Seth // Germantown, Md.
A painter talks about his grandmother's blankets, grinding bumpers, and how to be a man.
Loath as I am to admit it, there's a right way to look at paintings.
Look--I'd rather be egalitarian about it. I'd like to believe that anyone can understand any kind of art if they spend enough honest time with it.
But after seeing a young man fall down in a seizure at the Rijksmuseum, and wake up moaning about the colors in Rembrandt's "Jewish Bride," a sort of aesthetic hierarchy becomes difficult to deny. I've never had even an impulse to fall down in front of a painting. I remember getting a sort of thump in the chest when I saw Van Gogh's "Almond Blossoms," but hell, who doesn't? That's like thinking you're a wine connoisseur because you like sangria.
The closest I've ever come to what I think real art appreciation might feel like is when I explored Seth's website for the first time. I thought his cartoon drawings were interesting. I appreciated his courage in posting his concept sketches, rendered in Crayola.
But something else happened when I saw this:
I knew from our cursory acquaintance that Seth's thing (I think the proper word is motif?) was painting plaid. But plaid is not what I saw.
In fact, when I first looked at it, I didn't see anything at all.
Instead, I heard the opening notes of "So What?"
Then I felt the hard plastic of a subway car seat unyielding against my tailbone.
Then I smelled the hot, friendly oppression of an uptown street in summer.
Finally, I saw windows on a Manhattan highrise.
If you're one of the blessed to whom art whispers its secrets, can you tell me if this was done correctly?
I'll tell you what--it felt good to look at a painting and really feel something.
Seth grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a family that didn't do much to sell him on the idea of ever starting his own. Then a new kid moved in down the street, with a family that was markedly different from his. They were dorky, sheltered, fundamentalist...or, as Seth characterizes it now, they made it obvious that they loved each other.
"When you meet a family who are like 'Hey, we're Christians' and it actually does inform their life...a marriage that's really founded on true love, a family that functions out of that...and you say you're a Christian too, but it doesn't really inform your life, and you see that, it's embarrassing. You feel this guilt you can't articulate. So it's like 'They think they're better than us.'
"I was feeling inadequate, I guess. Seeing things through such a colored lens of my own shortcomings, and a lot of fear of my own devices."
Seth and the new kid became best friends, playing in the woods behind their neighborhood and, as they got older, hanging out on his parents' roof. It was there, as they approached the end of high school, that his friend started asking him about what he believed.
"He'd be like 'Hey, do you believe in God?' and I'd be like 'I don't know.' And he'd be like 'Really? You really don't know? What do you honestly think about it?' He knew me really well--he knew that I was just dodging the question.
"A lot of people live with those questions gnawing at them, but they don't deal with it. They try to put it off. I had a friend who really was a friend, and he was like 'I'm not going to let you just put it off.' He even told me once 'I don't care what you come down on, just come down.'
"I'd say 'I definitely think there is a God, but I'm pretty happy, so what's the point?' Not reasoning at all, you know? Just wanting to not feel bad. I really was happy, but I was happy trying to be carefree, partying...whatever carefree people do. And it wasn't working. and he knew that, because he knew what my family life was like."
Seth says that his brain refuses any information that he isn't given an explanation for. This translated to bad grades in school, where teachers berated him for not simply memorizing formulas and following directions. The frustration he felt at his bad grades doubled when he perceived his family's disappointment.
"'You need to be better in school. You're acting like a loser. You're not going to be anything.' I always felt like I never lived up to people's expectations--it was so exasperating. "It was like 'I'm done fucking trying to please you. I can't do it, obviously, so I'm not going to try.' I had friends who didn't seem to care, and it seemed to be working out okay for them.
"The one thing I was good at was art, so they would give me a little bit of encouragement there. but it was more the kind of encouragement you give when you're totally desperate for someone not to become a junkie."
His voice arches sardonically.
"'Yeah! Do that! Go to art college!'"
At the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design (as it was then known), Seth found a community that regarded the world the same way he'd regarded his life in Harrisburg.
