By Jenny Neyman
Sure, it sounds simple. But on paper, the results are anything but.
The medium — plain old pencils, freebie pens, paper from a crafts store and hauled out of the trash.
“If you take the free ballpoints that you get at your credit union and bank and then go get scrapbooking paper from Michael’s (arts and crafts supply chain store), you can get ahead of the curve,” said Wanda Seamster, a mixed-media artist, of Anchorage, whose exhibition of drawings, “The Formal Drawing,” is on display at the Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at Kenai Peninsula College through Dec. 10.
The imagery — anything goes, just follow whatever directions inspiration takes you. For Seamster, those directions are myriad, meandering and often completely divergent, sometimes heading off on opposite paths at the same time, in the same piece.
A bespectacled face levitates within a web of cartoon panels, hung next to a meticulously drawn naturalist scene in “Ground Slump” of a bluff sloughing loose from under a mat of tree roots. The artist’s pet Corgi stares out from one frame, so imbued with cock-eared attentive dogginess that his tail almost appears to be twitching. Next to it, a Leonardo da Vinci portrait seems dour and stoutly rendered enough to look like an etching out of a history book, until the light sweep up the slope of his nose draws a viewer to the sheen of da Vinci’s bald pate, vacant except for the leg of a frog scrambling for a toehold on his forehead.
“I think a lot of artists think along tangents, visual tangents as well as perhaps emotional tangents. That’s what I think of. I tell people there is never a shortage of ideas, but there’s definitely a shortage of time,” Seamster said.
The techniques — graduated versions of the scribbling, doodling, tracing, smudging and rubbing that kids do in elementary school art projects.
“I like playing around with mediums, but we’ve all done it before. Like rubbings, we all did that project as kids,” she said. “The (KPC art) students have been asking, ‘How did you do that?’ And I told them, ‘There’s not a secret in here.’”
At the Nov. 16 opening reception of her show, Seamster was as transparent about her methods as the see-through Mylar sheets used in her “Dictionary” series, drawn on with felt pens, then layered over previously used paper to create an almost holographic, multidimensional look.
See that textured effect? It’s traced scrapbook paper. That hazy, misty quality used in the three images depicting the John F. Kennedy assassination? Graphite laid down in a large, even field, then brushed to blend, followed by more layers to build up areas of darkness.
Seamster even posted descriptions of the approaches used in the show, with caveats to spare frustration for anyone attempting the techniques, such as: Secure surfaces before attempting a rubbing; be wary of smudging when using ink on Mylar; and don’t touch a brushed-graphite drawing, since oil from fingertips will attract more graphite and cause an uneven tone.
“I want them to really read the signs and try it. I want the students to take a shot at it. Even if they don’t like it, they might, and they might do something more with it than I did. I thought of this more as a teachable moment than a sales opportunity because we’re here at a college, and so I formulated the show that way,” Seamster said.
It’s all there — from where to get cheap and free materials to instructions on how to create visually interesting effects. But just like having a copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” doesn’t turn one into Julia Child, Seamster brings a special flavor to her work that would set it apart from even the most meticulous direction-follower.
“What I find so exceptional about her is she has this skill that’s just unparalleled. But she has taken it to a new level, taking it many, many steps further,” said Celia Anderson, chair of the art department at KPC. “I think it’s tremendous to show students that you can have this skill and you can take it wherever you want to. That’s, to me, what’s so exciting about this. That it branches out in so many different ways.”
Seamster’s skill is such that she can make the difficult look easy, and create confoundingly complex effects from straightforward methods. At the opening, even Anderson was among those asking, “How’d you do that?”
“She has such a sensitivity for marks,” Anderson said, pointing to the intricate mesh of lines that form the foliage and roots in “Ground Slump,” to the thick, aggressive strokes used to create a horse’s hoof in “Fetlock.” “She can do these incredibly little, fine marks and then she does this painterly beautiful mark-making, spontaneous and gritty. It’s sort of mind-boggling to see the range, from meticulous to this bold lusciousness of marks, which is really beautiful. It’s just such a range, not just in the show, but within each piece. It’s very exciting.”
Seamster has parked herself happily in a skill that most artists just pass through on their way to other media. As she writes in her artist’s statement, “Drawing is most often taught and used as a preliminary medium to capture ideas and plan for visual compositions that are eventually completed in other media, such as sculpture, painting or weaving.”
