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Ceili Seipke - photographer, painter

South Burlington, Vermont /United States

Website | Instagram

We are beyond thrilled to have had the chance to interview Ceili Seipke - a multidisciplinary visual artist focusing on digital photography, painting and drawing, mother of three, and costume superstar. 

Ceili, I must say that your artist profile in the directory was one I enjoyed reading the most. You are a multidisciplinary artist with various career paths. Can you tell us a little more about yourself (brief bio/history/backstory/journey into art)?

Thank you! That is very kind! I come from a family of Hungarian immigrants with Hungarian being my first language. I was the first one to be born in the United States, with Pennsylvania being my home state, as well as the first to receive a college degree. The only other artist in my family before me was my maternal grandmother's brother. I never met him but have one of his paintings and his wooden box of oil paints.

As a child, I liked to draw, paint, and make things out of various materials and even took some lessons at a local art school. I continued to learn and explore creativity by taking photography, sewing, refinishing small furniture pieces and redecorating my room.

I married right after graduating from Baylor University with a B.F.A. in Painting and spent the next three years in the Dallas area while my husband finished seminary. I worked jobs as a sales clerk, receptionist, an art restoration apprentice and for two airlines before we moved to Vermont. I became pregnant with our first child shortly after and worked full-time at a Laura Ashley store until she was born.

In addition to working several non-art related part-time jobs, I tried to paint whenever possible and engage in the local art community as well as participate in shows. I taught a few workshops and even started my own non-profit to paint murals in places such as paediatrician offices and pre-schools. Later, when my youngest was in first grade, I worked in our local school district full-time in the special education department and engaged in digital photography as a hobby.

When I was younger, I didn't have the self-confidence in my artistic abilities nor the drive or discipline to pursue a career in the fine arts. I also really didn't accept being an artist as part of my identity. I think I had imposter syndrome before I had ever heard the term or knew what it meant. Fine art also moved to the periphery for me, the more I settled into motherhood. I just didn't have the energy to do it all at once and chose to focus on my children. For me, that was the right path. And just as I have taught my children to follow their talents and passions, I have learned from them to do the same for myself. Now that my youngest is a junior in college and I am no longer working full-time in the local public school, I can use my time and energy to explore art more deeply, to do the things I was afraid of to do before and to embrace my identity as an artist.

What amazed me the most was your career as a full-time behavioural interventionist. That is very demanding and important work. How did this experience transfer into your art?

While working as a Behavioral Interventionist I was able to use my art background when accompanying students to a drawing or ceramics class. I was even able to be with one student in an Illustration and Design program for a year at a technical school. While in these classes, I not only helped the students become more confident in their skills, I was also being reintroduced to art that I hadn't done in a long time. It stirred a longing to get back to making my own art.

Because the nature of photography provided a quicker finished result of my ideas, I turned to learn digital photography. It was through one of the teachers that I met my mentor, a local photographer. I eventually found a passion for creating fairytale-esque portraits, a genre that combined using an artistic eye, making physical props, and storytelling, which met my need for a creative outlet.

I also know that you have recently provided a home and support to two young adults. That is very inspiring. What does it mean to you? How does it affect your family life?

Thank you! Opening my home to support these young adults has allowed me to use some of my strengths, such as encouragement and gentle guidance, to help them grow in their confidence and reach for their potential. It gives me the joy to be able to do that. My youngest was seventeen when we first opened our home to support a young adult. I was so proud of how welcoming he was to help someone in need without any hesitation. I had known this young person for then years, so it was natural to provide support at this difficult time in their life. They are growing tremendously in a program which provides education and independent living skills but will always be a part of our lives. We have become their second family.

Our other young adult was unknown to us previously. We were to provide educational support and life skills to prepare them for the next steps in their life. It took a while for us to get to know each other and develop a relationship, which is a bit more professional than our previous one. In both cases, learning to communicate between all household members and respecting one another has been key. Having been a Behavioral Interventionist myself and my husband currently being a Paraeducator has provided each of us with the ability to handle challenging situations that have arisen.