"Artists in art school are so cynical. Students who haven't even tried anything are jaded. Your professors are jaded, because they're not rich and famous artists. The ones who are getting notoriety wield it like a club--they're the gods of the school. It just is a horrible atmosphere for cultivating passion, you know what I mean? All it cultivates is bitterness--which is a passion, but it's not passion about art. It's this sort of fuck-the-world attitude, and 'Let's go try to find a grant.'"
For a while, it appealed to Seth. The less he felt that it was possible to be successful as an artist, the more he could enjoy the release offered by spite and resentment.
"It felt good to be like 'Fuck the world. I don't care what happens to me tonight.' And then just drinking until something happens, or something doesn't happen, or I'm throwing up all over a friend's roof--stupid stuff. It was like 'I am so done trying to be what someone wants me to be.'"
During a mid-semester break, Seth was back in Harrisburg, hanging out once again on the roof with his best friend and his friend's girlfriend. The girlfriend was crying, and his friend was trying to comfort her.
"She was pretty upset; they were talking about some really deep stuff. She had become a Christian a couple months before, but I didn't know. I was like 'Oh, great. Here we go again. He's doing this to her now.'
"I don't know what happened--something clicked, and I just realized 'Holy shit. If I die, I deserve to be just wiped out. Or whatever hell is.'"
The things he'd wasted his time on, the lies he'd told his parents, the realization that they loved him in spite of not knowing how to show it, the possibility that he might die tomorrow and have to finally deal with what he believed about God...it all came on him at the same time.
"If there's really a God, and he's really good, and all the things my friend says he is, I'm fucked. And that would be the right thing. And I'm terrified."
All of this flooded his mind in a matter of seconds, Seth says. Immediately after it, the fear segued into certainty that all he had to do was believe in Jesus, and he'd be loved, and saved from what he deserved.
"As soon as that thought happened, that weight was just gone. I wasn't afraid anymore. That sense of 'You're going to die, you're going to go to hell' was gone in a second. The terror was gone, the fear of death was just gone."
And then Seth found himself joining his friend in comforting the girl. He doesn't remember his friend's reaction, though he suspects it came as a surprise when he started talking to her about Jesus as if the belief had always been his own.
Seth immediately began trying to make things right in his life. The first person he went to with his new beliefs was his mom, wanting to ask her forgiveness for lying about his life for so many years. To his surprise, she shut him down, unable to hear his confession.
"I was like, 'Why won't you let me be honest? I've been the asshole, not you. I'm trying to apologize.' That made sense later: I realized that her worst fear is me failing. Me doing these things I was doing. She's going to reflect that on herself."
Confronting his own fears has made Seth a lot more sympathetic toward his family. He realizes now that he wasn't the only one hurting, back then. These days, there's no mistaking the love between him and his parents.
Along with repairing that relationship, Seth was on a mission to make up for the years he'd wasted in school. Art seemed like a waste of effort, compared to reading his Bible. After a few years as a teacher, and moving to Maryland from Pennsylvania, Seth embarked on a summer internship at his church, with the intent of becoming a pastor.
He laughs uneasily, remembering it.
"That's still a hard thing for me. I'm pretty ashamed of that. Just looking back, I'm like...gosh, was that even real?"
The shame isn't that he failed to become a pastor in the end, but that he embarked on it at all. It's a sacred thing, he says, and too many guys decide that it's what they should do, simply on the strength of loving the Bible and wanting to be a good Christian.
"The main thing behind the role of a pastor is someone who lays down their life for people. They sacrifice to care for other people. A lot of times people you don't know, or don't like, or people who are really awkward and uncomfortable, and weird and messed up. You give up what you have to bless them. However that looks, whether it's just talking to them, or buying them something, or actually a ten-year friendship with them where they constantly burn you and hurt you, and you have to love them and lead them.
"I didn't have that in my heart. And that scares me."
Seth realized all this simultaneously with getting fired from his internship.
Despite withdrawing from a life in the pulpit, Seth displays some strong preacherly chops when you get him started on the subject of manhood.
"I think it's awesome that so many guys who are Christians--especially young guys--all they want to do is talk about the Bible, talk about God...they're so full of what you might call zeal. But if a guy doesn't have what I think are very biblical understandings in place, about himself and the world:
"That like work is a gift from God...
"That whatever you do, He wants you to do it with your whole heart, and when you don't do that, it's a revelation about you...
