When Marion got married — almost

April 30, 2017 § 3 Comments

From remarks by Thomas Reynolds at a memorial on April 30, 2017.


Marion Seawell (1928-2017)

I CAME TO KNOW Marion Seawell 25 years ago when I opened a gallery in San Francisco. One of the first people I met was her great friend — and later mine — the art historian William Whitney, who lived two blocks away.

In 2008, with Marion sometimes kicking and screaming, we published a book of her work, This Has Certainly Been a Lot of Fun — a truly remarkable and brutally honest statement by an artist. To celebrate its publication, we had a small exhibition of her paintings at my gallery, and she gave a talk.

We kept in touch as she was finding a mostly happy home for her final years at the Redwoods in Mill Valley. Sometimes she would call on Friday afternoons and laugh about the horns honking in the background. Her fellow seniors were holding their weekly antiwar protest outside. It was clear she had found the right home.

But let’s cut to the chase. Marion made it clear she did not want a memorial. Yet here we are. And I think that’s great. So while we’re misbehaving, let me tell you about the time Marion almost got married. These are her own words, from a letter — with show and tell — she wrote to us on January 8, 2005.

I was a normal girl from Walla Walla, Washington, until age 19, when, in Big Sur, California, I was transformed into a wild Bohemian. I lived for a time with the Fassett family and helped them build their fabulous Nepenthe restaurant. Dan Harris (aka Zev), the most imaginative artist I have ever known, was often there. His wife, Gertrude, ran the best art gallery in Monterey at that time and they were in the process of building an incredible home called Crazy Crescent.

It was my good fortune that Dan and Gertrude happened to be in New York for three months when I arrived there two years after meeting them in Big Sur. They had grown up in New York and knew all the most interesting things for me to see and do in the short time I could afford to stay. (It turned out that I got a job and stayed two years.)

One day Dan said: “We must take Marion to meet Oronzo.”

“Oh yes,” Gertrude replied, “Oronzo must meet Marion.”

Oronzo Gasparo, they told me, was very active in the New York art scene. I was thrilled when they arranged to take me to his studio on East 115th Street. The year was 1950 and that was not a smart address.

When we entered his studio I was flabbergasted to see the walls covered with oil paintings of someone who looked just like me. Straight dark hair with bangs, dark eyes, the face almost identical, as was the shape. Some were nude. Some in exotic dress. Sitting, lounging, bending — pictures of me all over the place.

Oronzo was beside himself. His dear friends Dan and Gertrude had brought him his dream girl in real life! All those paintings were from his imagination. I looked just like the female he had made up.


We all laughed and drank wine and marveled at the incredible similarity. Oronzo sat next to me, held my hand and gazed up into my eyes. I was about eight inches taller than he. He had a funny little raspy voice, unlike any Italian I had known — and he was much older than I. I was definitely not attracted to him physically, but it was kind of fun to be looked at in such an adoring way.

OronzoWe had dates. He brought me ethnic jewelry that made me look like a gypsy. He took me to art openings where everyone thought I was his model. He sent me adoring cards and photos of himself. My favorite was taken when he was a professional flamenco dancer. It was inscribed: “May our transposed taught meet.”

When the day came that he was getting ready to propose, I realized I had to bring all this to an end.

I had learned something important about Oronzo. When it came to selling his paintings, he was very businesslike and shrewd about the payment arrangements. Not all of his paintings were portraits like me. He had one I specially liked that he had done in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a street scene in bold colors. I told him I’d like to buy that painting if he would let me pay him $10 per month.

Everything changed. Yes, he agreed to the terms. Yes, I could take it to my fifth floor walk-up on 14th Street. And yes, I made all the payments when due. But the romance was over. From the moment I owed him money, Oronzo fell out of love with me.


RIP, Marion. This has certainly been a lot of fun.

She was a lot of fun

April 13, 2017 § 2 Comments


Marion Seawell | President Taft Touring Walla Walla in Grandfather’s Car (1994)


With her right hand she painted as Marion Seawell. With her left hand she wrote as M.C. Wells. In both her right-handed paintings and her left-handed writings, she spent a lifetime exploring the quirks and contradictions of her dual personalities.

That lifetime came to an end on April 7, 2017, when Marion Seawell died at age 88 in Mill Valley, California, after a fall and a short hospitalization.

She led an interesting life, as she acknowledged in the dedication of a monograph of her work, published in 2008 on her 80th birthday: “To all the dear friends, young and old, past and present, who have helped make my journey through life such an interesting adventure.” The book was titled This Has Certainly Been a Lot of Fun.

In the book, as in her life and art, she told a rigorously honest personal story. « Read the rest of this entry »

When I became an artist

February 2, 2017 § 1 Comment


Marion Seawell | Metamorphosis (1989)


When I was 19 years old, I was a waitress at Deetjen’s in Big Sur, California. A year later, I lived with the Fasset family, who built Nepenthe, and Lolly Fasset and I dug the clay and baked the adobe bricks that surround their magnificent terrace.