And of course, as for everyone around the world, Covid has added extra challenges. We have been able to use these times to show both our son and young adult how to work together and that you often have more strength than you realize to get through life's difficulties.

Recently, you started painting and drawing again, but by looking at your work, digital photography was your major thing in the past. Could you please describe the evolution of your creative process?

Yes, for people who know me now, photography has been a major thing in my recent past. I've enjoyed taking photographs since I was in grad school and took a few semesters in college of black and white film photography. I graduated with a major in Painting and a minor in Interior Design. I tried to keep up with painting while my children were young but much of my time and energy went into creating magical environments in their rooms, Halloween costumes, and themed birthday parties. Digital photography came into my life eight years ago. It became a major creative outlet to rejuvenate me from the stress of my full-time job when I had little time or energy to paint with any consistency. A local photographer mentored me for four months, and then I taught myself Lightroom and Photoshop through online courses. I wanted to learn everything I could and followed the work of several photographers.

What inspired me the most was surreal, fantasy, and fairytale-esque portraiture. Even though I was being asked to photograph weddings, family and senior portraits, my heart was in creating imaginary worlds. I would make props and costumes from blankets, fabrics, as well as from second hand and craft shop finds. Then I would shoot either on location or in my garage with family, friends, and their children. To finish the images, I would composite them in Photoshop.

Last year I began to build more of my own sets in the garage for backdrops. I had my first solo show a year ago in November with fifteen of the images I created over a five-year span. I was considering testing the market for shooting these types of fairytale portraits as a line of work, but then Covid-19 changed how we engage with the world. I decided that it was time instead to start honing the drawing and painting skills that had been put aside, to explore new mediums and be open to where it will lead me. 

You are a mother of three children who are also very creative in various areas - writing, filmmaking, video production, music. They are adults now, but you have always supported their dreams and passions. BUT you were also their costume designer and ended up in local news because of that ... and you must tell us all about it!

From the time my first child was about six weeks old, I started to make Halloween costumes each year for all my children. That grew into costumes for themed birthdays and eventually Star Wars costumes for movie premieres. Star Wars goes way back with me. I was a sophomore in high school when the original movies came out and the following fall several friends and I made props and costumes to wear for Spirit Week and to march in the local Halloween parade. That was before cosplay became popular and costumes or props were sold in stores (yeah, I'm a geek!).

I introduced my oldest son to Star Wars at the tender age of eighteen months. When he was in sixth grade, he planned on wearing a store-bought Darth Vader costume to the opening night of Revenge of the Sith. At the last minute, he convinced me to make a Shaak Ti costume for myself. I sewed the skirt and cape and made the headpiece out of pool noodles and plaster tape. The costume was intricate enough that we were featured in the local news.

While in college, he taught himself foam smithing which uses heat, tools, and glue to turn EVA foam floor mats into armor and props. He used this technical shill to create a Kylo Ren helmet for himself and a Captain Phasma suit of armor for me while I used my sewing skills to create the fabric parts of the costumes. For my youngest son's General Huxley outfit, I used my husband's coat and some second-hand finds. We went to the premiere of The Force Awakens and were again featured in the local news. Those costumes along with a geeky greeting were our Christmas card that year.

How did you feel about motherhood in the past, and how do you feel about it now?

I was surprised by motherhood three years after my husband and I married. In many ways, that was a good thing. Before I had my first child, my daughter, I was unsure about the experience of being pregnant and giving birth. Fortunately, I had a great team of midwives through the local hospital to support me, an uneventful pregnancy, and easy birth. The midwife allowed me to reach down and help pull her out and her on my chest. It was the most amazing and empowering feeling I had ever experienced.

For my second child and oldest son, I had a wonderful new family doctor but a very different birth experience. I had contractions about five weeks prematurely and had to be medicated and on bed rest for a few weeks. When he was born three weeks early, he wasn't receiving enough oxygen so they put an oxygen mask on me and I had to deliver him in a much shorter time with more urgency than his sister. With my youngest son, I made my husband nervous because I took my time getting to the hospital and once on the maternity floor casually strolled the hall and took my time deciding which room to give birth in.

