Blog / 2019 / A Job with Justice

March 6, 2019

For 16 years, I’ve been an artist with a rather peculiar focus. The strange core of my practice has afforded me certain opportunities, but it has also turned some art world institutions against my work.

Unlike many so-called “portraitists” (including the likes of Kehinde Wiley and Chuck Close), I actually paint the people I’m painting. I mean that I don’t just see people as models—as a kind of object to depict superficially. Instead, I view the art I make as a collaboration with the people I paint. After all, I may be creating the painting, but they spent years making themselves into the person I am painting. It seems wrong to pretend like the subject’s contribution to the portrait is negligible!

Lots of mainstream art-types view the way I embrace the people I paint as a recipe for “vanity art,” and they see my commission portrait work not as fine art but as the behavior of an irredeemable sell-out.

Their reaction disappoints me, but I’ve long since given up on the idea of being an institutional artist. My freedom of expression and my ability to help people connect with art in a deep way is more important to me than the playing along with the art world just to gain acceptance, accolades, and funding.

Still, I won’t pretend that my newest project, working with the Jobs with Justice co-directors Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta, on their upcoming book doesn’t thrill me.

I love the project itself:

The book is about collective bargaining and how it can be used by more than just labor unions. It will feature the stories of a number of workers from across the country, and I am painting portraits of these workers for the project.

My part of the book pleases me immensely. I love that I get to travel to new places in the US and meet new people. And I am thrilled by the way the gesture breaks with the portrait tradition that most people know about—the tradition that dictates that portraiture is only for popes and kings. My genre has a history of uplifting the nobility of those not belonging to the noble class, but it’s not as well known. I love that these paintings will reinforce the newer, more interesting portraiture tradition.

And I love the things that come with the project:

My art will be associated with multiple well-established institutions, beginning with Jobs with Justice, of course, but also including Rutgers and Georgetown, who are advising on and assisting in some of the work. And, next year, Cornell will be publishing the book!

It feels right that my eccentric and obsessive love of my subjects is finally paying off in the institutional sense. I still may not have my kind of work recognized by mainstream art-types, but the institutional backing I am receiving feels really good. The validation is valuable.

drawing by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Bettie
2019
marker on paper
8 x 5 inches

This is Bettie, one of the workers I met last week. She’s part of the fight for a $15 minimum wage and a light to everyone she meets. I am so looking forward to painting her!

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