I was confident I was a superb artist, and I drew countless pictures of horses. One day I was trimming my long hair and asked a visitor from Los Angeles — an art teacher — if he would trim an inch off the back while I held my hand mirror. He was not shy about letting me know my carefully shaded pencil drawings of horses did not add up to much in the real world. He lifted up a long handful of my hair and — whack — cut it off at my neck. As I gaped in horror, he proceeded to cut off all of my long hair. Then he said I needed bangs and snipped some more. I was in a state of shock.

The blow to the self-esteem of my sensitive (left) side was devastating. From that moment on, I was transformed into a short-haired Bohemian. I wore togas, sandals and belts of yarn. I didn’t draw a horse for years — in fact, I did no artwork at all except for learning to weave wild things. That was when I really began to learn about art.

Searching for the Pyramid of Cats

September 20, 2016 § 2 Comments


Marion Seawell | Pyramid of Cats (1971)


I am looking for a print of Pyramid of Cats by Marion Seawell. I have found you through a strange set of circumstances. Stranger still is that this story may sound a bit familiar.

My grandfather had a print of Pyramid of Cats hanging in his home for as long as I can remember. He used to teach me how to draw those cats, and partially due to his influence I became an artist and gallery curator. When I think of my grandfather, this is the image I see. When he died, my uncle threw away most of grandpa’s stuff and the poster was lost. I was crushed, but at least my parents still had many of my grandfather’s things, so we still had some good sentimental family heirlooms.

However, I’ve never stopped looking for that poster. The only thing is, I had no idea who the artist was, what the title was, if it was an original drawing or a poster. Nothing. So no matter how I searched, I never found anything.

Fast forward 25+ years to this summer. My parents retired, packed up everything they owned and moved across the country. Only the moving truck never arrived. It was stolen, along with everything they owned. We were absolutely devastated — 70 years of collecting and memories gone. As I tried to help my parents pick up the pieces, I thought again of this poster.

So I went on Facebook and reached out to my cat lovers group and asked everyone if they could help me keep an eye out for it based on my foggy recollection of what it looked like 25+ years ago. Not only did someone find it within 10 minutes, but she found it in connection to an article written by one of your clients. Reading her story sounded so much like my situation it was a little strange; at one point I wondered if we had the same grandpa.

Her story was really inspiring and started out similar to mine. It also led me to you. So I wanted to reach out to you and see if you have one of these posters or know of someone who might be interested in selling.

EARLIER: “Pyramid of Cats

Pyramid of Cats

December 9, 2015 § 25 Comments


Marion Seawell | Pyramid of Cats (1971)


My house is full; I have too much art; I need to downsize. And so, inspired by Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I began to dig around downstairs for art I could sell or donate.

I was looking for an old print I knew was around somewhere, but instead I found a wonderful cat poster I didn’t recognize. One cat was piled on the back of another, from a big lion on the bottom to a perky black house cat on the top. My husband and I are cat people, but we had no idea when or how we had acquired it. Perhaps it was from his mother, an amateur artist who loved cats, or maybe it came from a friend in a library where I worked in the 1970s. We obviously liked and saved it, but it was never framed and has no pinholes from being hung on the wall of our son’s room. What should I do with it?

It was signed Marion Seawell, 1971. Enter the Internet. I quickly found out that Marion Seawell is a California artist and that the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco shows her work. So I emailed the gallery:

« Read the rest of this entry »

A triptych of pets

August 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

Marion Seawell | Pet Screen (1988)

POMEGRANATE PRESS will publish Marion Seawell’s Pet Screen, a triptych, and three of her other paintings as notecards this fall. The Northern California painter — featured in a retrospective at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in 2009 — is known for her psychologically charged autobiographical paintings of people and other animals. A catalog, This Has Certainly Been a Lot of Fun, is available.

She says of Pet Screen:

Gathered together here are different pets from different times and places in my life. Tim is atop the ladder, where he just climbed one day all by himself. He was my pet in Walla Walla, Washington, when I was in my early teens. That’s Rex wondering if he can climb up, too.

Down below is the first Tim from my early childhood in Yakima. Sam, the black cat who adopted me in San Francisco, is at the bottom of the central panel. Woodrow, the Australian sheepdog with a pink nose, is at left with a calico cat I did not know. That gorgeous black silk hat was my most elegant accessory ever. The brim could be turned up, down or sideways.

Jack, the big old fat brown dog in the middle, often came across the street to lie on our porch. The boy he loved had gone off to college. When my friend Mary and I walked to school to our seventh grade class, sometimes Jack would lumber along behind. He would wait by the school steps to follow us home. Once we tricked him and sneaked out a different door and skipped home. Just before dinnertime we felt guilty and went back to get him. There he was, so glad to see us. Dear old dog. His family kept him at home after that.

MORE: Marion Seawell notecards from Pomegranate Press

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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