The Essence in a Portrait

This article appeared in a slightly edited form on Berkeleyside, an independent news site based in Berkeley, CA.

Portrait of Berkeley Fife by Seamus Berkeley

Portrait of Berkeley Fife by Seamus Berkeley

“If the house was burning down,” Joan and Scott Fife tell me over the phone, “the portraits would be the first thing we take.”

There are two portraits hanging in the Fife household, one of Joan’s mother and one of their daughter Berkeley. “When people come over, Berkeley’s portrait is first thing we show them,” says Scott. According to Joan, a common reaction from guests is that she looks like she’s about to say something.

Before the Fifes received the painting, visitors to the painter’s studio in South Berkeley would comment that she looks as if she’s on the verge of something. When the painter, Seamus Berkeley, told me this, he asked, “How did they know she was about to go off to college?”

For Seamus, common reactions to a painting are a sure sign of its success, especially when the reactions are coming from both those who know the subject and those who do not. It shows that from nothing more than oil on canvas, viewers are independently able to apprehend the same idea. That idea is the essence of what makes Berkeley Fife who she is, or at least who she was at 18.

Capturing the so-called essence of a person is Seamus’ primary motivation in portrait painting. He explains, “We’re in the universe experiencing this thing called being human, and it’s not going to last very long. So connecting with other people is really quite fascinating.” When Seamus paints a portrait, it is far more than simply looking at a person and replicating what he sees. That, he believes, is the role of the photographer. Before even the first sitting, Seamus is getting to know the subject, asking about their likes, dislikes, how that person sees the world. “I’m not able to get every word that the person said into the painting, but something gets conveyed. How that happens, I don’t know. It’s a little bit of a mystery. I take sketches and something from that canvas emerges.” People have told him that there is a certain vivaciousness to his subjects’ eyes, as if some sort of vital force emanates from the canvas and connects with the viewer. Though he does not know specifically how this comes across, he says, “I do know that I’m listening and watching. I get quiet. I gotta turn off my own mind and be present for that person. I have to be aware of that person. Then there’s this moment when I think, ‘This is it! This is the person most at ease with themselves.’” This moment of epiphany is then translated into oil, and a portrait is produced. When asked why he prefers to paint a person rather than a landscape or a still-life, he responds, “It’s better than painting a pear. A pear can make a very nice painting, but the existence of a pear doesn’t have the same unique experience. People are the most fascinating because there’s a depth of experience that we can share.”

When choosing an artist to paint their daughter Berkeley, it was this concern with connection that ultimately persuaded the Fifes to settle on Seamus. After searching online for Bay Area painters, Scott had narrowed his options down to two painters— Seamus and another painter who prefers a more realist style. Initially, they were leaning towards the representationalist, simply because Berkeley was more comfortable with something that resembled photography, and because at the time, the Fifes believed that realism was essentially the goal of portraiture.

When Scott emailed Seamus to let him know that they had decided to go with the other painter, Seamus responded immediately, explaining more about his process, and how he differs from others: “I like to work to create unusual compositions. I like to stay away from sitting at the dining room or in the office chair. It’s more about the person, the stylized image. I like to border the edge between representational and abstract. I’m not interested in creating photographic reproductions. I’m not even interested in making something an exact likeness. The painting has a different quality from other media. I take more time and care in getting to know the person and when I’m finalizing what the portrait’s going to be, the composition will come from having made that connection with that person.” After this meeting, Seamus had won them over. As Joan commented, “There was no hesitation. He just seemed like the real deal.”

Once Seamus was hired, the process of getting to know Berkeley Fife began. At first, she was hesitant. “I thought only kings or queens got their portraits done, or people who are dead, so it seemed weird for me to be doing it at 18 years old,” she said. He took hundreds of pictures, hoping to find just a few that would truly capture her character. In most of these pictures, she isn’t smiling, and Seamus began to think that she was a very serious individual. Berkeley corrected this impression, explaining that she just doesn’t like having her picture taken. Unsurprisingly, the best photos were the candids. It was only when she least expected the shutter to click that Seamus was able to discover Berkeley. He sketched the initial studies based on the best photographs. While providing four studies for the Fifes to choose from, he knew from the beginning which one would be the basis for the final portrait. According to Berkeley, this study was based off a photograph that was taken right before she was going to open her mouth to speak, which explains the common reaction to the final portrait. It also demonstrates what Seamus means when he says he straddles both the representational and the abstract. On one level, he has painted a picture of Berkeley Fife about to say something. On another, he has painted a portrait of a girl at a turning point in her life.

