By Melanie Berends
A series of works by artist and visiting Assistant Professor of art Karen Seapker is currently on display in the Edward Carlos Gallery in the Nabit Art Building. Her exhibit, In Tandem, focuses on the passage of time and nature of change in her own life through the medium of art. The show explores Seapker’s journey through the last 10 years of her life, delving into themes of religion, motherhood, and the broad changes that a decade brings.
Through her work, Seapker advocates for experimentation and play, or rather a healthy balance between form and content, technical process and concept. She says she tries never to lean too heavily on one if it means neglecting the other.
Seapker received a Bachelor of Arts from Muhlenberg College, then completed a Masters in Fine Art (with a focus in painting) from New York City’s Hunter College. Now a Nashville based artist, she is teaching Painting From Life this semester at Sewanee, a class focused primarily on honing the observational skills of an artist.
At an artist’s talk in September, Seapker mentioned having been asked on rather short notice to provide the gallery with her work so that her students might see her art upon entering their classroom. For this reason, Seapker thought it wise to provide them with a glimpse into process: “The show reveals how my paintings have progressed over a period of time, over the course of a decade… revealing some of my consistencies, curiosities, and failures in that time.”
As a result, her exhibit here at Sewanee is a very honest one, which includes work from 2007 all the way through 2017. A guest at the artist’s talk referred to the show here at Sewanee as “a mini retrospective.” In Tandem is an exhibit very much based on time and the transformative effect of its passing.
Seapker included work from her most recent solo show at the beginning of this year, Sentinels, which centers around depicting strong, goddess-like women. Seapker was as personally invested in her concept there as she usually is, saying she always wants to look at work with some personal connection.
For Sentinels, Seapker was painting and presenting as a mother of two daughters under the current political climate: “I became a guardian and guiding force.”
Presenting now as a teacher on the process of painting, Seapker says that the exhibition in the Carlos Gallery, a compilation of vibrant works, abstracted and varying in size, shows the dead ends she reached as an artist, where she had to stop and pick up somewhere else, a practice that is revealed through the masterful way in which she chose to hang the show.
By creating a kind of the stop-and-go pattern in the space where two paintings are paired together, she visually marks the transformative points in her life, such as a death in the family or the birth of her first daughter.
Seapker emphasized how the changes that happen to a person over time are a service. “It gives you more of an arsenal to play with,” she said. For example, after the birth of her first daughter, Seapker found the confidence to re-approach the figure after experiencing the physical transformation that happens to the body during pregnancy. Where circumstance dictated, Seapker found a way to use it to her artistic benefit.
When she became a mother, Seapker says she found she drew a lot more out of convenience, as movement to and from her studio, where she could paint often and paint large, was less frequent. So much preliminary drawing and planning was bound to affect her process when she did get to the studio, she explained.
The compilation of work also reveals the smaller shifts that can occur within a single given concept. Seapker paired two paintings, Saved and For Virginia. Saved abstractly depicts a river baptism, a figure’s face and hand emerging from the vibrant, colorful brushstrokes, while For Virginia is a small, sharply focused painting of a floating rock stack.
In For Virginia, Seapker explored what other purpose the rocks Virginia Woolf used to end her life with could have served. Perhaps the rocks Woolf placed in her pocket could have created a stack, rather than destroying a life.
Seapker says both paintings deal with the idea of wishing, be that Seapker’s own wish that Woolf’s rocks had been used another way, so that the writer might have lived longer and created more, or the wish that is the desire for salvation through baptism. Seapker seamlessly connects the two paintings that vary in process and appearance but are alike in concept.
Years later, but only a room away for her audience, Seapker revisited the idea of rock stacks, keenly aware of the literal interdependency that one rock has on another to stand up after having a child and personally experiencing what interdependency meant. For Seapker, it took years to get to that next step. By presenting the works in such close proximity, she makes the eventual success and outcome seem feasible.
If ever the audience can catch a glimpse of what artwork looks like at the time of installation, a quick glimpse of packaged works leaning against a stark white wall, before it is hung, they’ll note it has the ability to strip away the austerity oftentimes present in a gallery space, between artist and audience, between process and product. It seems Seapker is doing just that: breaking down a wall between a finished product and the narrative that had to exist to create a finished piece at all.
By presenting to her audience works from a variety of separate past exhibitions, the artist asks that the process be accepted as part of the narrative or concept itself. She explained, “I find that I benefit from learning from my paintings with some perspective and time for reflection.” For the potentially impatient students of art, Karen Seapker is laying down the foundations needed, allowing for mistakes and continuation but also revitalization.
In Tandem is on display at the Carlos Gallery until October 14 at 5 pm.