Blog / 2008 / On Being Part of the Transitional Generation

April 17, 2008

Apple Pie is my upcoming series about what it means to be an American. The subjects are mostly immigrants and the children of immigrants, along with one African American and one Native American. Each of the subjects’ likenesses is combined with the image of an American icon, anyone from Elvis Presley to Susan B Anthony.

If Snow Days is dedicated to my father, then Apple Pie belongs to my mother. Anxious to be anywhere but her native France, my mother immigrated to Canada in her twenties. She came to the US with my father, a long-time Montrealite but an American by birth. I have my father to thank for my American citizenship, but I have my mother to thank for knowing how lucky that makes me.

Through my mother, I have an intimate knowledge of another culture. It isn’t simply the superficial understanding gleaned from travel, but concrete insights gained from real commitments outside of the US, in the form of family obligations which divide me between two continents.

What’s more, fluency in French (learned by total immersion when I was young) helps me to comprehend just how much of an outsider I am when I visit France. It’s very clear that the French culture is not mine, but also that I could choose it instead of the US at any time. With the help of the language, I could become (almost) fully French instead of American. In other words, my transitional status allows me to choose where and, to some degree, whom to be.

I’ve chosen the United States. My intimate knowledge of another country helps me to appreciate the US, even when it disappoints me. In a way, it makes me more American than someone whose family has been here for generations.

The United States are, originally, a nation of choosers. For everyone except those with Native American or African heritage early on, our ancestors chose to be here. Maybe all that the US needs now is for every one of us to actively choose it again.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic
Grant Wood’s American Gothic 1930

This painting was conceived as the double portrait of an old maid and her father—the models were actually the artist’s sister and his dentist. Wood was addressing a particular kind of sanctimonious stalwartness that he felt defined the Midwest at the time. He was poking fun at small-town self-righteous types, and, when the painting debuted, the targets of his satire were not pleased with it.

Then again, neither were the modernist pundits. Wood’s focus was too figurative and too regional to be considered avant-garde. At its inception, the piece had only a handful of champions, but with their help it became a painted image to rival the Mona Lisa in its omnipresence (in the US at least).

American Gothic for a new generation, painting process

I decided to remake American Gothic for a new generation of Americans. My subjects are a real-life father and daughter. Cherif immigrated to the United States from France but he is originally from Algeria. His daughter’s name is Taous.

work in process painting by Gwenn Seemel

I wanted my version, Amazigh Gothic, to be the foil to American Gothic’s exaggerated plainness. I chose particularly dynamic expressions for Cherif and Taous.

WIP for an American Gothic remix

The title comes from the Berber word for “free men” and “Amazigh” is what the native people of North Africa call themselves. Cherif is Kabyle, a Berber of Algeria.

portraitist artwork process photo

I changed the window detailing from the original Gothic style shown in American Gothic to a shape resembling the one which appears on the Berber flag.

American Gothic by Gwenn Seemel process shot

I don’t often depict architecture, so lines of the roof were a challenge for me. In this process shot, they still look wonky.

painting WIP by independent artist Gwenn Seemel

The architecture looks right in this image, but there were still some details to work on. I needed to give the window depth and put a mint plant on the front porch.

American Gothic with an Algerian-American daughter and father
Gwenn Seemel
Amazigh Gothic (Algerian-American, Taous and Cherif)
acrylic on panel
35 x 30 inches

The last part of the painting to come together is the cameo that Taous wears. I made it into a portrait of her mother.

painting of a cameo, tiny portrait by Gwenn Seemel
detail of Amazigh Gothic

It’s the smallest portrait I’ve ever made and it wasn’t easy to capture the likeness, but it seemed important to include her since she gave Taous her American citizenship.

painting of a window, artwork
detail of Amazigh Gothic

The window detailing in Wood’s American Gothic isn’t just the reason for the painting’s name—it being a detail of the American Gothic architecture style. The window is actually the reason for the painting itself!

The artist saw the house and its window in Eldon, Iowa, and decided to imagine the kind of people who might live in it. Wood loved that the Gothic style of architecture had found its way from cathedrals in France to the American prairie’s private homes. And I do too.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


To receive an email every time I publish a new article or video, sign up for my special mailing list.


If you enjoyed this post, Ko-fi allows you to donate. Every dollar you give is worth a bajillion to me!