"I am interested in the authentic human being. For everyone is a unique and valuable human being, everyone is a miracle of nature and of the cosmos."
Seona Sommer is a freelance artist based in Cologne, Germany. She was born into a working-class family in 1968 in Herford, a small German town with 65,000 residents and far away from any big city, borders to other countries, or vacation areas where tourists would come and visit. From an early age, Seona Sommer had always been interested in the whole wide world, she felt pretty stuck there. She doesn't remember any person in her childhood who she felt very close to. She had some school friends, of course, but mostly she felt happier when she could spend time with herself and live in her dreamworld. In Seona Sommer’s late teens, she joined a circle of other young people with a completely different kind of lifestyle. Most of them were musicians and singer/songwriters. They had a very creative dressing style, some of them wore long dreadlocks, and – when not listening to or making music – they would discuss life, philosophy, politics, religion, and more to her extremely interesting topics all day long. For the first time, Seona had friends that really challenged her intellectually, who were different and who her own feeling of being different easily merged with. Around them she felt a special kind of freedom she hadn’t known before. Unfortunately, Seona lost touch with them after she moved away.
After graduating from high school, Seona went to the University of Bielefeld, located in a city close by but only slightly bigger than her home town. Even though it had not been her parent’s objective that she go to university, Seona had always firmly believed that she would go. And she did everything to make it happen. There was just no other way! From Seona Sommer’s point of view, higher education was the only means for her to escape from the restrictions of her childhood and to see the world, to become a free person and a liberated woman. Apart from studying, she also joined some students’ organizations where she met some incredible new friends and found great role models. She felt especially attracted by the feminist movement and quickly had her first female lover too.
During spring break in 1991, Seona Sommer finally started exploring the world: she had booked a ticket to Delhi, India and travelled around the country on her own for two months. After receiving her Master’s degree in 1997, she moved to Oakland, California to start her first job as a lecturer of German language at Mills College, a women’s college. She had never considered herself as being exceptionally lucky, she mostly had to work hard for everything she achieved. This time, though, Seona was more than lucky that she was offered this opportunity of teaching at such a prestigious US college. The Head of the German Department had opened her letter of application just because of her address: she had grown up in another small town right next to Bielefeld! Seona stayed for three years at Mills and learnt so incredibly much from this experience – both at work but also roaming the streets of San Francisco on the weekends. After three years, Seona moved to Puebla, Mexico to teach German at a company owned and operated language school by VW, which in a way was the total opposite of her time in the Bay Area. It was a much more restricted kind of life again. Still, Seona saw a lot, met some great people and experienced an amazing everyday life in a country where not everything always works perfectly. And she especially fell in love with Mexican music.
In 2000, Seona Sommer moved back to Germany and came to Cologne. From day one, she knew that she wanted to get settled and not move away anymore. For 13 years, she worked as a teacher (for German and English) in the German public-school system then. It was until 2004, when she was still working as a school teacher, when art, significantly changed her life.
" I have always been curious and extremely ambitious, but for a long time, I didn’t really know where I belonged and what I really wanted to achieve. Plus, I have always been struggling with emotional imbalances and also some major depressions. During another one of these painful episodes, I was feeling so sick and so utterly exhausted that I was not able anymore to pursue my job as a school teacher. I had to retire and get psychological treatment. Only then, I started to feel an enormous kind of passion inside of me when I was making art. And only then I found out, basically by coincidence, that being an artist is what I really wanted to be, or better, what I really was and always had been! Finally, I felt a strong determination in my ambitions. I still struggle sometimes emotionally, but whenever possible I pursue my artistic goals now. They give me comfort, hope, strength, courage. In my art I am most authentic and powerful. When making art I find inner peace, I feel my soul and I feel alive."
Seona Sommer not only captures the diversity of the human species, but most importantly, she captures their soul. The unique expression of each distinct character somehow finds its way to your own experiences. And you realize that no matter how different our exteriors may be, inside we all share the common denominator: feelings. Human beings are characterized by feeling and expressing themselves, and Seona Sommer definitely brings to surface such depth. Her artwork shows us how unique human beings are, and best of all, how our differences are irrelevant because in the end we are made of the same cosmic fabric.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it.
