Blog / 2022 / The Breath in a Painted Portrait

September 8, 2022

[video transcript]

Breath, movement, the way a person carries themselves: all of these have long been an obsession of mine, though I think this 2013 video is the first time I talk about it in any detail on my blog.

You can hire me to paint you, but you might want to first read about what a portrait says about you.

acrylic painting fine art portrait of a family and their dog, artwork by Lambertville artist Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
John and His Family
acrylic on canvas
30 x 30 inches
acrylic painting of a father
detail of John and His Family
acrylic painting of a mother
detail of John and His Family
acrylic painting of a son
detail of John and His Family
acrylic painting of a daughter
detail of John and His Family
acrylic painting of a dog
detail of John and His Family

I just read Ten Steps to Nanette by Hannah Gadsby, the Australian comedian who famously quit comedy and, by quitting, became an international comedy star. The book was delightfully devastating, or devastatingly delightful, or both. It’s a memoir, and, though all of it was fascinating, my favorite part was in a section where Gadsby was talking about how the human body has been represented in art. She was enumerating some of the ways that white male artists misunderstand the figure, concluding:

“I truly believe that the only universal body is our breath, because breath is the only thing that all human bodies experience. And, as such, it is something we all must share, not just with each other, but, in one way or another, with all living things on Earth.”

So much about this statement is astonishingly beautiful—from the inclusivity of naming breath as the only true universal of the human body to the way it illuminates how connected we are to other animals and plants as well—but my favorite part was that Gadsby put into words something I’ve been struggling to paint my whole life.

I know that I’m supposed to be making still portraits. It’s not like I’m making videos of people: I’m painting them. But always in my work, there’s a sense of the breath of the people I’m painting, because a portrait is incomplete without it. We never see each other as still—we’re always moving and breathing—so a likeness of a person is a likeness of the space they take up and the breath that moves through them.

Which brings me to Sasha Sagan’s book For Small Creatures Such as We, which I also just finished. It’s about the way we find meaning in our lives, both culturally and as individuals. In a chapter about death and the rituals around it, Sagan explains:

“Air particles stay in our atmosphere for such a long time that we breathe the same air as the people who lived thousands of years ago.”

This added layer of interconnection feels important, especially as a deadly airborne virus continues to threaten our lives and the quality of our lives. It reminds me that when I paint the breath and movement of my subjects what I mean is that I paint the space between us.

This video is made with love and microdonations from my community!

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