Sean Diediker | An Artist Abroad

Reflections of Elizabeth, oil, 27 x 30.

Utah painter Sean Diediker and his wife, Gina, set off on a yearlong trek around the world on December 31, 2004. For Diediker, 31, it has been a working adventure. The first stop was Sydney, Australia, where he painted reflections of elizabeth, boy digging in sand, sherlock, and other pieces. When Southwest Art senior editor Bonnie Gangelhoff caught up with Diediker this fall, he was inhabiting an apartment with an attached studio in Lucerne, Switzerland—the second leg of his journey. The artist’s final destination is Florence, Italy, where he sets up another studio before returning home on December 15.

Where is your studio, and what does it look like? We are on the border of Lucerne and St. Niklausen, in the shadow of Mount Pilatus. There is a large forest behind our place that I walk through all the time. The north and west walls [of the studio] are completely glass for optimal light. There is a French easel, Utrecht paint, sketches, notes to myself, and my iPod playing music to get me through my next painting. I have over 500 albums on the iPod, ranging from The English Patient soundtrack to Lyle Lovett.

What painting supplies did you carry with you? Everything except the stretcher bars. I had to trim the fat, though. I only brought the supplies that I had to have to make a painting, which include paint, brushes, palette knives, a tape measure, gesso, four bottles of Gamblin Neo-Meglip [a gel that purportedly gives body to paint and decreases viscosity], and 75 yards of unprimed linen wrapped around a surfboard.

What are your morning rituals while you are abroad? Same as at home. However, there was an exception: In Australia, I would first check the surf report and then figure how to fit a surf into my painting day.

Tuesday, oil, 51 x 34.When do you paint while traveling? I stay in a place long enough to set up a studio—about three months. Then, I set up mini-trips from that spot. I only paint six days a week. It’s important to shut your mind off from the work in order to come back refreshed.

What made you decide to travel around the world for a year? We always planned on doing this. It just happened to work out for 2005. You might say that my work is directly affected by where I am living—the people, the city, the landscape, and the things I see every day. Changing my environment allows for a much easier flow of ideas. Environment should affect an artist’s work. If it doesn’t, you’re painting decorations.

What is your first memory of a piece of art? Navajo rugs. My mom grew up on a Navajo reservation in Star Lake, NM, where my grandpa had a trading post. I remember the bold patterns on those rugs that decorated our home in Farmington, NM.

Have your early experiences as a child influenced your art today? My father is a general contractor. I used to go with him to his work on occasion. I feel I paint in the same way that my father would erect a building—much thought in planning, careful design, step by step and layer upon layer until the work is done and standing on its own.

Where did you learn to paint? I have a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Brigham Young University [in Provo, UT], but I learned to paint by creating 300 awful paintings that you’ll never see. A painter learns by painting.

What appeals to you about painting figures? People have always been a great interest in my life. I enjoy observing the stimulus and reaction in different human situations. Personal relationships have greatly influenced my work. For me, figures are the hardest thing to paint. If you can master the figure, you can master any subject. I have a long way to go.

You have said in the past that you believe, in today’s world, a painting should look like a painting. Why do you feel that way? There are too many people who equate a good painting with how much it looks like a photograph. There is some satisfaction in a “picture-perfect” rendering; however, my eye is much more stimulated by a vast array of marks that suggest an image but are still paint. I respond to paintings that leave evidence of their creation. An example: Rembrandt.

What is your favorite painting? While I have many favorites, I must say that Vermeer’s the milkmaid is at the top of the list. It truly is as close to a perfect painting as I have ever seen. Flawless color, composition, and subject. If ever I were to commit a grand robbery, that would be the mark.

How has your art evolved since the beginning of your career? I used to paint subjects that I thought everyone would like. Now, I paint what I like and what interests me. My overall execution of a painting has improved, and I feel that I have found my painting voice.

What is the role of biblical concepts in your work? Religion has been a big part of my life; I was raised in a religious environment. I think about it on a daily basis, so it is only natural that it should spill over into my work. To me, many biblical concepts represent timeless ideas and situations. I have made an attempt to take these concepts and, through contemporary subject matter, bring these ideas closer to the viewer, so the viewer may come to an understanding that these ideas and situations are still valid and happening today.

Tell me about your creative process. The creative process can be a painful one. Every painting comes with highs and lows. Many of my paintings come about during church on Sundays. I stare at a blank wall and see a painting there. I sketch ideas in my sketchbook. I wish I knew where ideas came from. Sometimes ideas fall into your lap, and other times you really have to work for it. The hardest part is getting what is in my head onto the canvas. All my paintings are brilliant in my head. Sadly, they do not often come out that way. But let me tell you, nothing feels better than creating a truly successful painting.

Where do you find the models for your works? In Utah, my models are usually people I know. They are neighbors, family, my wife’s friends, and the occasional person off the street. Knowing the stories of the individual allows me to build a painting around him or her. In Australia, I met a homeless man whom I passed in the park everyday. He was rough and sunbaked, and he didn’t give a damn about anything, except for his girl, Jules. I never failed to spot him in a crowd because he always wore the same old tattered hat. One day, I sat down and we “shot the breeze.” His story influenced me to paint what I feel is the best painting in the Australia series, sherlock. It’s about him as an individual and the environment that shapes who he is.

Some of your paintings feature two figures, such as evans sisters and reflections of elizabeth. Are you concerned with duality? I’m interested in the energy generated between two figures. The paintings are about relationships, singular and dual. In several of them, the figures are the same person. We are constantly in contemplation of how we view ourselves and how others view us.

You created a series of three paintings—tuesday, tuesday ii, and tuesday iii—which you have said is your reaction to the tragedies of 9/11. What are you trying to convey in these pieces? The Tuesday series is very personal to me, and I would prefer not to discuss the symbolism in detail. I think defining these works would only detract from them. For me, these works convey something that cannot be put into words.

boy digging in sand seems a departure in style from many of your other figurative pieces. Are you moving in a new direction with a looser, more abstract style? boy digging in sand is more of a study. He [the subject] just reminded me of how much I loved the ocean when I was a kid. I believe that a good painter should always be stepping outside of his comfort zone. You have to open as many doors as you can to see which is the best to walk through. boy digging in sand is a result of me stepping outside my comfort zone. While I am quite pleased with this painting, I’m not sure how much more abstract I would go.

What has surprised you the most during your journey? Once the studio is set up, it truly becomes home again.

What important lessons have you learned during your year abroad so far? The human condition is consistent throughout the world, and people are generally good. Also, you’re not allowed to board an airplane with a gallon of gesso as your carry-on.

Diediker is represented by Coda Gallery, Palm Desert, CA, Park City, UT, and New York, NY, and Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe and Taos, NM.

Featured in “Dispatches” November 2005