A. I focus on contemporary realistic figurative art. I have always been captivated by the diversity of humankind and the complexity of emotions. The result on the canvas always mirrors the perception of what I feel when contemplating the reference photo. I prefer common people over celebrities as I am generally not interested in fake life concepts. I do not like how their image stirs up unattainable aspirations instead of realistic ambitions. Instead I see the beauty in every common person’s eyes and face, and I aim to comprehend and appreciate a person’s soul with full compassion.
I was first inspired in the 1990s when I saw Gerhard Richter’s painting “Die Lesende“ (or “Reader“ in English) at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The artwork did not only show a portrayed woman but conveyed a fully emotional experience to me, in which I felt extremely close to my inner self, the painting, humankind in general, and even the entire universe. In this moment, I experienced a special kind of inner peace and wholeness. Later I became interested in modern hyperrealists like Dirk Dzimirsky (Germany) and Eloy Morales (Spain). In my artwork, I try to combine techniques used in realism and hyperrealism with my usually positive feelings about the portrayed person.
My motivation in each single artwork is nurtured by the feeling I once felt in front of Richter’s painting and I try to reproduce it again and again. When I reach my goal, when I feel that feeling again, the artwork is finished. The artwork then shows my own emotionally perceived reality. I call my work Emotional Realism therefore.
Q. Tell us about some of the highlights of your artistic career?
A. I would like to highlight an award that I won in 2019 as to me personally this marked a very crucial step upwards the career ladder. A very painful year had just come to an end: I was very sick and not able to work for the entire second half of 2018. I was suffering from a psychological disorder that would not allow me to use my arms and hands due to some terrifying pain. During these months, I was called and asked to participate in a curated group show with 45 other international and professional artists from January-February 2019 with my oil portrait of “Tanja,” a young lady from Ukraine. I agreed – knowing already that I would not be able to come to the opening show. So when the time came up, I sent “Tanja” and pretty much forgot about her again. After the opening show, I saw some photos on the internet and regretted that I had not even had the energy to have the painting framed before sending it. It basically felt as if I had sent Cinderella in person. Well, a couple of weeks later, I received a phone call, “Seona, your painting has won the audience award.” What??? I thought I was dreaming! And another few days later, the next phone call informed me that the painting was sold too. I felt so overwhelmed, full of joy and yet so confused. How come my self-confidence had been so incredibly low that I didn’t believe more in my skills that I would have believed in those of a ten-year old?
From that moment on, I have not doubted my skills anymore. In the same year, I was also featured twice in The Guide Artists and was represented on art fairs (C.A.R. in Germany and Luxembourg Art Fair) by Galería Javier Román from Málaga, Spain.
Q. What role does the Artist have in society?
A. A visual artist makes you look again at something or someone. They make you have a deeper look. They kind of magically attract your attention and evoke a reaction from you. Maybe it’s just a subtle feeling that arouses, that you take home with you after the gallery visit, and then contemplate on it. Maybe a strong sentiment calls you to action. Maybe you start talking to a stranger. Maybe you find the answer to a question you have been looking for. Maybe a new idea is forming in your mind. Maybe...
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. My best childhood memories are connected to my grandmother. Around her, I always felt extremely comfortable. She didn’t push me around, she never asked me any annoying questions, she never complained about me, she would never have me do things I didn’t want to do, she just let me be myself and she was always happy when I came to see her.
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. For a long time, I wanted to become an astronaut as I felt extremely fascinated by outer space and exploring the unknown. I even converted my childhood room into a copy of Starship Enterprise.
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. No, I don’t remember the very first artwork I made. However, I do remember the first artwork I made and felt proud of: when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, our art teacher at school told us to sculpt something out of clay. I sculpted a face and received the best possible grade for it!
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. Very late, in 2004. I was in my mid-thirties when, on a whim, I bought myself some brushes, some colors and canvas. I had no idea then that this would change my life forever. From that moment on, I could just not stop painting anymore. Less than a couple of years later, when I was on the first date with my future husband, I told him, “By the way, I paint.” What I actually meant was, “Just so you know, I need LOT of time for this.”
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. I aim to show the diversity of human beings by painting people from all kinds of social, ethnic, cultural, religious backgrounds, people of different ages, genders or with different sexual orientations, or people differing in any other more or less visible, real or simply imagined way. I also include diverse emotional states of minds or atmospheres. You can find smiling and sad, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, familiar and unfamiliar, and many more people in my art. I have lived and travelled in several countries and have always made friends across all borders. I wish to encourage others to have mutual encounters free of prejudice, and then find the common grounds we all stand on. We are all human beings. Everyone is unique and, at the same time, we are all alike. Every human is beautiful and deserves our special attention and compassion. Humanity in all aspects is what matters most.
