By Janelle Faignant
Karen Seward hears a common false belief from people sometimes: “I can’t paint.” Or, “I can’t draw.” “I’m not artistic.” “I can’t draw a straight line.”
“And I say, nobody was born a brain surgeon,” she says. “They had to study for many years, and painting is the same way.”
Her family owns Seward’s, the landmark Rutland restaurant on North Main Street. But she’s also well-known for her artwork, particularly her still-life paintings of pears. “It may not come naturally for some people but if it’s something you like and you want to express yourself just take some lessons. Gradually you will evolve,” Seward said in a recent interview.
Though she has always enjoyed painting, growing up she had very little accessibility or exposure to it, and a rare condition that echoed her calling to it — she has what’s called synesthesia, which causes her to see numbers and letters in color. Seward describes it as a crossing of the senses. For someone with synesthesia, when seeing the number 2, they might also see the color yellow. It can cross into music as well; a C-sharp note might coincide with the color blue. Green could be associated with Tuesdays. A sort of meeting place for the left brain and right brain.
“In my case I see every letter of the alphabet and every number in a color,” Seward said. “So when I see a phone number with 775, that’s blue, blue, orange.”
There are probably many people who have the condition but don’t realize what it is. Although she’s had it since she was born, Seward didn’t realize it until she was in her 50s, when she happened to read an article about it. “Since then I’ve looked it up, but I thought everybody else felt the same way,” she said. “But because of that, color is always with me. Mixing colors comes easy to me. It’s almost like I think in color.”
Around four percent of the population are synesthetes. And among artists, the number is estimated to be 20 percent. Seward says it helps her remember phone numbers, but as an artist, it’s an extra tool. “I can mix almost any color from any color,” she said. “If somebody had something that needed repair in a painting or on a wall, I can mix the color together easily.”
After her kids were grown, fellow artist Mary Crowley enrolled the two of them in a class at the Chaffee, and Seward’s untapped talent took off from there. “We painted regularly for a long time,” Seward said. “I wanted to learn and grow and almost catch up from all the years I felt I missed.”
Her interest in pears happened naturally after she started painting still-life fruit. She researched them and found that they symbolize prosperity, love and long life. Quite a few artists do zero-in on pears as a subject matter. “You think a pear is a pear is a pear, but they have their own little personalities sometimes,” she said.
Seward attended workshops with professional artists and her style began to develop. A few years ago she joined EMMA. An acronym for East Mountain Mentoring Artists, EMMA is a group of local artists who meet regularly to paint, create and critique each other’s work. Seward says the group offers support, inspiration and motivation, and opened the door to many resources.
You can see the artwork of the ten members of EMMA, including Seward’s pears, in the current exhibit at Compass Art Center, called “What EMMA Loves.”
“It’s a great group, and I think it will evolve as we all grow,” she said. “Hopefully it will continue indefinitely. Painting helps you zone out. I think that’s why there are so many artists around. It has that wonderful uplifting spirit.”
Compass Art Center is located at 333 Jones Drive, in Brandon
For more information visit www.cmacvt.org or 247-4295.