A journey of self-discovery

January 10, 2009 § Leave a comment


Marion Seawell | Elizabeth in Pink (1994)

IN THE BACK PARLOR of a classic Victorian flat in San Francisco, there lived for many years a punctilious bookkeeper by day who by night was transformed into a Bohemian artist and writer.

This month her two selves come together with the release of a new book, This Has Certainly Been a Lot of Fun, which will be accompanied by a rare public showing of her paintings and drawings.

MS_bookcoverIt is said that all art is autobiographical, and that is especially true of Marion Seawell’s work. While her paintings and drawings can be enjoyed by almost anyone — especially anyone who loves animals, as she does — they are in fact a journey of self-exploration. These are cosmic cows and cats.

“I painted rather than write Mommie Dearest,” she says, with only a fraction of jest. “Painting is good therapy.” Many of her drawings and paintings explore her relationship with her domineering mother, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it on first viewing.

Consider Yakima Auto Repair, a large painting that shows a small dog climbing into the back seat of the family car. Seawell writes: “The dog represents my mother.” In the background are tombstones. Another painting, Auto Interior, is a family portrait. She writes: “It depicts a time just before my parents divorced and happy times for me took a long vacation.”

Now 80, and both older and wiser, Seawell says much of her artwork came from her subconscious.

“I didn’t realize I was working out psychological problems when I did those paintings,” she says. It was when she reached her 50s that her alter ego, M.C. Wells — the name came from a misaddressed letter meant for M. Seawell — began speaking to and through her. She filled dozens of journals, writing with her left hand, even though she did everything else right-handed.

“I was told about things I did not understand,” she says. “Not at the time, anyway.”

Seawell was an artist from the start. She began drawing horses — “hundreds and hundreds of horses,” she says — as a little girl. During her senior year in high school, her mother moved her to Carmel, where she took drawing lessons from the noted California artist Henrietta Shore. Later she studied at the San Francisco Art Institute.

“There was a period when I was thinking I wanted to be a successful artist,” she says. “But by then I was a full-time bookkeeper. I enjoyed doing bookkeeping because I worked for interesting people — and I was a very good bookkeeper.”

She painted for herself, and mostly about herself, even if she didn’t always know it at the time.


Marion Seawell | The Bath (1978)

“I was serious about painting,” she says. “At one point I wrote my bookkeeping clients and said I was quitting to become a full-time artist. That lasted about six weeks.” For her, the idea of making money from her art seemed contradictory.

She took her slides to a gallery and antique store on Union Street, the Pantechnicon, which was run by retired ad man Innis Bromfield. “Aren’t you a bookkeeper?” asked Bromfield, who remembered she had worked for a former colleague. So she became his bookkeeper rather than one of his artists. But when he saw a drawing she had made of a pyramid of cats, he knew it was special, and helped her place an ad in The New Yorker promoting prints of the drawing as an “elegant feline fantasy.” His copywriter instincts were still strong. Said the ad: “It is a mysterious and satisfying work of art that even dogs enjoy.”

“We immediately received 3,000 orders,” Seawell says. The original drawing is now in the collection of the Achenbach Foundation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. She went on to create several other drawings that were also widely distributed as prints.

Being an artist sometimes caused problems for her bookkeeping business. “People sometimes think artists are irresponsible,” she says, “so I was very secretive about being an artist.” While she worked for a prominent San Francisco family, she had an exhibition at the late and much-lamented William Sawyer Gallery on Clay Street. It was clear they did not approve. “So I quit,” she says. “I was very proud of that show.”

Now she realizes she got something even more important than fame or fortune from her painting. She gained understanding and acceptance of herself.

“I don’t think I ever felt it was my destiny to be a full-time artist,” she says. “It was just the only thing anybody ever praised me for when I was growing up — drawing horses.”

Her eyesight is failing now. She can no longer see well enough to paint or draw. But a few days after Christmas, M. C. Wells was telling her not to stop — not to be a chicken — and she has begun to study watercolor.

“I am happier now than I have ever been,” she says.

PORTFOLIO: Paintings by Marion Seawell

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