Seb Barnett Walks Into the Forest: An Interview —And An Aftermath

Posted on October 27, 2016, 8:54 pm
10 mins


Seb Barnett brings the forest with them wherever they go. That’s not hyperbole: when they arrive to our interview, a leafy vine winds around their ball-cap, and they’re double-fisting two tiny potted cacti. As excited as they are to discuss their upcoming exhibition and fundraiser in October, they’re more pumped about the succulents arriving at the gardening center where they work. Their hair, when they shed the hat, is the rich emerald green of a sun-lit lake. For Seb Barnett, the natural world is a place of growth and healing, centering and inspiration, and where they can find both escape and wholeness.

"Seize" by Seb Barnett, 2016. Scan courtesy of Bellevue Fine Art Reproduction.

“Seize” by Seb Barnett, 2016.
Scan courtesy of Bellevue Fine Art Reproduction.

Nature and humanity merge in Seb Barnett’s oil paintings, where roots and vines spring from flesh as easily as from loam. Barnett has a feathery quality to their brushwork, as if everything is dappled by sun through unseen branches. A practitioner of shamanism and animism, Barnett conveys their deep respect for flora and the possibility of connection and communion with nature into their work.

Over dinner, Barnett shares a peek of their upcoming exhibition, De Trop, planned for mid-October. Every piece incorporates the living world. “Seize” is a portrait of a lover showing flowers gnashed between teeth. A forlorn figure lays supine beneath a cocoon of moss in “Overwhelmed.” In “Unlikely Allies,” snails and ferns creep symbiotic over the faces of Barnett and their younger sister.

“I always had a hard time expressing and understanding my emotions,” says 35-year-old Barnett. “Mine are very intense, but I don’t understand them. Because of that, words escape me. Flowers, plants, wild things are so expressed, and they become a translation for my own emotions. They are unapologetic in the way they exist, and to me that’s desirable.”

Hope by Seb Barnett

“Hope” by Seb Barnett

Two paintings are modeled after Barnett’s young niece and nephew, and present a stark divide between the realms of adulthood and youth: the children are rendered in jewel-bright colors, with clear tenderness, almost as if no shadow could touch them. Adult figures, by contrast, are shown with grimaces, clenched teeth, wary expressions, curled into fetal shapes, or tear-stricken.

De trop translates from French as “excessive, too much, unwanted.”

“People have told me since I was a kid that I’m too much. Too much to handle, to put up with; my gender too much to understand, my history and intensity are too much. And that’s a terrible thing to tell someone.”

The adults in Barnett’s paintings have been told that; there is something crushed about them. The children they have painted are strong, free, and powerful. They haven’t.

What renders Barnett’s work unforgettable are the naked emotions they let shine through starkly: grief, anger, hurt. Their work unflinchingly portrays the lasting damage of abuse, the raw fear experienced by trans and genderqueer people, the exhaustion of dealing with mental illness. Yet, the natural world emerges as a balance: whorls of bark grow over vulnerable skin to form protective armor; roots knit torn flesh together, bringing healing and strength.

Raised in a sheltered environment on the Olympic Peninsula—with the Hoh Rainforest as their backyard—Barnett experienced massive culture shock when they arrived at Cornish College of the Arts in downtown Seattle.

As we talk, Barnett matter-of-factly describes their ultra-conservative upbringing, the physical and mental abuse that stifled their gender expression and sexual identity, their continuing battles with PTSD. Their confidence is tangible as they describe the tight relationships they have grown and nurtured in Seattle, with friend-as-family in the arts, poly, queer and pagan communities. Throughout our talk, Barnett’s grin never leaves their face—even if steel glimmers beneath it.

“As a kid I wasn’t exposed to art, to cities, to TV, nudity, theater, lewd jokes, drinking—anything. I had spent all my time in the woods, or learning botany, and working in my mother’s greenhouse and selling produce at a farmer’s market. When I got too overwhelmed in Seattle, I’d go to Pike Place Market to have familiarity.”

"Devourer" by Seb Barnett. Image courtesy of Bellevue Fine Art Reproductions.

“Devourer” by Seb Barnett. Image courtesy of Bellevue Fine Art Reproductions.

“I’ve got a lot of shit, and I have no shame about it. The whole world is telling people with mental illness, alternate gender, a history of abuse to be ashamed. I grew up with a shame culture, and I am not buying that anymore. For someone to step up and talk about it, it’s really important. I don’t feel vulnerable about it. No one can have power over me through it.”

Seb Barnett Image by Fedora @ Tiny Box Media

Seb Barnett
Image by Fedora @ Tiny Box Media

On October 22, Barnett plans to host a public fundraiser to collect donations towards their top surgery. Their face is alight as they describe the surgery as something they have dreamed of for most of their life.

“Since this became a reality, I’ve had intense dreams of painting a post-surgery self portrait. I was nervous, but I finally did it.”

That painting is “Devourer.” A bare-chested Barnett sits in blue jeans on the stormy Washington coast. Their legs are spread wide and confidently; their tattooed-hands hold a slingshot at the ready. Their face is obscured by a dense thicket of underbrush, save for a strong, grimacing mouth. It’s a challenging, hostile pose: the viewer cannot meet the figure’s eyes, no matter how they try.

“Send me the haters! I’m a genderqueer, pansexual, feminist. People have bigoted reasons to hate me. And it’s better that they hate me than my queer, alternative, liberal siblings. Because I can take it. I can take the hate. I’ve always become better than the circumstances that I’ve been put through, and that isn’t going to stop.”

“Devourer” may be formidable to their opponents, but they are strength and shelter for their allies. Barnett has created a mythic version of themselves that will weather the boiling storm, and defend those they love.

There is a Tlingit Alaskan Native expression that when someone has died, they have “walked into the forest.” In Tlingit cosmology, the forest is where humans enter the spirit world.

On October 7, a week and a half after this interview, Seb Barnett walked into the forest.

For this artist and shaman, the forest—both figurative and literal—was a place of refuge, mystery, and healing. In the week since their passing, the outpouring of grief and love from their communities has culminated in a shared sentiment: Barnett was a part of the forest, and has walked back in.

The fundraiser on October 22 originally scheduled for Barnett’s top surgery will now be a celebration of their life, and a fundraiser for memorial and charities. It will include Drag King performances by NG Langston’s Dapper Down Productions. The evening will also include a silent art auction of works by over 40 regional artists, including Amanda Stalter, Jonathan Seright, Bill Dawson, Crystal Barbre, Fedora Carpenter, Casey Weldon, Emily Brown, Reed Carpenter, and Carl Faulkner.

The fundraiser will be held at MUSE (3801 Delridge Way SW), October 22, 7-9:30pm. The event is public. Read more on VS Daily.

Sarra Scherb an arts writer, gallerist, curator and graphic designer in Seattle. Her writing has appeared in The Stranger, The Toast, Stackedd Magazine and Weave Magazine. She has worked with five Washington museums and four Seattle art galleries, and none of them have caught fire or flickered into a different dimension, so she must be doing something right.She runs around town as Brass Archer: