Faces from the Edge of the Earth
Like the physical world, life undergoes momentous changes. In before-and-after portraits of seven women, artist Gwenn Seemel tracks the elusive quality of transitions.
On the first Thursday in July a woman walked through the doors of the Littman Gallery at Portland State University and saw herself across the room. Mary Anne Gard stood quietly for several seconds and stared into her own eyes. Finally, she said: “I feel like I’m seeing myself for the first time today.” On the gallery’s back wall hung two portraits of Gard, painted one year apart. Cautiously, Gard moved toward the portraits, her partner and two of her friends on either side of her. “Do you think it looks like you?” everyone wanted to know.
In a way, it was a difficult question to answer, because these portraits were not especially concerned with photographic fealty. They were reaching for something much more elusive, something Gard had hinted at a few days before, when I’d asked her why she’d agreed to sit for the artist, a woman named Gwenn Seemel.
“Gwenn doesn’t just paint to paint,” Gard had said. “She’s really interested in telling stories with her portraits.”
With these particular acrylic portraits, in an exhibition she calls “Swollen: Portraits From the Edge of the Earth,” Seemel was interested in telling stories of change—other people’s, as well as her own, although the latter was not something she had anticipated.
But that’s the thing about Seemel: Although her portraits might be of other people, stare at them long enough and you’ll find they have an interesting way of becoming as much about her and her own hunger to understand the world and her place in it.
Over the past four years—since she graduated from Willamette University—Seemel, 26, who paints portraits exclusively, has used her art as a kind of personal gazette, a way to explore the universe, then report back her findings in paint.
Curious about death, she tracked down funeral directors, hospice nurses, soldiers, forensic pathologists—people who “think about mortality because you would rather not.” She interviewed them at length, photographed them, then painted their portraits. She’s taken this same approach with news anchors, weathermen, politicians, even gallery owners. Last year, she generated a good deal of controversy—and press—when she contacted men who had posted personal ads on Craigslist and offered…to paint them.
Now, she’s using her portraits to explore a new proposition—one she traces back to the before-and-after photos at her dentist’s office, photos which always horrified and fascinated her. The way a woman could seem so sad in one frame, because of something like a little gap between her teeth, but by the second frame, the gap is gone. She is transformed, smiling, made-up, air-brushed. It made Seemel wonder: What if that whole process wasn’t so rigged? Could you really see change in someone’s face?
And so she decided to conduct her own before-and-after experiment.
She tracked down seven women about to undergo a dramatic transformation in the next year—from pregnancy to puberty to sex reassignment surgery. She painted their portraits before the change took place. Then, one year later, she painted their portraits again. She also decided to include “a control subject,” someone who didn’t anticipate experiencing any big changes over the next year. So, she painted herself.
Seemel had always included her portrait in her past exhibits. Maybe every story—even one on canvas—needs a narrator, someone who can stand in for us and ask the big questions on our behalf. In this case: What does change look like? Is it something we can capture? Is change something we can even see?
In many ways, Seemel has used portraits of other people as a way to better understand herself. She calls her extensive interviews with her subjects—sometimes lasting as long as three hours—an exercise in “selfish listening.”
“I feel everyone’s got something they can teach me,” she says. “Someone inevitably has an answer I didn’t even realize I needed.” She says this with genuine sincerity.
At first, Seemel had imagined her before-and-after project mostly in terms of measuring profound physical change. For the first time in her portraits, she decided to add backgrounds—metaphorical hints (these are, after all, “portraits from the edge of the Earth”) tying each woman’s change to a geological transition the Earth has gone through. “I’m a little bit of a science nut,” she says. “This gave me an excuse to do research.”
But soon she realized it was the subtle questions that interested her far more. One was, is there a moment when you know you’re different?
Maybe all this had something to do with the fact that not long before she started the project, Seemel had fallen in love with a man named David Vanadia, a storyteller and organizer of a do-it-yourself storytelling night in Portland. It was, in effect, her own before and after.
Before David: “I could not imagine that anyone would so take my imagination I would so want to spend so much time with them.” After David: She started thinking a lot about who she was ... With him ... On her own ... Because of him ...
Now, here she was, looking at these women and how they were defining themselves in light of their own changes, and her mind whirred with questions: How did having a baby change how you thought about yourself? What about getting married? Having your period? Growing old? At what point did you feel like you were a woman? (“Something about that word”—woman—“was always very intimidating to me.”)
As was her custom, Seemel interviewed the women for hours before attempting their portraits, and when she finally sat down to compose her images, she drew as much from the stories the women told her about themselves as the photographs she snapped during their conversations. Deep down she must have sensed that these women’s answers would help her define herself.
