Face Making

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

Unintended audience

2017 . 06 . 01 - Comments / Commentaires (8)

It was an essay by a woman of color, and it was explaining how oppressive white women are towards women of color. It listed many everyday offenses, and, as each crime was named, one phrase repeated in my mind: “I hope I don’t do that.” The refrain was part plea for absolution and part resolution to be firmer as I encouraged the white women in my life to examine their role in oppression.

I was reading the essay because I wanted to understand the author’s perspective. But then I came to a line describing a white woman who would read the essay and think it wasn’t about her. This was close enough to my hopeful refrain that it jolted me into taking a closer look at the piece.

That’s when I realized I had misunderstood who the intended audience was for the essay. The article was written by a woman of color for other women of color about their experience of white women. As a white woman, I could read it if I wanted and I could even learn from it, but I should understand that it wasn’t written for me.

at home or in the world

Gwenn Seemel
White bread (Evelyn fitting in) and The activist (Evelyn standing out)
acrylic on bird’s eye piqué
both 18 inches in diameter
(For more about the making of The activist, check out this video.)

Intended audience is something I’m thinking about a lot at the moment. On 10 June, I’m opening Empathetic Magic at the MT Burton Gallery. I made the series of paintings for a certain kind of person. Specifically, I made it for open-minded people who are at least a little curious about how others experience the world.

Unfortunately, this means my art is not for everyone. In particular, it means it’s not for many Trump era Republicans, and yet the show is opening in Ocean County, New Jersey, a place where progressives don’t even bother to run in local elections. (Instead, we get to choose between different flavors of conservatives. There are regular Republicans and conservative ones as well as “renew and restore” Republicans and “drain the swamp” ones on the current ballot.)



detail of White bread (Evelyn fitting in)

So why am I showing Empathetic Magic magic in Ocean County at all? Well, despite its overwhelmingly conservative year-round population, the Long Beach Island portion of the county—the portion where the gallery is located—becomes more liberal during the summer when vacationers from nearby cities come to play. I’m showing Empathetic Magic for them as well as for the open-minded people who do live around here.

But knowing my intended audience doesn’t get me off the hook. It doesn’t mean I can avoid dealing with people who don’t belong to my audience. I am almost certainly going to be having some frustrating conversations with Trump supporters in the next month.

activist art

detail of The activist (Evelyn standing out)

How do you tell someone that the art isn’t for them? How do you say that they’re welcome to look at it, but, that if they don’t like it or don’t get it, you don’t actually want to hear about it because you didn’t make the art with them in mind? How do you say something like that without embroiling yourself in even more frustrating conversations about free speech, that thing that Trump supporters worship when they’re talking and despise when anyone else has the mic?

The author of the essay did it well. I need to figure how I’m going to do it.

- -—UPDATE 2017 . 06 . 05—- -

So, New Jersey ballots look very different from Oregon ones, and I totally misread it. There are liberals to vote for locally! This makes me very happy.

- You make a difference.
- Being an ally is scary. / Être allié fait peur.
- Can artists make money?

CATEGORIES: - English - Empathetic Magic - Featuring artists - Feminism - Practice - Reviews -

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(8) Comments / Commentaires: Unintended audience

-- Libby Fife -- 2017 . 06 . 01 --


Maybe you have the perfect opportunity right in front of you. When the person viewing the work balks and says they don’t get it or don’t agree with things, maybe that is the time to ask them how you can help. (Turn it from a selling situation into a fact-finding mission.) It might be a great time to ask them exactly what they are seeing. What are their impressions? (Knowing in advance that you can’t convince them, knowing that their arguments aren’t yours but understanding that they have some sort of viewpoint.) And you never know. People can surprise you.

All I can say is that the work is wonderful and democracy is very hard. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly all in one squishy ball. I hope this helps and I wish you much luck:)

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-- Gwenn -- 2017 . 06 . 01 --

@Libby: I can see where you’re coming from, but, in my experience, both online and off, some people are not for me to reach or even for me to reach out to. People who say truly hateful things unremorsefully are not for me. Someone has to be at least a little open-minded or it’s not worth it.

This is a lesson I’ve learned from years of beating my head against the wall of their narrow views, and I need to allow myself this grace of recognizing that I don’t have to listen to everyone. If I don’t, I won’t stay sane.

Knowing when someone isn’t a part of their audience is one of the most important things an artist can do for themselves and for their work!

