imitate us and we won’t try to stop them either. We’ll take the invitation seriously and work to find a way to engage with those who are inspired by our work.
This won’t always be comfortable for everyone involved, but that’s how it goes sometimes when you bring someone into your life! At the very least, hopefully everyone gets to learn something about themselves and about the world.
As I look at the work of artists I’ve inspired, I can’t help but feel pleased, proud, and very much a part of the world in the best way possible, but I admit to feeling a special connection with Tiffany. Back in 2008, while she was busy transforming her self-portrait by looking at mine, I was hard at work on my own transformation. I was trying to figure out how to channel the radical thoughts I was having about imitation and copyright into something useful, and Tiffany’s appearance in my life sparked a huge and important shift for me. For that, I will always be grateful to her.
- When it’s too much copying / Quand c’est trop d’imitation
- Adrienne Lewis and me: 2 painters, 1 technique / Adrienne Lewis et moi: 2 peintres, 1 technique
- Learning from copying / Apprendre avec l’imitation