Throughout this speech, his voice has been rising like a football coach, or the right kind of Little League dad. Now it drops, reflective.
"That is missing in so many men. That was profoundly missing in my life. It was subjective, overspiritual: 'This isn't what I'm called to do. That's why I'm not throwing myself into it; that's why I'm not good at it.'
His gentle tone sharpens to a sudden point.
"That's total bullshit. God made you to work hard. If you're lazy, and you don't believe in hard work, I think you'll be a monster in church."
His notions of manhood expanded further by observing the family he was living with.
"Seeing people that lived really loving each other, by something outside themselves, that sealed it. I was like, 'That's something I want someday.'
"I think the Christian view of being in love, and marriage, is amazingly realistic...and, if you embrace that, incredibly romantic."
The desire for a family of his own changed his motivation for work. Fulfillment became less important than the ability to provide. So when a friend approached him about a job in detailing cars, that promised better upward mobility and more financial stability, Seth took the job.
His career change from fine art to blue-collar craftsmanship proved to be about more than just the money he could save.
"It's not just a job. It's been the vessel through which God has taught me how to work hard. It's been the vessel through which he's provided for my family. There's nothing trite about that. It's sacred.
"You should dig that hole, or paint that bumper, or clean out that gutter, or build that frame, or...you know what I mean?...shovel that shit. Whatever it is, you should be doing it as if he was right there, cheering you on while you're doing it. That's how a guy should process work. "If you can't do things that you don't like to do with excellence, you're going to suck at being a husband. You're going to suck at being a dad.
"God's given you whatever's in front of you, and you're called to do it with your whole heart, as if you're doing it directly for him. as if he were right there beside you...if Jesus was right there, standing on water. Healing people. And holding babies. "It's been a long process, and I feel like I'm still learning it, and probably will be, til the day I die. Like, how to be a man."
By the time Seth got married and had started a family, he was hardly painting anymore, beyond an occasional commission from someone who knew that was what he'd gone to school for. But one day, a friend found a box of his paintings from art school.
"He was like, 'Dude, I love these. You should make more.'"
The paintings were a collection of plaid studies that Seth had made, partly as a way to use up extra paint, partly as a sarcastic response to abstract art.
"For so many years, I couldn't figure out why abstract painting was even around. Like 'Why? I don't get it...and even when I get it, I'm just frustrated by it. It's not concrete, it's not telling me. And we need to tell each other things'--I was so big on that--'We're people, we're literal, we have to communicate.'
"Abstract professors that I had a couple times, when they told us why, it was more about the process for them. just experimenting, kind of like their own personal stuff. and that's okay. But 'help me understand the value of this beyond yourself. Because if you don't tell me, I can't look at this and ever get that.'"
But when his friend said he liked them, Seth remembered something else--that those paintings had been a lot of fun to make.
It happened, he said at a moment when he was feeling ready to paint again, but the way he'd been trained to paint wasn't inspiring to him anymore. He wanted a new challenge, something that resonated with his new approach to life.
"I should be open to doing something that I'm not comfortable with. That's part of what my life's about right now. But I needed a bridge. Something to take me from painting literal pictures of people and things, to painting nothing--I wanted to make the point that it's not nothing. I felt that plaid really made that point."
Plaid, he says, isn't nothing. As he talks about the meaning the plaid came to have for him--from the ancient tartans that men would die to defend the dignity of, to underwear that men put on without even noticing its colors--I start to get excited, too.
To me, the appeal of Seth's paintings seemed always to be the deep, uninhibited joy of the oversaturated colors, the unabashed joy of a child fingerpainting. And yet the patterns suggest something more than that. In the past year, as I've watched his body of work expand from 90-degree stripes and primary gradients, to glowstick-hued angles that creep across the canvas like fabolous caterpillars, the memories his paintings evoke aren't always warm and fuzzy.
Some of them make me think of the kids who humiliated me by taking the Nintendo controls from my inept hands.
Some make me think of the matching stretch-pants and scrunchies I wore in the years when no t-shirt was big enough to hide the baby fat that I couldn't seem to lose.
