Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Brilliant letter

2018 . 02 . 08 - Comments / Commentaires (0)

Looking back at my fifteen years as a pro, it’s easy to take for granted that I’ve had two prominent academics write prefaces for art books, but Dr. Richard Brilliant’s and Dr. Joan Roughgarden’s essays didn’t happen by chance. The story starts in the fifth year of my career. I was doing a lot of reading about the history of portraiture, and I was finding myself frustrated with what art historians were writing.

Sometimes I expressed my irritation on my blog—as in this article about Charlotte Mullins’ work—but mostly I avoided the passive-aggressive route and simply emailed the authors. I was trying to give them perspective from someone who, in my opinion, was at least as much of an expert on portraitists as they were. For the most part, I’m pretty sure they disagreed though, because almost all of them ignored my messages.

But not Dr. Brilliant! We struck up a correspondence. He would assign me some reading from his repertoire, and I’d track it down, read it, and reply with my thoughts.

When it came time to find a writer for the preface of the Subjective catalog, I sent out two queries: one to my old college advisor who is an art historian and one to Dr. Brilliant. They were basically the same letter minus the personal touches you can read in my message to Dr. Brilliant below.

June 2009

Richard Brilliant
Columbia University 

New York, NY

Dear Mr. Brilliant,

Over the years, I have contacted a handful of art historians who write about portraiture, and you are the only one who has ever responded—I don’t know if that says something bad about me or something good about you! Your kind are harder to start a conversation with than you might think. That’s especially unfortunate for me because I am looking to commission an art historian to write an essay for my next book project. I am very aware that you are out of my league, but I was wondering if you might be able to recommend an appropriate writer who would be willing and excited to write something about portraiture for my upcoming series.

The details of the project:

  • The book will feature a series called Subjective. The series is a collaboration between myself and Becca Bernstein that will tour throughout the Pacific Northwest in 2010 and 2011. It consists of 20 portraits of 10 subjects—2 views each of some of our loved ones and ourselves, portraits painted once by kin and once by a stranger.
  • The essay can be about anything related to the series: women artists and portraiture, portraiture’s status in the fine art world, the impact of the artist-sitter relationship on a portrait. Anything!
  • The book will be published with the proper institutional backing of the Corvallis Arts Center and possibly other such organizations as we add venues to the tour of the series.
  • We have a $1000 honorarium to offer the writer.
  • We are looking for an essay that is at least 1000 words long, but we certainly won’t limit the author!
  • We need the essay by 15 December 2009.

For more information about Becca and I, please visit our websites at beccabernstein.net and gwennseemel.com. Enclosed, please find our résumés as well as a copy of the second edition of the book from my last series. More than the first edition that I sent to you last year, this one represents the quality of printing that we will use for the Subjective project.

If you are not interested in recommending anyone to us, I would love to know why. Honestly, you art historians are baffling to me. Is it that the honorarium is too little for what we are asking? Or that artists are not supposed to contact art historians? Please educate me as I clearly have no idea about how this sort of thing works! 

Thank you and happy springtime!

A handwritten addition to the typed letter:

PS - I got a hold of your “Metonymous Face” and found it fascinating. In it, you say that caricature without commentary seems impossible, but I would argue that any kind of portraiture without commentary is impossible. Everything in a portrait—the medium, the composition, the lighting, the expression—affects the way that the subject is perceived.

On a more personal note, you obviously like Twery’s portrait of you. What is it about it that you like so well? Does it have anything to do with who the artist is to you?

My college advisor responded by suggesting I contact a couple of people I’d gone to school with. These individuals were barely out of their graduate programs and had not yet found teaching positions. In other words, they were not even as established in their careers as I was with my six years as a full-time independent artist. I took my old prof’s suggestion as the unintentional insult of a parental figure who is unable to see that the youth do mature and eventually become their peers. I thanked him and resolved not to ask him for help again.


Dr. Brilliant responded by agreeing to write the essay himself if the honorarium was adjusted to reflect his stature.

Subjective art, Gwenn Seemel, Becca Bernstein, Richard Brilliant

And, a few years later, his preface for Subjective helped make Dr. Roughgarden’s introduction for Crime Against Nature happen.

Crime Against Nature by Gwenn Seemel

Dr. Brilliant’s name gave my art a scholarly seriousness that contributed to Dr. Roughgarden’s decision to work with me, and together they have allowed me to remain independent while still having some access to institutions and the clout they provide.

To sum up, this process taught me:

I’m sharing all this as an addendum to last month’s live broadcast, which was about how to get your art seen by the right people without losing your integrity. I told most of the story during the livestream, and one participant wanted to see what I’d actually written to Dr. Brilliant.

If you want to catch February’s live broadcast, all you have to do is email me and ask to be on my special update list. You’ll receive messages every time I post on my blog, publish a new artwork, and announce a livestream. This month’s broadcast is about the good, the bad, and the beautiful of collaborating with other artists.

When: February 25th at 2 PM (New York time)
How: email me to sign up for my special mailing list


CATEGORIES: - English - Business of art - Crime - Featuring artists - Portraiture -

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