Vancouver visual artist Sean Karemaker makes magic of a misfit past.
See My Ghost
“Who Ever Thought Somebody Would Find You?” is a fitting title for Sean Karemaker’s art exhibition that opened Feb. 13. For him, the moment of identification and belonging it alludes to is a hard-won victory that’s easy to miss from this perspective. These days, the affable 31-year-old comports himself with an inspired sense of joy so complete that it looks as though it’s been there all along. After making speaking apperances in TedxKids and Pecha Kucha late last year, Karemaker put himself
on the map as one of Vancouver’s most notable and charismatic emerging visual artists. His forthcoming exhibition of sculpture and comics, however, draws from a painful childhood that continues to fuel much of his creative work.
Growing up in a small subdivision outside of Crofton, B.C. on Vancouver Island, Karemaker was bullied, beat up, and picked on constantly. He struggled in school, had trouble fitting in, and simply could not stomach a spot on the baseball team that all the other boys in town were expected to be part of.
For anyone who has been on the receiving end of the many blistering cruelties children are uniquely capable of, the daily violence that haunted Karemaker’s early years is terribly familiar. And in the brutalizing homogeneity of small-town B.C., failure to fit in is a heavy burden for a kid who doesn’t yet realize the freak flag potential of life in the city.
The outside world was unkind to him, so Karemaker locked himself in the closet of his childhood bedroom. There, he constructed a tiny artist studio and made new worlds he could feel more at home in. He drew, painted, and made sculptures. He worked tirelessly at the only thing he knew how to make right when everything else felt like a long series of failures.
“I always just felt I was different and couldn’t really fit,” he says. “I remember getting beat up a lot and picked on a lot. It was just part of life. I remember just feeling really awful about it, not really sure what to do. My parents were trying their best, but I was a shy, awkward kid, absorbed in my own world.”
Of the Karemaker family home in the forest outside a tiny town, “we were isolated,” he says. “In retrospect, it was a really good thing for me and my siblings. My older brother made movies because my parents got him a video camera... my parents were really supportive of my art. They got me into watercolour classes, and they got me the supplies I needed...[my parents] gave us the tools we needed.”
In that closet in the bedroom in the house in the woods, Karemaker’s early art practice grew. He built entire worlds. “I created characters and settings and I had a different way of thinking and a whole kind of mythology,” he says.
As the years passed and he grew up, he “buried it in boxes and left it for a long time.”
Art imitates life
Karemaker left home in his late teens and lived in abandoned houses with friends, moved to Victoria, worked in construction, and eventually arrived in the Lower Mainland in his early 20s.
He and his brother rented an apartment in New Westminster while he got settled in the city. He started working as a 3-D artist and environment designer for video gaming companies in the area. After hours, he’d explore the city.
“I didn’t really know a lot of people or have a lot of friends out here, so I started riding all the busses and trains,” he says. “That’s when I started doing social observation-type drawings which I got some decent feedback for. I started drawing comics. And all these things kind of led to what I’m doing now.”
Karemaker’s comics are biographical accounts of a lonely early life in Vancouver. He worked against his shy nature and used his art as a tool for connecting with people in a notoriously unfriendly city.
“Art, for me, has been a good avenue towards meeting people. I’m [drawing] in public a lot of the time. People will apprehensively decide they want to come over and ask me what I’m doing. People are always so worried they’re going to interrupt me. But I always try to make people feel as though they’re welcome to come and look at what I’m doing,” he says.
“It de-mystifies art for people. And it lets people see that art is not just this thing that is pretentious and happens in art galleries, but it’s just something people like to do. And it’s something that people choose to do.”
A new frontier
After eight years working in the local video game industry, Karemaker is now building a new life that more closely reflects his desire to break down social barriers through creative self-expression.
He’s happily installed in a studio space at the Gam Gallery on East Hastings, and he’s newly teaching art to young people through the Richmond Art Centre, Arts Umbrella, Vancouver Film School, and Visual College of Art & Design.
Most importantly, he’s more comfortable in his own skin. “I’ve challenged myself in a lot of different ways, doing poetry readings and eventually public speaking, which is terrifying for me,” he says. “I think if we don’t like the fact that people don’t talk to each other, we need to make an effort to talk to each other, rather than accepting people don’t want to talk.”
Now that the wounds of his earlier years have had time to heal, Karemaker is focusing his art practice on re- examining the thinking behind the work he produced as a kid. “I’m making work that’s meant to please that inner child and expose these worlds and these things that I made in my closet, separate from the general population,” he says.
“Now I’m putting them out into the world, but making them polished and new... [I’m] trying to work in a more innocent way, trying to rediscover those simpler ideas I had when I was a kid.”
He brings the same spirit of re- discovery to his new work as an art teacher. “Teaching is like the closest thing to having a time machine,” he says.
“I didn’t have the easiest time when I was a kid...I can see those kids [like me] in classes and I can reach out to them...I want to be [someone] that I could have benefitted from being involved with when I was a kid.”
Karemaker’s artwork is dense, dreamlike, and richly imaginative, evocative of a person who knows, in equal parts, the dark muck of heartbreak and the rich joy of being in love. His prismatic ghost sculptures are drenched in sparkle and resin; his comics are rendered with a dark sense of humour and wonder at the bizarre.
It’s no wonder that kids would love him. He makes serious work of the most important matters of our interior lives— stuff many grown-ups would brush off as trivial, when it’s anything but.