Blog / 2008 / My Disposable Thumb

July 20, 2008

Four years ago now, I was involved in a little thing called Theater. I was doing it as a way to feed my long-standing interest in mime, but, in that way that Theater often does, it started to take over all aspects of my life.

For one show, I acted and also did a series of portraits of the cast in character. Trickster, as this devised theater piece and the portraits I painted for it were called, was my first foray into the sub-genre of allegorical portraiture, which has recently become my passion.

Those portraits led to a gig doing the 2004-2005 season publicity images for another theater company in town. This collaboration ended up being not only a great way to get someone else to pay for plastering the city with my images but also a valuable lesson in incorporating other elements besides a face in my compositions.

photo by Siouxsie Suarez
photo by Siouxsie Suarez

Then, in late 2004, I appeared in Defunkt Theatre’s production of Mac Wellman’s A Murder of Crows. My brother was directing the piece, but I’d like to think I was cast based on my talent at being a crow. (I’d already played a blackbird on my high school’s stage, so I’m convinced that I’m a natural when it comes to acting fowl).

The photo above shows us in a rehearsal moment with the set not quite completed. In the middle, her wings spread, is Madeleine, whose portrait I ended up painting for my series about death and dying since, at the time, she was a pediatric oncology nurse by day.

As well as acting in A Murder of Crows, I ended up playing a crucial role in the building of the set. I painted the backdrop. The total dimensions of the stormy sky wall hangings were 52 by 12 feet.

I worked on the strips of canvas laid out on the floor of the theater. It wasn’t the first time I’d worked so large. I had designed and painted big murals in one or two kids’ rooms when I was a teenager, but I hadn’t ever painted on the horizontal. And, in case you’ve never tried it, Pollock had it right, it’s a whole lot of fun!

laying on the kitchen floor trying not to pass out
photo by David Vanadia

Fast-forward to last month. A day or two before this photo was taken, I had this brief flash of wouldn’t-it-be-terrible-if-I-hurt-my-hand-somehow. I still had nine of the twenty Apple Pie paintings to complete by the beginning of August, so I wasn’t looking on any delays favorably.

Then it’s early June and I’m making dinner, opening a can of corn, and I manage to slice the pad of my thumb to the bone. This picture shows me trying to not pass out right after the accident—clearly my tough-girl act is just that! Between patching me up and making sure I was comfortable, David managed to document this woozy moment.

Gwenn Seemel’s studio 2008
photo by David Vanadia

Two weeks before this accident, I had finally started this Apple Pie painting, Indian, a portrait of an Indian-American—an immigrant from India, that is—in a totem pole. The painting is 4 by 4 feet. This is a larger composition than I usually get to do in our cozy apartment, and, what’s more, the likeness within the painting is just 2 inches squared. This means that I had a lot of canvas to fill with something besides a face!

Gwenn Seemel’s studio 2008
photo by David Vanadia

That’s when I decided to lay down the painting.

Gwenn Seemel’s studio 2008
photo by David Vanadia

And go at it with thoroughly watered-down paint.

Gwenn Seemel’s studio 2008
photo by David Vanadia

I was already playing in this way before I put my thumb out of commission, but, for two weeks after the can-of-corn incident, this was the only way I could paint: pushing around pools of pigment and delighting in the drips on the nine canvases I had yet to complete. Needless to say, the latter half of Apple Pie has a different look from the earlier work, but it’s a direction that I’m thrilled about!

While I’m glad that my thumb is almost as good as new again and I’m happy to be able to do the detail work that’s only possible with an opposable thumb, I can’t say I fully regret my clumsiness in the kitchen.


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