Q. If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?
A. I don’t have this one artist I have always wanted to meet. There are many of them. I prefer to focus on whatever or whoever I feel currently attracted by. Then I take the opportunity to learn as much as I can, and then I move on to the next challenge. Right now, as I am writing this, I feel very fascinated by the Spanish painter Alejandro Carpintero from Madrid. He currently teaches a daily mini class via WhatsApp to keep himself and other hundreds of artists busy and connected during lockdown (due to Corona). I love his ambition and creativity setting up these classes. He is such a warm and humorous person. Taking the class is so much fun and I actually learn a lot too.
Q. What is your favorite artwork?
A. My favorite artwork is a very classic one: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer.
Q. What medium(s) do you work with?
A. I mostly work with oil. But I also use graphite, charcoal, or soft pastels.
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. My authenticity has always been that part of my personality that has caused the most trouble for me. I have a hard time pretending to be someone who I am actually not, and I often find it difficult to hide my emotions. When I lament over this with my friends, they usually think this is a very positive character trait. But my reactions are sometimes very direct and can be noticed by everybody in the room. This can mean, I miss a chance or I annoy someone, because I cannot just wait and see first or be a bit more diplomatic.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. "Sacrifice” sounds rather negative, which to me is not what it is. Yes, after finally (very late in my life) embracing my artist personality as a major part of myself, lots of things have changed, and I kind of “lost” my former life, which includes people who I just don’t click with anymore. However, being an artist now has given me the opportunity to live a much more authentic life than before. So, in my perspective, whatever I have lost along the way, is just not what I need anyway.
Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
A. I draw a lot of inspiration from the contemporary art scene in Spain. I admire artists like Eloy Morales and Alejandro Carpintero (both from Madrid), and also Egypt born Rasha Alem, who has herself felt attracted to Spain and its contemporary artists a lot and now lives in Madrid as well.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. Being me actually means I need a lot of solitude for my personal well-being. Also, as an artist, I prefer to have my home studio and not share office studio space in an artist community. However, this does not mean I feel lonely. Apart from my wonderful husband, I have lot of friends, some of them artists too, who I regularly keep in touch with using modern technology. I also make sure I meet everyone more or less regularly. Plus, I really like reaching out to meeting new people everywhere I go. I enjoy having small talks on the road or at art opening shows, for instance. I also like bringing people together and have organized several larger art events in my city. I like networking and socializing. However, I also like the silence a lot when I come home again.
Q. Apart from your art, what do you love doing?
A. I love walks in nature, meeting good friends, doing sports. Plus, I especially like educating myself about all kinds of topics.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. Art focuses on one or more aspects of life and transforms it into kind of another language. Or it actually is the only language in which something can be expressed when there are no words to describe it.
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. I am really in two minds about this. On the one hand, the feeling of being successful is greatly nurtured by the overall positive feedback I get on my art. But then, you cannot live on feedback alone, so on the other hand, the financial outcome (supported by gallery representation etc.) does play an important role on the way to success too.
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
A. On the very top of this list: health (both physical and mental) is what is most important. Being in good condition and feeling emotionally strong can help to survive almost everything. Everything else originates from this. A strong person will be able to love and accept love, to feel gratitude over simple things, to share, to offer comfort, to be open-minded, and basically to accept life as it is.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. A key competence that I only learnt a few years ago has really changed the way of looking at my life: the simple fact that my thoughts are only thoughts and not reality. They don’t mean anything. Nothing has to inevitably happen after thinking them. I can think them, and then I can still decide whether I wish to act in compliance with them or not and do something else instead. I was feeling extremely stuck in my life at that time and I needed psychological counselling. And then I learnt, I was basically just stuck in my thoughts but I had all kinds of options actually. So, I started experimenting thinking one thing and doing another. For example, I was thinking, “I don’t feel like cleaning up my room.” And then I would clean it up anyway. And it worked! After a while, I had completely forgotten that I hadn’t felt like it in the first place.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. Don’t let anybody stop you from being you.