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Seeing the Signs: Interview with Seth Remsnyder for Issue 17 of Create Magazine

Originally published in issue 17 of Create! Magazine

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.” — Kurt Vonnegut 

Seth Remsnyder began seriously painting in 1996 at the behest of his high school art teacher, Mr. Charles Acri. “Ack” as the kids sometimes called him would put Seth in the hallway with two talkative classmates for models, have him stretch a canvas and paint for the entirety of his art classes and study halls. The good teacher taught Seth to paint expressively and to avoid “worrying about likeness for now and to just paint.” And his soul grew. He then pursued his Bachelors Degree in the Fine Arts from the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design, graduating with the BFA in 2001. After a rather drawn out and confusing hiatus from painting after graduating college, in 2008 Seth began to paint again. It was in late 2009 that Seth began to experiment with the work that he is now involved with. Seth is now enrolled in the MFA program for painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design and working in the Automotive Restoration Industry. Seth is married and lives in Maryland with his wife and is a Dad to three little girls and one little boy in heaven. Seth’s hope is to continue painting come hell or high water and his utmost hope is that his soul will continue to grow. 

Statement 

The essential question that is driving the changes in my work over the past two to three years is this: “Why don’t we see what we’re supposed to see?” This has taken my work from painting on canvas to primarily spray painting on metal signs to creating actual signage to be installed in public. I’ve asked some deeper questions around that essential question above: Could it be that we’ve lost, as a society, something of our value for taking notice of the important realities around us? What role can painting play in re-establishing that value? This work intends to act as a commentary on that question both indoors and out. In the end, this work is important to me because it is a commentary on what we see, and perhaps, why we see what we see.  

Lines have made up the motif of my paintings for several years now. My continued work with lines in my painting has pulled some inspiration from the linear visual language of road signs. Some are confusing, some elegant, some geometric, all are very important. They are lines we absolutely need to see. And yet these signs and the linear, visual-language found exalted on them are often overlooked or ignored. These works double as an artistic intervention playing off of the idea of signage. What if the public were confronted with serious abstract art in their daily commute? Could it help them pay more attention to their surroundings? My work intends to interact with that question directly; not by virtue of the content of the work for that is a visual play on an already established visual language, the allusion is as metaphysical as it is physical. I don’t intend to tell the viewer how to think. I intend to show the paintings in a form that they are already familiar with to see if they will make those connections. 

  

Tell me about your journey. When did you know you wanted to become an artist?  

When I was young, maybe seven or eight, I saw a painting by Vincent van Gogh in a catalog of post-impressionist paintings my Mom kept in a magazine rack. The painting is called "Stairway at Auvers." Look it up; it's beautiful. I had never seen a post-impressionist painting before that, and I was captivated by it. It made me feel things I had never felt before looking at a picture, ya know? I wanted so badly to be able to do what this person had done in that painting. It was like a cartoon that was completely serious, and real, and I couldn't wait to try painting after I saw that. There is an incredible atmosphere to that painting, and I knew I was looking at a real place when I saw it, but I couldn't understand how, given how loose and free van Gogh's painting is, this could feel the way it felt. I'm trying my best to describe how I felt when I saw it because, of course, a kid isn't going to articulate all of that. Anyway, I think that's the first time I thought of "being an artist". Second to that would be my high school art teacher, an artist named Chuck Acri, really made me aspire to make serious art. 

My journey as an artist started there, and since then I've had ups and downs, but for the past, probably, ten years or so, I've been in touch with how important it is to me. My wife and I lost our third baby back in 2014 (his name is Bobby); we were crushed, and during that time I found out how much of a gift the ability to make art is. I felt that I had a way to speak things I couldn't say with words, already there for me, and I think painting helped me not to lose my mind. I just wrapped up my Master's Degree in Fine Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and that was a whole other crazy experience having a family and a busy job, but it was the challenge I wanted and needed and I'm grateful for everything I experienced in that program. I have three daughters and a brand new little boy named Hank, and life couldn't be crazier. I feel a bit lost at the moment, with the change to life after graduating, but I'm also enjoying the time. 

What are your current paintings about and what inspired your new collection?  

My current paintings are about how we see. Non-representational art is a funny thing because when we see it we often make it represent something in our mind. And the way we approach looking at art like this is intriguing to me. I think looking at art can help us see the world better, in subtle ways that we might not even realize unless we think about it. So I played off of the idea of "signage" with the public installation of this work to make the point that art plays a similar role in our lives. It can be a signpost for how to look around ourselves and our world. And similarly, with the work in these kind of shadow boxes... a frame is a tool of emphasis... it tells the viewer to focus on what is inside of it, that it's important... its a kind of a sign telling viewers to square up. So, I included the ground under the painting when I made them get after the idea that what we are doing when we look at art is really meant to take us beyond the surface or image that we're focusing on. The framed pieces tell the viewer that what is beyond the work is also important.  

What led you to create signs? What do they mean to you? 

What led me to this was just paying more attention to the world around me, especially when I'm commuting to work. I get stuck in a ridiculous amount of traffic almost every day, and I realized that I was kind of mentally teleporting to work. I would get out of my vehicle and realize I didn't remember anything I just drove past. It kind of scared me because I imagine that's what it's like to experience serious memory loss. And I have dealt with some memory loss myself after a few surgeries I had in recent years. So I decided I would commit to really taking note of what was around me when I was stuck in traffic. One of the first things I realized was how many signs are out there and how many people just blatantly ignore them. I mean, they are made to be seen, noticed, and in many cases obeyed or followed, so it's really significant that we just don't even see them most of the time. The idea of looking for signs is kind of ironic and funny to me, and that's what made me want to play off of that phenomenon with this art. 

What do they mean to me? Right now, I am placing them in spaces that I think are neglected spaces that also get overlooked. So they kind of symbolize the idea of taking notice of spaces and places. They also are about taking a space and immediately investing meaning into it by virtue of the fact that the space is now a place for art. Add that, to the answer to the previous question, is a good sense of what these works mean to me. 

Name a few influences and inspirations.  

Gordon Mata-Clark, Robert Irwin, Vincent van Gogh, Katharina Grosse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Goldsworthy, Philip Guston, Salvador Dali, public and street artists everywhere, my profs from SCAD who are all still very committed artists, my kids, my wife, Janet, my buddy, Caleb, who has been really sick with cancer and still making and writing music through it (and his family), Arthur Conan-Doyle, Stephen King, committed writers of Haiku everywhere, Michael Connelly, Andrew Klavan, Hank Aaron, all of my friends and family who have supported me, challenged me, loved me, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, dusk during late summer and early fall, salt air, saltwater, New Balance 993's, coffee. To name a few...   

Describe a typical day in the life. How do you balance studio time and other responsibilities?  

Wake up, work out (sort of yoga) check the internet to see if everything is still around, play with Hank, drink a glass of water, make breakfast, help kiddie-poos get ready for school, make breakfast, sort of, make coffee, leave for work. Pick music for the ride. Lots of Marley to stave off the road rage. Stare at the sights while stuck in beltway traffic. Think. Get angry. Calm down. Think some more. Get to work. Work on cars. Talk to people. Check internet. Think. Think. Think. Read by audiobook. Tell wife I'm coming home. Go home. Sit in traffic. Think. Think. Podcast maybe. Music. Get home. Kids, kids, kids. Hopefully make art or at least write something. Maybe watch a show with my wife. Maybe make art some more. Sleep. This or some remix of this is a typical day these days, but it never feels too typical. Kids say they never use algebra in real life, but trying to find balance in all of that is a kind of algebra. It's a busy life. 

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