Blog / 2014 / The Roles We Play

June 16, 2014

In the last few years, I’ve come to realize that we all play roles for each other. I don’t mean this in the sense that your doctor, for example, plays the role of “doctor” in your life. I mean it in that way that one friend can play the role of “nurturer” to you, while another plays “challenger.”

painted self-portrait
Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Monkey
2004
acrylic on canvas
19 x 13 inches

Neither of those roles fully encompass who those friends are as whole people, but that doesn’t matter. The roles we assign aren’t about the people in our lives: they’re about our own filters and needs. They’re a way of simplifying the world so that we can understand it and process it on a daily basis.

painted self-portrait
Gwenn Seemel
Artist as Contributing Member of Society
2005
acrylic on canvas
24 x 18 inches

And these roles are fascinating to me. They’re the reason I became a portraitist. After all, my preferred way of painting a portrait is by uncovering what roles a person acknowledges that they play for others so that I can portray the subject in those roles.

painted portrait of Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
detail image of Over Grown Up (Woman)
2006
acrylic on unmounted canvas
24 x 120 inches
(See the full image here.)

That said, I also know that these roles can be dangerous to relationships. When someone steps out of the role that you’ve assigned them, they can seem to be acting erratically, but that’s not really a fair evaluation. It’s your expectations for them that have been violated and not necessarily their expectations for themselves.

colorful painted portrait of woman with an octagonal shape in the background
Gwenn Seemel
Once Was My Father’s Hero
2007
acrylic on twill
17 x 13 inches

For this reason and many others, I find it’s useful to try to decipher the roles others have assigned me as well as the roles I’ve assigned to others. It helps me be a more compassionate person, both with myself and with others.

painted portrait of Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Rapunzel Told Me So
2007
acrylic on bird’s eye piqué
30 x 24 inches

At the moment, I’m especially interested in the roles I play in my professional life. There’s the “feckless art chick” role. That’s what I play to anyone who doesn’t have much respect for art or artists, and there’s little I can do to convince someone who sees artists this way that I’m anything but that, except by keeping on keeping on.

painted self-portrait
Gwenn Seemel
Messy
2009
acrylic on panel
7 x 5 inches

And then there’s the “successful artist who never struggles in any way” role which other artists sometimes cast me in, and, while it’s gratifying to have my hard work recognized, that role is no less confining than any other. Another role that I’m given by some colleagues is that of the sell-out, and I am so done with that notion. Can’t we just all admit that the only person who can tell whether or not they’re selling out is the person themselves?

two painted portrait of the same woman
Gwenn Seemel
Fragile (Before) and Sensual (After)
2012
acrylic on panel
4 x 8 inches (combined dimensions)

Still, my least favorite professional role by far is the “prostitute” role. Artists, female and male alike, tend to be viewed as sexually open or adventurous. Where women artists are concerned and especially women who make a living with their art, this translates to “prostitute” with alarming regularity.

Gwenn Seemel portrait
Gwenn Seemel
Hysterical
2013
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches

I know someone views me this way when they tell me I’m a “cute artist girl.” Or when I arrive at their home for an interview and they answer the door in their bathrobe. Or when they lean in for a kiss during a photo-session. These reactions to me as “prostitute artist” are dangerous to me physically in varying degrees, but they are all dangerous to me emotionally.

little girl on a beach
Gwenn Seemel
Tomboy
2013
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches

Like most people, I sometimes have trouble with the roles that are assigned to me. By design, none of them express fully who I am, and that simplification can be galling. I’ve always wanted to be seen as a whole human. I remember telling boys who liked me in high school that I wanted to be seen as a person by them instead of as a girl. At the time, I viewed the “girl” role as limiting in so many ways—both in a relationship with another person and when connecting with the world more generally.

Gwenn Seemel self-portrait on a canvas tote with dandelion in the background
Gwenn Seemel
detail image of Dandelion
2014
acrylic on a canvas bag
13 x 18 x 4 inches

Recently though, I’ve come to see it’s not possible for us to see each other as whole people for the most part. I’ve also come to the conclusion that’s maybe even okay a lot of the time. After all, it’s not like I’m always completely aware of myself as a whole person all the time either.

UPDATE

July 20, 2015

I expand on these ideas in this video about an art teacher who told me I would never be a real artist.

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