One to Watch

Sean Winn on Identity and Human Connection

A 2019 Saatchi Art Rising Star and recent graduate of the University of the Arts London, Sean Winn incisively captures the inner worlds of his subjects, most often millennials like himself navigating relationships and mental health in a technologically-driven and often alienating world. Sean bases his dramatic, hyper-realistic paintings on photographs he takes of his subjects in their dark bedrooms illuminated by the otherworldly glow of string lights. The results are visceral portraits in uncanny settings that conflate the intimate and the universal.

1. Tell us about who you are and what you do. What’s your background?

My name is Sean Winn and I’m a 24 year old artist originally from Southern California. I received my Bachelors of Art from at a small university in Sterling, Kansas, with a specialty in graphic design. After university, I spent almost a year working as a graphic designer and retail assistant before moving to London to get my Masters of Fine Art at the University of the Arts, London. Within two years of living in London, I have had a solo exhibition, taken part in several group exhibitions, and five online publications.

2. What does your work aim to say? What are the major themes you pursue in your work?

My art practice has always come from an effort to get to know myself and to be able to have a creative outlet to vent and express my emotions about being a millennial in today’s technologically-driven world. A lot of my work explores identity, mental health, and how we connect with one another in different types of relationships.

For example, in my recent piece “Can’t Sleep Without You,” I wanted to portray the everyday struggles that the model dealt with, especially at night, as someone with post traumatic stress disorder. During our photoshoot for reference photos for the painting, he told me how he doesn’t seek peace at night alone because that’s when his PTSD haunts him. The only thing that he finds comfort in when he’s trying to get sleep is having a significant other with him so that he knows he’s not left alone in the night.

3. Can you walk us through your process for creating a work from beginning to end?

I have a very time-consuming process when it comes to starting a new piece that involves a figure. I often get inspired by my personal friends or people I have come across in social gatherings. I take all my own reference photos at night in any type of bedroom setting (but I mostly prefer the model’s personal bedroom). I love to get to know someone in their most intimate and personal space where they feel like they can talk to me comfortably while I photograph them nude or partially nude. Once I’ve gotten enough photos, I spend the week planning out the painting, messing around in Photoshop with color palettes and different levels of contrast. From there, I either project or draw onto canvas depending on size and then start painting.

4. What series or artistic project are you working on next?

I’ve had a busy year finishing university and exhibiting both here in London and in the U.S. I’m currently taking some time to myself to recuperate, but I plan on continuing my series of work. I do plan on having more variety in the size of my paintings, but I also want to experiment with textiles and installation more for this upcoming year.

5. What memorable responses have you had to your work?

Last year, during the private viewing of my first solo exhibition, I had an elderly woman with her friend come up to me to congratulate me on my show, but the woman who initiated the conversation started crying hysterically and telling me that my work reminded her of her father, who was in love with astronomy. The colors I used in my work struck her as a replica of the galaxy and planets. In that moment, I was of course caught off guard, but I gave the woman a long hug while she was tearing up in my arms and I thanked her from the bottom of my heart. It was in that moment that I wanted to cry because I’ve never considered my work touching people in such a way. It was such an amazing and humbling experience and I will always remember it.

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