In the days leading up to the opening, I met with five of the women who posed for Seemel’s before-and-after series. At the time, they hadn’t seen their final portraits, though I had. The paintings were stacked next to each other throughout Seemel’s living room, like pages torn from a flip book, and I had studied them, in addition to the photographs Seemel had taken of the women during their interviews. They all focused tightly on the women’s faces.
Before I tell you whether Seemel’s portraits captured any dramatic differences (Seemel herself had predicted in the beginning: “Nothing’s going to happen in a year that will show on someone’s face”), before we even look at a canvas, I think it makes sense to hear from the subjects.
Michelle Cheney was about six months pregnant when Seemel first spoke to her. Today her daughter, Delaney Cheney-Scholz, is 18 months old. “What was most interesting about the experience was the interview Gwenn does,” says Cheney, as she watches her daughter toddle around the living room of her Tigard home. “She asks all these really intimate questions, but it doesn’t feel like she’s prying. I actually went and journaled after each interview. She asked questions like: What does it mean to be a woman? When exactly did you feel like a woman? When you got married? When you graduated from college? I really hadn’t thought about it. I felt like a grown-up when I bought my house. But that was just three years ago. I didn’t really feel like a grown-up when I got married, and I was 30.”
When she had Delaney, though, she could sense a perceptible shift in herself. “It made me feel like I was part of secret club,” she says. “I totally got what other women mean when they talk about a life growing inside you.” At the same time, she recalls writing in her journal maybe two months after Delaney was born. “Even though I loved being a mother, I still missed my old life,” she says. “I realized: You basically have to go through a kind of grief process for your old life… .” Something about that act felt significant, she says—“just acknowledging my life is different now.”
Think about that as you hear what Andrea Payne Osterlund had to say about participating in Seemel’s project. She first sat for Seemel not long after she’d gotten engaged. “A lot of people get so wrapped up in the process,” she says. “They don’t even have time to think about personal change and what’s happening.” The time might have passed in a blur for her, too, but knowing that Seemel was paying close attention made her pay much closer attention herself: “You really thought about it—you really realized what was actually happening.” She had anticipated marriage would be a “slow natural change.” Instead, she says, “It was huge.” Why, I ask. “It wasn’t just me in the world anymore,” she says. “I now had a responsibility and an attachment to someone else.”
Then there is Mary Anne Gard, who first sat for Seemel as Gard was just entering menopause. “It was fantastic someone would say, ‘Hey, your life is worth noticing at this time,’ ” says Gard. “It has typically been the case in our society that menopausal women have been thrown away… . (But) I’ve found menopause is very powerful. You shift from a person who goes along with the world, the role you’re expected to play, to a more independent person. I think with menopause your spirit shifts… . It’s nice to feel that sense of freedom, and here comes someone who says, ‘Let’s celebrate this freedom, let’s mark it, let’s put it down in paint, let’s talk about it.’”
And so, in the end I could tell you that in some cases, the women look completely different from their first portrait to their second. In Mary Anne’s case there is an air of reserve, almost a frailty in her first portrait, while in her second, her face looks rounder, stronger and more open. Andrea seems nervous in her first portrait and more contemplative, more settled, more mature in her second. But how much of that is a physical manifestation of what happened to them—and how much is all mixed up with everything you just heard, the stories and the experiences?
Now you have a sense of how Seemel works.
Three weeks before Seemel’s opening, I visited her basement studio for the first time, where, amid washers and dryers, pots of paint and racks of unstretched canvases, she was still working on two paintings for the exhibit. One was her final self-portrait, which had been giving her a bit of trouble. “I feel like there’s a little bit of saying goodbye to your old self,” she had said. Even though she had gone into the project anticipating no big changes in her life, the truth was, she felt like she had changed a lot, listening to all these women, absorbing their stories.
Which brings us to the other painting she was working on: the final portrait of a woman named Paula Funatake. Seemel first met with Funatake not long before Funatake traveled to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery. And while you might then expect hers to be the most dramatic transformation in the series, it is in fact, perhaps the quietest. As Funatake explains it, she had already made the transition to live as a woman a little more than five years ago, and so, in many ways, she felt she had already been through her biggest changes, long before the surgery. And yet, Funatake’s portraits are perhaps the closest thing the exhibit has to a turning point. All along, Seemel had been asking her subjects whether there was a moment they knew they were women. It was Funatake who gave Seemel the answer she didn’t even realize she had been looking for. As Funatake put it, “The notion of woman and identity—really it’s about what’s inside.”
“Hearing her say that,” says Seemel, “I thought: ‘When do you become a woman?’ ‘It’s when you say you are.’” In other words, change isn’t necessarily something you can see. It is something you know inside yourself. Maybe sometimes you just need someone else to show you what that looks like.
©2007 The Oregonian