I’m sitting curiously close to Minneapolis artist Scott Seekins on a leather chaise in his shoebox Loring Park studio, surrounded by decades’ worth of his work, from self-portraits to tribal-themed drawings to Britney Spears paintings. It’s the first time I’ve seen him up close, as typically a sighting of him — clad in all black in winter and all white in summer — is from afar. It’s easy to make assumptions about the ageless enigma from that distance, but here, in this unintentionally intimate moment, I start to see the person rather than the persona.
You’ve worn all black in winter and all white in summer for five decades. What first prompted you to do this?
I was 17 starting art school. I didn’t like looking normal, but I didn’t really have it formulated yet. I lived in South St. Paul with my parents, and I took the bus to MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art and Design]. I had a layover in St. Paul, and there was this shop with all these vintage black and white suits. The owner was a tailor, and he showed me how to sew on buttons and all this stuff. That’s how it started back in the sixties.
Is it performance art or just a personal aesthetic?
It’s like living installation art. It’s like installation art before it was around.
How would you define your personal style?
Improvised and eccentric. I think everyone has the right to do what they want. It’d be better if people had the freedom to do that here, but they’re afraid to not fit in.
Let’s say you want be a cheerleader every day, so you find all this cheerleader clothing and wear a different outfit every day. Then you go to work and your boss says, “That’s kind of funny, but we have a dress code here, and you have to take that off.” And you say, “No, this is the way I am. It doesn’t affect my performance.” You’d get fired. Or you go home, and Mom or Dad says, “We’re going to see the relatives; take that off.” And you say, “No, Mom, this is the way I am.” You could be disowned.
There’s just so much pressure. I really respect people who dress the way they want 24/7.
People track your whereabouts around town. Why do you think they take such an interest in you?
I don’t really know. I’ve heard the good luck theory. Some people are freaked out and just don’t get it. There are all kinds of reasons. I stand out, especially in white. I get called Prince and Elvis and fag. I get attacked once in a while; that happened after 9/11. It just depends on people’s moods. They see me as a target.
Has this harassment ever made you question your clothing choices? Or has it made you more steadfast about being true to yourself?
More steadfast. I remember once being up north fishing in the white suit, and I was getting it all muddy and I thought, “Why am I doing this? I could have just worn blue jeans.” And this couple overlooking the river from a bridge nearby said, “There you are, the one that wears white in the summer and black in the winter.” It reaffirmed that I could do that.
Let’s go back a bit. I read that your birth parents abandoned you and you were adopted by a South St. Paul family.
Yes. Mildred was Irish and the only mother that treated me nice. I think she instilled my soft, kind side that people don’t really realize I have. They assume I am a flamboyant, extreme, radical type.
I looked into my birth parents a little bit, and my real name is Anton. Apparently the mother was 24, came to Minnesota, had me then left, which means she wasn’t a teenager getting rid of the baby. Something else was going on. It’s kind of like you lift up a rock and you don’t know if you’re going to find scorpions or something wonderful. Usually it’s scorpions.
I couldn’t get the name of the mother, just that she had died. When I asked about the father, there was no name — nothing. So I just finally decided I’m an individual. If you’re an individual, you don’t have to look over your shoulder to be part of a past. When you’re an individual, you can do anything.
There’s too much emphasis on DNA and race and what percent you are of this and that. I look like I could be a number of things. I’m most likely not Swedish but perhaps Persian, Eastern European. Anton is an Eastern European name — Romania, Bulgaria. I’m not sure.
Do you have many memories from before you were adopted?
No, because I was only a little over 1 year old. I’m sure it’s emotionally traumatic when you change parents. I’ve always felt that. And I’ve heard that the fear of abandonment is strong. So if you’re close to somebody and they disappear, it reminds you of the early days. There was the first mother who gave me up, then the foster-home mother who kind of liked me then the final, third mother. I think adoption leaves most people with some issues.
You haven’t talked much about your father.
He was goodhearted but more conservative and disciplined. He was drafted into World War II when he was like 33, and he was sent to the South Pacific and saw too much in these horrible battles. He won some medals, likethe Bronze Star, but he never wanted to talk about it. One time when I was playing with his medals out in the garden as a kid, I lost some. He didn’t care.
Did he approve of your black and white outfits?
Not really. But otherwise he was pretty approving. My parents didn’t quite understand it.
What were you like as a student at MCAD?
Lost. I was on probation the entire time, a D+ average. I probably went there too young. I was 17, and I could draw really well, but I didn’t know much about color or design. It was a very tough school back then. I wanted to be a biochemist, but I couldn’t do the math, so I resorted to art.
Do you think you’re misunderstood as an artist?
Sure. You might have a thought that you’re doing one thing then people say it’s something else. The Britneys are a statement against the pseudo-intellectual art of the city, but people look at them as not serious or not academic enough.
[pointing] Someone just bought that painting of me kissing myself. I’m a firm believer in GLBT rights and letting everyone make their own decisions about relationships and religion. If you want to have a private god, that’s fine. But if you want to impose on other people and start wars, I’m not into it.
Do you ever wonder what life would be like had you become a biochemist?
I’d probably be sitting in front of a TV eating Häagen-Dazs and drinking a six-pack, have some grandchildren, and be totally unhappy. I’d have a big belly and look like shit.
Does the idea of that life bore you?
Certain things about it would be good. You walk by a beautiful house and say, “I wish I had that.” It’s not a reality for an artist to have a home in Kenwood.
There’s a real disconnect between the people who live by those lakes and the artists of the community. If those people want art, they want blue-chip art. But they can’t afford good blue-chip, so they’ll get Warhol prints or something like that. And they’ll spend more than they would buying a number of originals by local artists.
You have said that you stay here not for the art scene, but for the fishing.
Yes, that’s the only reason I have stayed.
What draws you to fly-fishing?
It’s very meditative, challenging and fun. You can have your rent due and you don’t have the money and your relationship failed and your parents hate you and everything’s going wrong, and once you’re out there, you don’t even remember their names. It’s the sound of the water and the beautiful landscape — like living postcards.
How did you learn to fly-fish?
My father. It was the one thing he did do with us.
You’ve come under fire for exhibits like The New Eden, which depicted scenes from the Dakota War of 1862.
When that erupted, people said, “Well, he’s white, and he’s doing this.” And they don’t know anything; they just assume that. I know my history about the Dakota War, and not knowing my ethnicity puts me in a spot.
But even so, your First Amendment rights to paint what you want should be valid. Otherwise you have complete segregation. You have Natives only painting Native themes. Whites only painting blond Norwegians. Blacks only painting blacks. I don’t think that’s a healthy situation.
You’ve created hundreds of self-portraits, painting yourself into history and alongside celebrities. People have said you’re self-indulgent, narcissistic…
If you don’t love yourself, who else will?
Will you create art for the rest of your life?
I haven’t lost the facility yet to arthritis or something like that. It’ll happen; I don’t know when. I hope I don’t end up in a home with tubes. It would be better to just drop dead out in a trout stream. Or you’re with somebody you care about and you’re coming, and your heart blows. That would be a great way to go.
But sitting in an old folks’ home with the tubes, the drips, the wheelchairs, just waiting for the elements to take you — that’s awful. It’s a very tribal thing to know your time’s up and just accept it instead of clinging.