But Seamster sees drawing as an end in itself, and has been exploring the capabilities of that medium for decades.
“I do my best drawing,” she said. “When I was in college I said I wanted a drawing degree and they said, ‘Well, we don’t have a drawing degree.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d really like one.’ So they said, ‘OK, your major’s drawing,’” Seamster said. “That’s what I’m better at. … Carving, I’m not good at. Printmaking, never tried it. Watercolor, I’ve only done it a few times, it’s too hard. That’s not relaxing. This stuff is relaxing.”
Much of her experience in the medium came through her job — nearly 30 years of being a science illustrator for the University of Alaska Anchorage Environment and Natural Resources Institute. The job honed her skill, speed and eye for fine detail, and she found that, even in textbook renderings, she could still find a way to breathe art into what otherwise could be lifeless technical sketches.
“At one point there were two artists doing species drawings. And she and I both did really fast, nice drawings for the publications. But it was interesting because she would draw a representative of the species and I would draw a particular individual of the species who happened to be representative. If you think, what’s the difference? It was an expression on the face. Her drawings were much more scientific in the fact that she wasn’t putting any layer of emotion on it, but I always tended to do that,” Seamster said.
Part of the reason Seamster wanted to do a show of just drawings was to pay homage to a medium that gave her a job she loved for so many years, she said. That homage to form and her sense of fun with it is particularly evident in the precisely detailed animal renderings that peek out at viewers, some alone in their frame, such as “Raven,” and others perched impishly on a formal portraiture subject’s head, such as “Little Dickens.”
“You so believe this because it’s so skillfully done that it looks like an engraving,” Anderson said of Seamster’s collection of creatures-perched-on-heads drawings. “But then there’s this contemporary, pop-artish thing, something totally out of context that would be more surreal. And then putting it in this sort of historical, vintage context is this sort of strange juxtaposition that you can’t help but just be drawn in by. Like, what? What is this?”
Juxtaposition is something in which Seamster specializes, from the overall content of her exhibition — including images of the Kennedy assassination, creatures on heads, a portrait of her dog and a rubbing of a painting of Jesus — to the content within the pieces.
“She has a real sensitivity for color, surface and design, and she’s always saying, ‘What if?’ That’s what these do, they all say, ‘What if? What if I did this?” Anderson said.
Seamster’s other most-frequent medium is assemblage, finding old, obscure, random items and reworking them into something new and intriguing.
“I like putting odd things together,” she said. “I like old things, and I love garage sales and secondhand stores and souvenir ashtrays from someplace nobody really wants to go.”
Much of the paper she used in her drawings came from her trash-to-treasure mentality, including ledgers from the 1920s found in a neighbor’s garbage.
“She was just trying to empty out her life and so she threw it away and I was walking the dog by the garbage can, and this is not the first time I’ve gotten art supplies from my neighbors’ trash, so I grabbed it,” Seamster said. “The next time I saw her I told her what I was doing with it and she said, ‘Oh I’ve got books for you’ — three 1948 Harvard yearbooks, a scrapbook somebody in her family made of food labels. And today I bought a couple of old, tissue sewing patterns, so I’m going to try drawing on that when I get home.”
In a way, Seamster’s reinvention of old materials into new works is an extension of her reinvention of the drawing medium, taking established techniques in new directions.
“Just her use of media in different ways and thinking about it in different ways. I mean, you don’t think about drawing on the back of the paper or something you can see through. You normally don’t think about drawing on top of scrapbook paper or doing rubbings,” Anderson said. “And the materials, it’s like this real reverence for history and historical artists but also the history of mark-making. Somebody made this ledger, and taking that and creating something new with it, recognizing that it shouldn’t be thrown out, it should live again in a different way. I love that. Seeing the quality in things like that and making it live again.”
Where does this dual appreciation for history, yet pull to tweak it, come from? What draws Seamster to invest her time and energy in a medium most other artists use as a tool to create something else? Weighty questions for an art student, or any viewer of “Formal Drawing,” to consider.
For Seamster, the answer is simple.
“You have to enjoy making marks on a piece of paper. You have to like that,” she said. “You have to find that interesting or even exciting.”