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-- Libby Fife -- 2017 . 06 . 01 --


It’s true-you are right about that. I spent some time in sales and always felt that we came at things from the wrong end of the stick. There were people that simply couldn’t be reached (And we got dinged for not being able to “sell” to them.) And it is frustrating to try and convince. It’s hard to give up also.

Like you, I can’t listen to everything. Most of it is just so awful. I can’t even watch the news much anymore. Just the weather:)

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-- Cathy Hasty -- 2017 . 06 . 01 --

I admire your courage, tenacity and conviction - along side the compelling and beautiful work.  For myself I grow weary quickly in those kinds of conversations.  I protect my limited energy to engage people who have their minds made up.  When I get the sense that the person only wants to get in an argument (to distract them from their own internal chaos,)  I dis engage as kindly and quickly as I can.  I have said “that’s interesting” which sometimes distracts them into telling me about themselves.  Sometimes I have I have noted the process of the conversation, rather than the content, such as “you have very strong opinions about this… “.or “this seems important to you….”  If I can keep my wits about me, I can be curious about what they noticed that started the response.  I look forward to hearing how it goes!

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-- Gwenn -- 2017 . 06 . 01 --

@Cathy: First, I love how you note that people sometimes engage in this type of stuff to distract from their own internal chaos. So true.

Second, I like the idea of responding by naming the process. It’s a good way to engage without engaging. I’m going to keep that in my back pocket for sure!

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-- Kate Powell -- 2017 . 06 . 01 --

Okay, unintended plug-ins.

I am at a loss.  I read the essay and I know this is just a coincidence (there are none) but no commments allowed.  So this plugged me in like no tomorrow. 

I didn’t grow up prejudiced.  We had one black family with kids in our town and I wasn’t friends with them because I wasn’t part of the popular crowd—yes they were—cheerleaders and football players and all that.  I had black friends in college, some at workplaces.  I simply didn’t think about being prejudiced. 

Then I moved to Portland.  I met one person I liked and tried to make friends and got hated for it.  Wow.  Hated. For. It.  Projected upon like crazy, door slammed in my face, talk to the hand.  That is when I learned at 50 that there is prejudice both ways, thank you.  People of color have more excuses, but there it is.  And I cannot do a damn thing about it except when it is in front of me. So at the end of the article no comments allowed.  Coincidence? 

Plug-ins over.  Still at a loss.  I have lost so many friends over these political issues that I cannot imagine being in your shoes and will surround you with wuju protection and say hope you have a quiet place to come home to at the end of the day!  So far I like Cathy’s suggestion best.  And “The meaning of my art is in the eye of the beholder.” 

Frankly the only thing good that is happening in all this hate and disparity (I remember when the right and left could talk and work with each other) is that I, for the first time in ages, have an idea for painting a series.  Huggs.

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-- Gwenn -- 2017 . 06 . 01 --

@Kate: A lot of writers and content creators are opting for no comments these days—especially if they have marginalized identities and are writing about those identities. I have shut off comments for certain videos and blog posts too. I think it’s okay to not always provide the platform for response. When people really want to respond, they will find ways to do it—like I’m doing on my blog. smile

As for people of color having a problem with white people, it’s not pleasant, but it’s also understandable. As an analogy, I would say that I am much more cautious in my interactions with men than I am in my interactions with other women. This comes from years of men treating me poorly and of being generally oppressed by the patriarchy. It doesn’t mean that I hate all men, just that I am initially cautious. So I understand and support the caution of people of color around white people.

Thank you for the good feelings and I look forward to seeing how all this will turn into art for you! I’ve followed some of your frustration on social media and I know it has been hard for you. I’ve appreciated your outspoken-ness as it makes me feel less alone!

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-- Kate Powell -- 2017 . 06 . 01 --

Hi Gwenn,

I assume that it is due to trolls, and don’t blame her.  It is why I owned this—“unintended plug-in.”  And yes, people of color have lived with so much hatred.  And that is why I am willing to go the distance to ask if they are open to discussion with me to resolve.  So far, not one.  THAT is what makes me sad and I have to fight my own tendency to run.

I hear you on the men; mine comes with women.  Abuse and hurtful, versus my male role models and interactions were mostly better in my early years… though I walk with pepper spray in our studio neighborhood, because

I like having a way (still working out in my head and on paper) to voice my issues in art.  It lifts my heart to know that I can do this.  It may not make a difference in the big picture but it lifts my consciousness, which I believe makes a difference in the planetary vibration.  I so want to hear how it all went.

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