We didn't have extended family living near us so until my daughter went to college and my youngest was in first grade, I worked part-time jobs so I could be home as much as possible with my children. It set us back financially, but I have no regrets. I loved being with them, nurturing them, getting to know each one of them and doing fun childhood activities with them along with encouraging their creativity. There definitely were sleepless nights and challenging times when I'd have to remind myself "this too shall pass", yet I tried to accept even those moments and not rush through the years. Being a mom now to my adult children is very fulfilling.

When each of them entered college, I worked at letting go of being their parent a little more each year and started seeing them as the amazing young adult they were becoming. Welcoming these changes rather than fearing them is what helped to create a new relationship with them. I'm not losing my identity as a mom but rather gaining three adult friends that I just happen to have given birth to many years ago.

What is the message behind your art?

That is a very good question! And one that I am certainly pondering now. I never really questioned the message behind my art but rather made things that caught my eye in some way, whether it was the light, a scene, an idea, etc. I never had a particular subject that I explored or made into a series or wondered why I was creating it. Maybe it's because I learned not to express my thoughts and opinions growing up, or that my college art classes didn't focus on the why, or perhaps because I felt too vulnerable to share what was deep inside. I know that many artists have used their art therapeutically. While I haven't done that, I have been learning more about myself which I hope in turn will influence my art. In many ways, I feel as though I have gone back to being a beginner in my art practice. I have come to a place in my life now where I want to be disciplined to work daily, increase my skills to be both technically correct as well as emotionally expressive so I don't have to be thinking so much about how to make it, but rather can begin focusing on the why am I making it.

What does your art do for you?

Another good question that I am equally pondering as well! It's something I have never asked myself, and I think what my art does for me is changing. All my life, I have enjoyed making things. If I couldn't find what I needed in a store. I would make it. My dad is like that. I received a sense of satisfaction from solving the problem and making something aesthetically pleasing. It included making my own clothes, costumes, refinishing small pieces of furniture, designing interiors, and creating art for the walls. Because I loved the craft or art and was less confident in my fine art skills, I naturally gravitated more to doing that. Yet I always had a longing deep inside to be able to draw and paint really well but lacked the self-confidence and discipline to make it a priority. I find myself now at a time in my life where I can turn my focus to developing those fine art skills as well as ask the questions of what my art does for me, what it does for others, and what is it that I have to say.

What are your plans for the future (career, parenting etc.)?

You may have to ask me this question again in another year or two! I feel as though I am just beginning to ask myself what I want my future to look like. So much of my life has revolved around others' schedules and needs. As for parenting, my youngest will be graduating college in less than two years, so it looks like that phase of parenting will be done. I am already enjoying more of a parent-to-adult friendship with each of my children and I am looking forward to each relationship growing.

As for my career, right now, I'd like to be able to immerse myself in making art with more self-discipline and focused energy. I'd like to explore new things as a beginner and not be stopped by the fear of failure or judgement. I'd like to find my 'superpower' so I can use it to make a difference in other's lives.

A short term goal for the next six months is to launch a business selling my artwork. In a year, I'd like to have my daily life consist of living with my husband and furbaby and be able to design my days around my art and goals. In two to three years I'd like the storage space in my home that I have shared as a studio for my art alongside my boys with their computers and gaming equipment for fourteen years to be renovated into an artist's studio so I could be making art full-time. It will be a bit sad to be done with that part of my life, but I know it's time for me to move forward as well.

What advice do you have for fellow art mums?

I would like to tell fellow art mums that each one of us has our own unique art and motherhood journey. Don't compare your experience to others. Some days being a mom can be really challenging, and you may not be able to make all the art you'd like to, but that's okay. Life is full of seasons. Your season for the art that you want to make will come. Just make the art you can now and know that the love and hard work you put into raising your child is also an ever-changing work of art that will not only give joy to you but to the world.