Face Making

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

Art should appear effortless.

2008 . 06 . 19 - Comments / Commentaires (2)

When I was twenty, I took a semester abroad in Paris. While there, I practically lived in the city’s many museums while also taking a couple of art theory courses at Paris VIII, but I didn’t study in an “atelier” with an “artiste peintre.” Instead, I studied mime and dance at Ella Jaroszewicz’s school, Magenia. Though I’d dabbled in corporeal theater since I was twelve, I had never done any focused training. I was not prepared for the grueling physicality of learning to express myself more fully with my body. As it turned out, it was exactly what I needed: a complete change of pace. I learned a lot about my limitations and my abilities in those months, and, much to my surprise, it was mime school that helped me to formulate a theory or two about what art (of any kind) should and shouldn’t do. The completely different medium—performance instead of visual art—gave me some much-needed perspective.

While in Paris, I went to see Marcel Marceau perform. With my new training in mime, I could appreciate the effort it took for this man—an eighty-something year old legend at the time—to do what he was doing. But I wouldn’t have understood it on such a visceral level it if I hadn’t been at Magenia learning to do it myself. Marceau betrayed nothing of the effort in his performance.

Seeing his astounding work, I knew that was exactly as it should be. Art should look easy. Or, more to the point, the finished piece should never reveal the difficulties that the artist had in creating the work.

Ella, the founder and director of Magenia, put it this way. To make art, you need two things: talent and a lot of work. Obvious enough, but she took it one step further and specified that you need only 1% talent and 99% work! I believe it.

The painting that follows certainly was a lot of work, both conceptually and compositionally. I struggled more with it—and learned more with it—than with any other painting I’ve made to date. It’s a portrait of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny for my upcoming series, Apple Pie.

Bugs Bunny, Warner Brothers

In combining Loveness’ likeness with Bugs Bunny’s, I wanted to convey some pretty serious and oddly obscure(d) stuff with the painting, and I toyed with a myriad of compositions before settling on one.

a sketch of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny

With this portrait, I was looking to bring into relief the Wabbit’s origins in the Minstrelsy tradition of the 1800s, a fact betrayed by his white gloves but never given its due in our everyday consumption of all things Bugs.

The Wabbit’s family tree looks something like this. The trickster hare figure of Africa came to the United States during the Slave Trade. Once on American soil, the hare mutated into the character of Br’er Rabbit: that’s where Bugs gets his long ears and love of carrots. The other side of Bugs’ family originates in a purely American combination of emancipated slaves moving to Northern cities and poor Irish immigrants upset with the new competition for the same jobs. Some of these disaffected Celts invented Minstrelsy, using traditional Irish dances and stereotypes of plantation blacks to entertain as well as to play on the fear of change. The original white Minstrels covered their faces and necks with burnt cork, but didn’t have durable makeup to hide their white hands. White gloves did the trick and became a staple of American entertainment.*

I wanted the portrait of Loveness to reveal this history. I tried putting a visual version of this genealogical tree in the background, but the composition became too busy. I thought to have Loveness holding a Bugs Bunny mask as in this sketch, but a mask doesn’t have the same feel as makeup. I decided I had to put her in bunny-face.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 1

Establishing colors.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 2

My plan for the background was ambitious and, in retrospect, completely untenable.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 3

I was going to underpaint in this pattern, meant to reference a close up of a Sambo smile.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 4

I worked to get the sweeping curved lines just so…

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 5

...while at the same time doing a proper portrait of Loveness without bunny-face.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 6

Then I covered the background partially with the Warner Brothers orange. But it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. The background wasn’t reading as a blackface smile or as the Warner Brothers symbol. On top of that, the saturation of orange was jarring since the figure was not fully grey and white. I knew I had to start applying the makeup in order to even have a chance at making the composition work.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 7

That last challenge was probably a blessing since I might never have had the courage to start applying bunny-face makeup to Loveness’ image otherwise!

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 8

Though I’ve done theater for years, I never learned to apply makeup. I don’t wear it on a daily basis and, when in theatrical situations, I always managed to find a cast-mate willing to do the job for me. Here I was trying to apply bunny-face to a portrait I was painting when I had no experience whatsoever in painting faces—in a manner of speaking!

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 9

The orange still wasn’t working for me.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 10

I reverted to a Sambo smile.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 11

Ultimately, I realized that I wasn’t comfortable referencing that, even so abstractly.

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny, phase 12

Grasping at straws, I painted over the background in brown, and that’s when it suddenly started to look right!

painting of a Zimbabwean-American as Bugs Bunny

Gwenn Seemel
Why The Wabbit Wears White Gloves (Zimbabwean-American)
acrylic on seersucker
36 x 24 inches

painting on seersucker, rabbit ear tag

detail image of Why The Wabbit Wears White Gloves

There’s an identification tag in the ear of the bunny costume. It reads “African Trickster Hare.”

a black woman in white bunny face

detail image of Why The Wabbit Wears White Gloves

And there’s a zipper at the neck here to make it clear (on closer inspection) that Loveness is wearing a costume.


*For more information on Minstrelsy, see A History of African American Theatre by Errol G. Hill and James V Hatcher from 2004. And for an all-around fascinating read which also mentions the role of the Minstrelsy tradition in the development of iconic American cartoon characters, see John Leland’s Hip: The History also from 2004.

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CATEGORIES: - English - Apple Pie - Philosophy - Process images -

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(2) Comments / Commentaires: Art should appear effortless.

-- C.J. -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

It was fascinating to see all the stages- thanks!

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-- Ali -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

This is amazing. Thank you for sharing your process with us. Having shared a plane ride home from Paris with you, it was interesting hearing another side of what you went through while you were there. I took a Black Humor and Irony english course this year and I wish I’d discovered some of the ideas you discussed before I wrote my final.
Whether talent is a big part of it or not, you are extremely talented. Either way, your work continues to amaze me. Good luck with everything, Gwenn!

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