The Fifes are delighted with the final portrait, and in the process of working with Seamus, have grown to appreciate the fact that the image is not a photographic likeness. When they first hired Seamus, Joan thought the portrait would have been “all about the face... The thing that attracts me most to this painting is that there’s something about the pose, or how she’s standing, or something about that picture that seems very much like her. And it’s not really the face, it’s the posture, the pose, and what’s around her.” In Seamus’ portraiture, the subject’s environment is just as important as the subject itself. The world around a person is inextricably linked to who that person is.

Before Seamus painted the final portrait, he showed his four initial studies to Joan and Scott. Joan remembers, “My husband and I are not really emotional people, but when we saw that final study, we both got a little teary-eyed, and I think it’s because he really tapped into her essence and there was just something about her stance that really showed something about her. And I’m not really sure a photograph could show that. I think he really had to get to know her in order to get that.” It was these impressionistic studies that truly convinced Joan that representationalism is not necessarily the end-all of good portraiture. In explaining her affinity for the studies, she explains, “It’s kind of interesting that with these vague strokes, you fill in your best view of the person into the vague paint on the canvas. I like the fact that you just have some clues on a canvas and then your brain fills in the rest of the story. If we were to do it again, [the Fifes have two sons] I’d probably tell him to make it look even less photographic.”

In explaining why she now rejects the photographic realism, Joan explained that photography has this aspect of artifice: “Anybody can look like a happy person in a photograph. It’s very easy to pretend to be someone you aren’t in a photograph. You can look a certain way and come across a certain way and create whatever perception you want and create this whole charade of your life with photographs.” She contrasts this with the way Seamus composed the portrait of Berkeley: “She’s wearing stuff that she wears every single day. She’s not dressed up or made up. She’s standing in her tiny, messy room in her jeans, leaning against a chair, exactly as she would, about to say something with a kind of a seriousness about it. There’s not a big smile, it’s not forced. There’s nothing fake about it, she’s not trying to look anything. She looks the best she can be, the best Berkeley. She just looks like Berkeley to me. It’s what she looks like most days.”

To Joan, Seamus’ portraits have the capability of telling the viewer something about the subject, rather than just showing what that person looks like. She says, “I’ve seen some of Seamus’ other portraits that are in his studio—the one of his mother, in particular—and I get a sense of what kind of person she is from looking at that picture. And I think I get more of a sense from looking at the piece of art than I would if it were a photograph. I don’t know why. I just think there’s more personality that comes through.” I asked what one can learn about Berkeley from looking at her portrait. She responded, “You can detect that she’s pretty comfortable in her own skin and confident.” After a long pause, she continued, “It’s easier for me to tell you what she’s not like. You can tell that she’s not flamboyant, you can tell that she’s not glib, you can tell that she’s not arrogant, you can tell that she’s not particularly warm, that she’s kind of her own person, you can tell that she’s not gregarious.” After hearing this litany of what Berkeley is not, I was intrigued to learn why it is that Joan could more easily offer this list than say what Berkeley is. “Maybe it’s just the parent talking. Just a parent saying what their kid isn’t instead of appreciating what they are.” I wasn’t quite satisfied with that response, considering both Joan and Seamus agree that there is a mystery, a certain je nes sais quoi of how paint on a canvas can convey a person’s character.

Regardless of how oil paint achieves this transcendental quality, there is no doubt that Seamus Berkeley has a knack for what he does. He has recently become involved with the Family House, a non-profit organization that houses families of children undergoing treatment at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Seamus is creating 24 portraits of families, children, and caregivers that will be hung in the organization’s new facility in South Mission Bay, creating a legacy that celebrates the mission of Family House. With this new project, Seamus hopes to achieve a long-time goal of his: to put his skills as an artist to the service of a larger purpose.

To see more work by Seamus Berkeley, visit his website.