But then I look at the titles of the paintings--"Heroica Ciudad Juárez," "All the Eggs," "Window Time"--and realize that what made me respond so viscerally has a completely different meaning to him, to say nothing of the person standing next to me.
Wherever Seth shows his work, it elicits not only smiles, but stories.
"People are like 'Dude, this captured me, because of this.' I'll be like "What the heck, really?' That's why I'm doing this.
"Connecting with something in their history--that means so much to people. We don't always think about how it does. I'm painting so people will think about it more.
"I wanted to tap into that part of us that intuits abstract things, takes ownership of them, processes them, lets them become part of our lives. You feel the way you feel about orange because of what you've lived."
"I realized man, it's not just plaid, it's other cultures have always done this. It's really prominent in Native American art, ancient Central American stuff. When they hold up their blanket, this was their life, wrapped up in a piece of fabric. I love that, that they put their soul into a piece of color. What's red to me? It's my tribe.
"I realized on a subcultural level, we do the same thing. The blankets that my grandmother made are family heirlooms. She would knit, or crochet, these chevron patterns, in these ridiculous colors--dark pine green, medium pine green, and light pine green--just repeat this gradient.
"I see them, I'm transported immediately to my grandmother--what an anchor she was for sanity. What she meant to me--to see someone who wouldn't hurt a fly, in spite of adversity. Just to realize there were people out there like that... If I see a chevron blanket anywhere, they feel like treasures. I just want to buy them and wrap myself up in them.
"I want people to look at a painting that I make like that. Like it's a blanket, that reaches that deep part of them."
I've read more about the art world than about art itself; my understanding is that professional success in art is decided by cliquey nepotism than by an audience's actual response to a painting.
The expansive strength of Seth's work puts it outside the usual point-of-sale categories for fine art. Rather than overawe the viewer with their mystique, they tap into deep personal mysteries that exclude no one.
Why simple, one-dimensional things like color, pattern, and texture make us not just react, but act.
Make us cry, or recoil, or hug someone, or talk to someone, or not talk to someone, or sit down and stare where we really just meant to take a look and move on.
Certainly, Seth's best exhibits are in non-gallery settings--the most progressive example might be the wedding ceremonies (yes, more than one) designed around his paintings. A few days before our interview, he did a show at Killer E.S.P. in Arlington, Virginia. The place, already packed with his friends, attracted plenty of passers-by who wound up staring at canvases and sipping coffee beneath a laundry line hung with Seth's pastel and crayon drawings.
Seth doesn't sell many paintings this night. He typically doesn't, at his shows. I wonder if what people like about it--the inclusive welcome it extends, the deep personal feelings it evokes--is what makes them hesitate, when it comes to putting down their money. When you're used to thinking of art as an exchange between money and social collateral, it might be hard to know how to relate to a painting this relatable.
Seth's studio is in the basement of his house, illuminated by the south-facing glass door that leads into the backyard. On one end, just past the washer and dryer, is a couple of refurbished 1960s settees covered in grey plaid, flanked by a shelf full of his paintings and a stack of vinyl records. On the other is an expanse of wall and a dropcloth, pocked with the afterburn of who knows how many canvases; his daughter Audrey's chalkboard easel stands at the ready just beyond the dropcloth.
He usually fits in 15-20 hours a week doing the actual work of painting. But, he says, he doesn't count the time that way.
"I clock it in terms of productivity. It's not just cranking things out. It's sitting and staring, and praying, and just a lot of raw thinking, sorting through inspiration, sorting through influence. Figuring out how it's going to work, what's going to go with it, dealing with it when it doesn't work. Having to go back, or go forward in a new direction.
"That stuff, fortunately, can happen on a sketchpad while sitting on the pot, or while I'm eating my lunch at work. Instead of eating while I'm grinding a bumper, I'll bang out a couple of sketches, write down some thoughts."
Seth holds his newest daughter, Edith, on his knee as he adds that the actual work of painting usually happens late at night, after the kids go to bed. After being up until 1 or 2am, he appreciates rainy mornings like this one--he got to sleep late and enjoy the morning with his girls, while waiting to see if the weather would clear enough for him to go to work. He made scrambled eggs with dill--he ate them this way on honeymoon in Jamaica, and it's been his favorite ever since.
