Interview by Maggie Stankaitis
Portrait by Ben Fee
Photography by Carson Christman and courtesy of Sean W. Spellman
Marram Montauk photography by Read McKendree
I was fortunate enough to have met multimedia artist Sean Spellman, his partner My Larsdotter, and their 2-year-old daughter Sunny this past year – of all times during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are perhaps the only people I’ve met and have become friends with in the past year and a half, which feels like something special.
My partner and I rented their effortlessly cool surf meets Scandinavian designed Airbnb situated on their property in Westerly, RI. The retreat is full of Sean’s artwork – essentially a live-in gallery – every wall a calming, minimalist, abstract work inspired by Western landscapes.
In May, Sean and I sat down in their quaint vegetable garden to share more about his creative journey, inspiration, and doing what you love.
Maggie Stankaitis (MS) — Sean, we’ve spoken about so many things, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard about your beginnings in art – give me the scoop!
Sean Spellman (SS) —
I’ve always made art – I spent 15, 20 years focusing on music and touring with my band. Music was my primary form of self-expression, so at the time, other forms of art I was interested in never took focus. At some point, I started doing some album artwork for our band and some friends, and from there, people started asking me about it. I started putting it on Instagram when Instagram became a thing and it snowballed from there. As weird as I think social media can be, I’m really thankful that it gave me a platform and the confidence to share my work with a wider audience. Then came commissions, and then people started to want larger paintings, and people started wanting murals.
I recently drove by a mural I did in New London [Connecticut] when I was probably 22 or so. My friend and I did it illegally in the middle of the day… but really, we were doing something good. It was a decrepit, rundown wall, and this one happened to be the wall of a Bank of America – haha – but we did it, and it’s still there today. At this point, 15+ years later, and now I’m flying across the country to do murals, and when we were painting that mural years ago in New London, I never ever thought that someone would reach out to me for a commissioned mural.
MS — I need to check out that mural. Was painting always your “thing”?
SS — I always painted pretty casually. I did think about going to art school for a minute, but I just didn’t believe that I had the skills necessary – which is funny to have that perception when you’re younger, that art has to be a particular thing. I was always like, “I can’t draw people,” and that was my big hangup, ya know – I can’t draw faces – but it’s hard if you’re trying to do it in some other way and not in your own way. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I understood that art is about doing it my own way, and that’s where the positive recognition helped give me the confidence to do it more seriously.
MS — How did you find your “own way”?
SS — I’ve definitely been influenced by a lot of different artists, and many that wouldn’t necessarily be considered “visual artists.” When I was much younger, I was reading Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie, and there are a bunch of illustrations in it that he did that are all so simple and I thought that our styles were similar. I thought they were so beautiful, and it gave me this excitement to continue what I was doing. It’s similar to music when you’re trying to find your voice – you’re constantly taking inspiration from other things. With music and any art form, you’re trying to emulate and imitate other people, especially when you’re trying to develop your voice and when something is new to you. It’s how you learn. I think you’re always figuring it out.
MS — For sure. And once you find “your voice,” then you grow from there. Your art tends to illustrate waves, nature, suns, etc. – where are you most inspired and by what?
SS — Many of my works are interpretations of the Western United States – when I’m there, I feel constantly inspired by the landscape, so it’s easy for me to make a ton of work that I’ll really be stoked about. I’ve been doing a series [recently] where I do three brush strokes – one stroke a sun, one stroke as a wave element or something, and then a third element. As simple as possible. Some of them, I’m like, “this is fucking beautiful,” and I love it, and I keep looking at it. It makes me feel so good, you know, it’s a selfish feeling, but it makes me feel good. And then I’ll make another series of pieces, and people respond to the ones that are almost like my “throw-away ones,” which has made me acknowledge that everyone likes different things. If someone gets enjoyment out of a piece that I don’t love, that’s a huge thing, ya know.
MS — The idea of enjoyment is so fascinating; that everyone finds enjoyment from different things. It’s perspective and opinion, personal taste and style…
SS — And it’s all in the subtleties. The pieces can look so similar, but someone will respond better to one and note the other, and that’s the beauty of visual art. It’s like music and small sonic elements that draw in some people. In music, the most obvious element is voice because it’s usually at the forefront. There are books on how colors affect human psychology, and that’s interesting too – and tying that into architecture, interior design, and how art makes a person feel and, to me, that’s super, super cool. I’m just trying to communicate how I feel through my work, and I hope it makes people feel good.
MS — If you’re not in the West or in a place that creatively inspires you, how do you find inspiration for your art?
SS — Well, sometimes that’s when other creative things fill my mental space. And when that happens, I tend to listen to it and not force any paintings. As most artists probably have, I’ve struggled with it, but I try to reinterpret things from another location and tap into my experiences. It’s a creative exercise. When people ask me to reinterpret a place or a thing, it gets me working more fluidly, but it’s like writer’s block; it comes and goes. I’ve realized that I need to nurture it. I never want to force making art, but I need to be attentive to giving it what it needs: having a routine conducive to being creative.
MS — What is that for you?
SS — I don’t know; I’m still trying to figure it out. A big part of it is trying to identify the positive things in my life and focusing on those, paying attention, and staying present to what’s important to me and us. The bullshit of everyday modern life can stifle creativity. I think it’s similar for a lot of us.
My partner, My and I have intentionally decided to live in a place where we have space mentally and physically, where we don’t have as many distractions. We still have major moments of distraction that we create in our own minds. Still, for the most part, I think we’ve done well at eliminating some of those more obvious distractions (phones, social media), but it’s a mindset, and we continue to prove to ourselves that there’s so much inspiration around us.
MS — One thing I’m constantly thinking and curious about is how our society has normalized and demands “titles.” I think about external titles given to individuals by others and ourselves. Did you or have you ever struggled with calling yourself an “artist”?
SS — I still struggle with it. I struggled with it two days ago, haha.
MS — Imposter syndrome!
SS — It’s strange. I feel like that’s what I am, but I was a musician for so long, and I never considered myself an “artist” because my friends who were “artists” were the ones having art shows and went to art school and who were selling paintings. And so I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself an artist. I was a “musician.” For a long time, I even felt weird when people asked me what I did, saying I was “a musician” I’d say, “I play music.”
Putting a label on self-expression is so strange, is so bizarre, and saying it sometimes feels like you’re forcing it.
MS — It’s almost like as a society, it’s only once you make money doing something that you can then call yourself something. Sadly, that seems to be the threshold.
SS — I’ve felt the same way. I didn’t start calling myself an artist until I began filing my taxes, haha – “Okay, what am I? I’m an artist.” That’s the everyday world/society creeping in to tell you what you are.
The more our society can get away from labeling things, the less money will affect these “labels.” If there’s a general understanding of every human being having a creative self, then it will be less of a label to be pinned on people. And people will just identify with it no matter what they do, and the world will become a better place if more humans feel comfortable being creative and expressing themselves.
MS — Absolutely. What advice would you give a young artist, an old artist, or someone who doesn’t yet identify as an artist? I’m thinking especially for someone hesitant or uncomfortable pursuing art and calling themselves an artist?
SS — I think it comes down to this: you only have one life – how do you want to spend that time? Do you want to spend that time on your computer every day? For 20 years? Or do you want to be painting or taking photos, designing, using your hands, etc.? And, by no means is this an attack on anyone who has a desk job; I think it’s really, really tough to have the confidence to pursue art and I feel super fortunate to be in the position to do that.
The bottom line is, and my dad always told me this: you have to do what makes you happy. You will be the best at doing what you love.
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