Bare Necessities

Contemporary artist Sean Samoheyl is a master at improv.

Sean “Purl” Samoheyl

Photo by Carlo Bevilacqua

Sean “Purl” Samoheyl, 43, has always wanted to be an artist. 

In his 20s, he lived in Chicago producing art influenced by skateboarding and graffiti; art school was out of the question. At the time, he was working full time as a bartender and bike messenger, and the most he could afford was a couple of painting classes. Fortunately, his instructor saw promise and passion in him and gave him lists of artists whose work he should study. Thus began an unconventional do-it-yourself education in art making that has provided shape and substance to Samoheyl’s practice.

Samoheyl works in a variety of media—drawings, paintings, sculpture, animations. His pieces are modest in scale and feature an oddball charm that is a deft amalgamation of popular culture, folk art and high art. One catches glimpses of New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaz and Simpsons creator Matt Groening in his hapless, absurdist figures, but the rendering is more along the lines of Alexander Calder or Paul Klee. 

The rough approach Samoheyl favors adds an authenticity to the work—this is, of course, an aesthetic choice, but it was helped along by necessity. Throughout his career, without a lot of disposable income, he has had to use materials at hand. These non-art surfaces and media enliven the work with an edgy rawness.

A major factor in Samoheyl’s artistic education has been his 16-year relationship with Twin Oaks, an intentional community of 90 adults and 15 children located in rural Louisa County, where he moved shortly before 9/11. Accompanying his girlfriend who had heard about Twin Oaks in a college sociology class, he moved to Virginia drawn by a desire to live a more meaningful existence. Founded in 1967, Twin Oaks stresses the values of cooperation, sharing, nonviolence, equality and ecology. To generate income, the community produces hammocks, furniture, tofu and seeds for cultivation. The rest of the time, Twin Oaks members engage in tasks that support the community: milking cows, gardening, cooking and childcare.

Samoheyl’s nickname Purl, which he uses to sign the works he makes for Twin Oaks, came about because of all the knitting he was doing making hats for other Twin Oaks members. The name stuck when another Sean arrived.

For the first few years at Twin Oaks, Samoheyl was able to make art, but after the birth of his daughter in 2008, “I decided the community needed functional items and I wanted to have a marketable skill in case I decided to leave.” No one there was making chairs, and it seemed like a need he could fill. “But I never abandoned making art, just abandoned seeing myself as an artist.” In the meantime, he embraced chair making with the same interest and tenacity with which he approached art—not just making it, but immersing himself in its manifestations and history. He began with traditional chair designs before branching out into his own designs. 

His “Ketchup and Mustard Chair” is a Hans Wegner-inspired design that combines Windsor techniques with a 19th century faux graining finish to create something completely original, funky and fun. A similar effect is achieved with his “American History for Homeschoolers Chair.” A traditional Windsor design that incorporates a portrait of George Washington on the underside in chewing gum, the chair references kids not paying attention in class, while challenging the perfect image of our forefathers—functional objects elevated to the level of art.

Over the years at Twin Oaks, Samoheyl received what he refers to as an “apprenticeship in usefulness,” learning skills like woodworking, metal craft, sewing and fiber arts. When he returned to making art objects in 2016, he did so “with a renewed sense of purpose and confidence in my abilities and methods of joining materials in a better crafted way. Now, if the rendering is left rough, it’s a conscious choice, rather than a result of lack of training.”

Samoheyl is currently on a five-month sabbatical from Twin Oaks. He has been making the most of his time away with a solo show at ADA Gallery in Richmond and a month-long residency at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, the former home of Henry Francis du Pont in Delaware. His Winterthur fellowship centered on the work lives of the Shakers and other furniture making utopian communities. The burden of community chores removed, he’s also been busy producing his own artwork and making furniture. His most recent designs take inspiration from Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. Everything he does, whether it’s the juxtaposition of colors, shapes or styles, or its innate quirkiness and simplicity, reveals his inventiveness. 

The fact that—almost without realizing it—Samoheyl has attained what he so desired as a youth, to become an artist, has not been lost on him. Now, he says he is “pursuing this art career with ferocity. I’m not letting go again.”

This article originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.

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