Blog / 2022 / The Accidental Poetry of the Universe and Portraiture’s Powerful Extremes

April 8, 2022

Lambertville artist Gwenn Seemel with two books featuring her art
photo by Gwenn Seemel

The haphazard poetry of the universe never ceases to amaze me—or maybe it’s more true to say that my ability to assign meaning to randomness never ceases to amuse me! Either way, today’s accidental poetry is brought to you by portraiture, a genre with a rep for being rather stodgy, but whose extremes can give a person whiplash.

I’ve been portraying people since I was a kid, sometimes to make fun of them—like with the high school teachers I mercilessly caricatured—and other times to uplift them—as with the residents at a retirement home where I volunteered growing up.* Twenty-five years later, these opposing forces in portraiture are on display with two books that just came out: Democracy under Fire by Larry Jacobs and The Future We Need by Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta.

Democracy under Fire and The Future We Need, two books with Gwenn Seemel’s art
two books with Gwenn Seemel’s art

I’ve only read a third of each book so far, but I’m already noticing important similarities: both are about the health of our democracy and both explore the history of the wealthy keeping workers from having a say. Jacobs’ book emphasizes more the problem of the elite, as reflected in a cover that mocks one particular member of that dubious class. Meanwhile Smiley and Gupta’s book concentrates on what the rest of us can do about the power imbalance, and the art for the The Future We Need also matches its focus, depicting a number of the workers whose stories appear in the text.

Trump as a Tiki torch, a reference to his support of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017
Gwenn Seemel
The Light of the Right (Donald Trump as a Tiki Torch)
acrylic on canvas
24 x 18 inches
(This painting is for sale for $1500. Email me if you’re interested.)

Portraits are a spotlight: they accentuate whatever the subject is up to by calling attention to them. But unlike a bright focal point on a stage, portraits also reveal the person who’s shining the light. Where the portraitist points and the angle or mode of illumination they choose—will it be a harsh glare or a softer glow?—all these decisions expose the person who’s doing the pointing.

portraits of workers from The Future We Need, book published by Cornell University Press
portraits of workers featured in The Future We Need
(Many of these paintings are still for sale for $1500. Email me if you’re interested.)

Balancing the powerful extremes of portraiture isn’t always easy, especially when it’s how you make a living, which is why these two books coming out at the same time pleases me so much. The simultaneous publishing is nothing more than the randomness of the pandemic delaying The Future We Need from its original release date of spring 2020. I understand intellectually that it’s all chance, but the serendipity of this moment still feels like a confirmation of sorts. It’s proof that the genre that raised me as an artist and that is too often dismissed can be seen as richly layered and fascinating by more than just me.

In fact, my first and second book cover have earned me write-ups in both the New Hope Patch and Flemington-Raritan TAPinto!

* If you’d like to see my teenage portraiture, this video includes a flip-through of my high school sketchbooks.

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!


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