Seth opened a big Strathmore pad at the beginning of our interview, making broad strokes from the elbow across the page as we talked. But the cries of his youngest daughter, Edith, called him upstairs momentarily; she's been sitting contentedly on his lap, ever since.
The discipline of seizing time wherever he can get it, and fitting in as much work as he can into small amounts of studio time, has improved his work, Seth says.
"I'm going to say something that most people will probably disagree with: "I think it's God being my father, and saying, 'I'm going to open the floodgates for you when your'e being a man. I'm not going to bless you when you're being a child.'"
He smirks at himself.
"I don't mean to say that and sound too Christian-y. I feel like that's a part of nature. There's so many forces in our nature moving against us--we want leisure, we want to be entertained, we want to be fed with a spoon. But man, when I apply myself, take notes, remember things, process what I'm seeing and being inspired by, when I'm working hard at my job and I'm physically just beat from that...I feel like my mind is flying.
"I've never had a time where I'm being diligent, and I don't end up feeling insane inspiration.
"I'm so blessed to be experiencing that. That's something I was keeping myself from for so many years, wanting it easy."
I'm starting to feel a little resentful. Especially in light of the prolificacy attested by the blots on his studio wall, to say nothing of the rack of paintings. I wonder if I'd be equally focused, equally confident, if I quit traveling, got a real job, and only wrote in my off hours.
But I think back to when I was working 10-hour days, behind desks, in restaurants. I think back before then to college, when I was reading at a fever pitch that I haven't achieved since. Writing came in heavy, immediate bursts, like a 24-hour flu. I'd have a sort of pregnant urgency, and my critical conscious brain would take a short vacation, and I'd end up with a fine little five-page story that no one but me was likely to read. That might happen once every four months, being generous with averages.
I write every day now, but the average is still the same. My five fine pages in four months are meted out, two or three sentences at a time. The rest of the words are just there because something has to be.
Clearly, creativity as a secondary pursuit isn't necessarily the key to productivity. Not knowing what the key might be, if there even is one, is what shuts down the works, for me at least. I'm used to the disappointment that something isn't working; what makes me give up is when I don't have any idea what's needed to get production running again.
Seth says he hasn't experienced that kind of discouragement in a long time.
"I think...I'm just more comfortable with difficulty now. With challenge. Challenge feels to me like a part of it. It doesn't feel like something keeping me from it, it feels like Step One. Instead of figuring out how I can get through it, I'm opening the door for it. 'Hey, come in, difficulty. Let's sit down and work this out...we'll get on to pain whenever we get there.'
"That idea is for me, like, 80% of art making. Taking something that I was drawn to, letting it run through my own unique being, and come out as art--that process is so hard. If you have writer's block, that's where it happens. It happens in your head.
"Instead of thinking about it as 'Man, nothing's coming to me...going to life,' being like 'I want you. And here's why I want you, to be in this...'"
He motions toward a painting leaned against the wall.
"'...So what can we do?' And seeing if it works.
"There's so much around me, I feel like if I don't have inspiration, it's because I'm not looking."
He hastens to add,
"I'm not trying to insult anyone. But for me, that's how it's been. "For so many years, I wasn't looking. I wasn't trying to really be myself, to let God's world run through me, like it's supposed to. That's where things changed for me."
Much as he credits the limits of having a family with teaching him diligence, Seth would love to get paid for staying home to paint. But the first thing, without question, he says, is to provide for his family. He lifts Edith up, examining her face.
"Look at her. If Crunchy Bear can't eat, some heads are going to roll. As much as I can still be the man that provides for my family, I will pursue getting paid to make art. I think art's valuable, so I think that's a worthy cause. But if it interferes with me providing for them, then it's gotta go. Which is a hard thought; it's not an easy thought.
"But right now...
I prepare for some kind of statement of resolution, of resigned pride in doing his duty, a grim reaffirmation of what manliness calls for.
"I have so many times been painting, and felt like...not just fulfilled, but like I'm doing something God gave me to do."
Buy one (or many) of Seth's paintings for your home.
Contact him for commissions. Visit his website to learn about past and upcoming shows, in and out of the gallery. Follow his blog, the Daily Draws, to watch the interaction between art and daily life.