Artist Profile: Gwen Samuels
Written by Jenny Begun
When Gwen Samuels created a realistic sculpture of a ram’s head, she was very excited. According to the artist, the result was “an excellent copy.” Proudly, she showed it to a good friend who unenthusiastically said, “Well, if that’s the way you want to go…” Luckily, this friend knew Gwen very well and understood what made her unique. Gwen went back to work. She cut the sculpture, added a few details, now her ram had its own personality. “It had this amazing neck piece. The horns were going in crazy directions. That’s ME! No one can copy that.”
When I first stepped in Gwen’s space in Santa Monica Art Studios, I had no idea who the artist was. Wandering through the rooms during an Open Studios event, I saw her wall sculptures and immediately wanted to know more about their creator. But I was the only person in the room. On one wall, closer to the doorway, there were animal and bird heads. Phantasmagorical, full of color and light, they all had threads hanging down long and in multitude. Looking like fur and feather, they were the only thing that real creatures would have in common with these marvelous beasts.
On the adjacent wall, there was a group of buildings, which transported me to an Old Town one can imagine from reading an old European fairy tale. Amazing details emerged when I stepped closer. Each facade had its own story to tell. Multiple smaller images of various architectural elements – stairs, windows, decorative reliefs – materialized upon a closer inspection. But as I stepped backwards, they melted into a colorful fabric that absorbed the oncoming light and then splashed all its colors on the wall behind it. My eyes followed the magical shadows and found the next group of wonders – some curiously shaped dressed. Thrilled, I instantaneously wanted to know if I could try them on. Long threads left uncut adorned the clothes, too, almost in anticipation of their industrious seamstress to come back to continue her handiwork.
Nearby, was a sculpture with images of insects. So detailed, it consumed my attention completely until I heard a friendly, “Hello! Welcome to my studio,” behind my back.
Gwen is all smiles. Her eyes irradiate a warm welcome behind her round-rimmed glasses. She wears her personality on her sleeve. Just like her artwork, she is an amalgamation of her observations, sensibilities and insight. “It’s not always clear how an artist arrives at their current practice. Gwen’s work is the contrary. She weaves her own photographs from past travels, experiences, and interests into her future forms,” says Wren Miller, founder of House of Wren, a curator and an art dealer, who is working with the artist on an upcoming two-person exhibition.
Exposure to fashion and the art of dress started early on with her mother who paid extra attention to what they wore and inculcated young Gwen with love for clothing and textiles. “I love to dress up. I look at all the runways and all the shapes. It was just a natural progression, when I started to make the work that I do.” At Syracuse University, where she received a degree in Textile Design, Gwen learned a lot of crafting techniques: weaving, crocheting, quilting, knitting, felting, and hand sewing. Thereafter, she shortly worked for a screen printing studio before plunging into family life. Years passed. Grave times brought her focus back to creating. She made collages using shaped plastic packaging filling the forms with cut-out images of things that expressed her confusion and absorbed the pain. Almost as if trying to eliminate her own memories, she became infatuated with the memory of the plastic form.
Gwen believes that her artistic career started when she moved to Los Angeles eighteen years ago. At a flea market, she found swatches a woman had made from crochet patterns. “They were all hand stitched to this beautiful brown fabric and it was like a booklet. I bargained and I bought it. I started photographing it. They were so rigid, the imagery, even the shapes. And because of my background in textile design I started manipulating them on a Xerox machine, creating multiples.”
LA also brought new friends into Gwen’s life and opportunities to travel the world. She documented her trips with a digital camera. “Because of my sensibility of textile design I started looking for patterns where there were movement and repetition. It was gorgeous. I started honing in on that. Now I use my phone, because I want to see things bigger. But that was serendipity–the camera got me looking at patterns which I already had an eye for.” And she was able to reproduce them.
Gwen started making composite sheets. “I take a picture of something that interests me, and then I create a textile design. I crop it down to a size that I think will create another image for me.” She saw something special in spray-painted bunches of dry leaves in downtown and in antique frames she found at the Getty museum. At The Last Bookstore, also in downtown, she noticed their “killer section with colored books.” Her collection of images has almost 16,000 photographs which are ideas ready to come to life in her artwork.
Another fortuitous moment was when Gwen got invited into a show Art From the Ashes. “They go into areas where there had been a horrible fire, pick up the burnt objects and make them available to artists to repurpose. As I was stitching my work to a damaged metal fan frame, I realized that I could also make my own forms.” Not trained in sculpture, she began crocheting with wire. “I started making wire forms and I got better and better at it. I love the wire part because I think three-dimensionally, which I didn’t before.”
Eventually, all these and prior experiences, everything she had learned up until that point, developed into her own unique artistic style. Gwen uses wire to make a sculptural form, a skeleton on which she then sews various shapes cut out from transparencies pre-printed with her kaleidoscopic designs made up of her photographs. “Transparency is such a magical material. I’ve been working with it for about 12 years and it still unfolds for me. If it is well lit, it’s phenomenal. Lighting activates the work. It adds another dimension and supports the form.” By the way, looking at her manneristic ram’s head one perceives real fur in the coloring of the sculpture. Upon a closer, very focused, observation of the transparent plastic, one would be surprised to find small photographs of moth. The furry insect is ingeniously transformed into the texture of the ram’s hide.
Detail oriented, meticulous, and precise, the artist really cares about her aesthetics. With discernible critical eye she looks at her work. “As an artist I have certain mantras I tell myself. If it is not working, it’s not a work of art. It’s just not working. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I have a sense of where the strategic problem is. I cut it.”
Gwen’s work is very involved. “It’s handmade. The strings are getting longer and longer,” she said with a heartfelt laughter. Gwen trusts her materials. “They dictate, sometimes, what I can and can’t do. And I honor that. Not going to force it, if it’s not working. That’s why I hand stitch. How else would I put this together? Glue!? It has to be authentic to the material for me to believe it successful. So sewing is something I do, I’ve always done. It makes sense to me. I feel it’s authentic.”
And it’s simply her personal statement against technology. Wire is labor intensive, and so is stitching. “The only part that is not – is the printing of the imagery. There is a bit of technology.” Though here Gwen doesn’t give herself full credit for how lovingly and with so much thought she works on the photographs before she is ready to print.
Maybe I’m an art-world pagan at heart. I feel happy when I look at my plants and they have the energy to hold their brunches up on a rainy day. It feels me with anima and fuels my creative urge. When I am watching the light play with the colorways in Gwen’s wall sculptures, I get a feeling of giddy elation and joyful serenity. In the world where we often ask what art is for, I know why Gwen does what she does and I know why I love it.
And when you want to experience Gwen Samuel’s work in person, I suggest you visit these upcoming shows.
April 27 – August 4, 2019, “The Art of the Dress” curated by Georganne Alex at Elverhoj Museum of History and Art, Solvang, CA
July 26, 2019 – January 2020, “Dress Rehearsal” curated by Kate Stern at the Oceanside Museum of Art, Oceanside, CA
June – October 2019, “Local Seen” curated by Stacy Abarbanel at Laemmle Monica Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
August 31 – November 3, 2019, “Domestic Matters: The Uncommon Apron” curated by Gail M. Brown at Peters Valley School of Craft, Layton, N.J.
For the location and information on the upcoming exhibition with House of Wren, check out houseofwren.com.
(Cover photo by Eric Minh Swenson)