A Rich and Complicated Palette

The circuitous path that led Wilmington artist Joe Seme back to the easel

By Jim Moriarty     Photograph by Andrew Sherman

Joe Seme is wedged in.

The chair at his cramped drawing table creaks and rocks when he leans in to paint, his brushstrokes painstakingly precise. The chair doesn’t swivel so much as it genuflects to one side when he reaches for something out of a bottom drawer. His files of things done, undone and to do are stuffed into a swamped piece of dark furniture, a secretary with tentacles of paper growing from every cubby, flowing from every nook, crammed in every drawer. Classic decoys float on the windowsill behind him in the chaotic second-floor studio of his townhouse not far from the Wilmington Municipal Golf Course. A flight of geese and ducks, as stuffed as the room they occupy, are frozen in space on the wall to his right. Less Hitchcockian than utilitarian, they’re among his former models. A covered skylight he wishes he hadn’t put in is above him, and in front of him are the faces of four dogs, the pets of friends, to be immortalized.

Beyond the drawing table is a makeshift shelf he’s used, and reused, as a backdrop. Hanging on a corner of the faux-wall that surrounds the shelf is his grandfather’s Cleveland baseball cap circa 1926 or maybe ’27. His glove is around somewhere, too. As thin and slight as his grandson, Ernie “Red” Padgett is remembered in the record book for executing an unassisted triple play (the fourth ever in the Major Leagues) for his first team, the Boston Braves, on Oct. 6, 1923, in his first season with the big club. His grandson remembers him better for introducing him to Connie Mack when he was 5; taking him to see Ted Williams play (Seme still hears the explosive echo of the home run No. 9 hit that day); throwing one-hoppers to his backhand side; and insinuating the game deeply into his DNA. So passionate is Seme about baseball that he and another devoted old-timer, Frank Amoroso, started the Carolina Men’s Baseball League just so they could play on past their primes.

“We started with like 11 guys on a rainy day in March,” says Seme, now 71 and less active in the league. Last year there were 150 players.

In a photo on the wall opposite the ducks and geese, his grandfather stands in a black and white panoramic line of Cleveland Indians, his second team. Tris Speaker is the player/manager. Luke and Joe Sewell are in there, too. Another photo shows Padgett (whose surname was actually Paget) comically pretending to pick the peanut-filled pocket of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the federal judge and first commissioner of baseball who was charged with cleaning up the sport after the Black Sox scandal of 1919. An album on the secretary has copies of business letters from the Hall of Fame pitcher and, at that time, co-owner of the Boston Braves, Christy Mathewson. An early holdout, Padgett turned down Mathewson’s first contract offer. They finally settled for $2,700. Seme sold the originals at auction when things got rough. Given the rarity of Mathewson’s autograph, Seme likely made out better than his grandfather did.

Just the other side of the faux-shelf and wall are bookshelves with Hemingway and Faulkner, John Irving and Paul Theroux below a row of autographed baseballs. A “Peters Weatherbird Shoes for Boys and Girls” sign he created because he couldn’t find the real thing sits on the floor next to a Civil War-era prison window liberated from someplace in Virginia with an as-yet-undiscovered purpose. There’s an old wooden barber pole and German Punch and Judy puppets and weathervanes, maybe not all right here, but somewhere. And hanging above the door is a painting he did for his daughter, Tracy, for her 16th birthday, an arrangement of artifacts — a ballet shoe, her high school cross country letter, her birth announcement, a report card, a ticket to a Jimmy Buffett concert and so on. She passed away in 2012, at 33, an early victim of the opioid epidemic. That was six months after he lost his second wife, Deb, to leukemia.

“To be honest,” he says, “the light kind of went out. I didn’t paint for a long time. I never came up here. I sat down there and looked at the marsh.”

If, as Chagall suggested, in the fullness of time an artist paints his insides like a still life, Seme has a rich and complicated palette. He grew up on the Jersey Shore in Brick, “near where Gov. Christie was,” he says of the paparazzi photo taken from a helicopter of a wide man stressing a folding beach chair on a Fourth of July weekend in a state park that was closed because of a government shutdown.

After high school Seme made a cameo appearance at Rutgers University, taking engineering courses because he had a manifest gift for mechanical drawing but not, as it turns out, math. He left, by his own account, before he flunked out, hitchhiking home on crutches since, two weeks before the fall semester began, he had damaged his left knee in a motorcycle accident. He was on the back end when the driver of the bike skidded into the rear of a ’63 Bonneville convertible full of girls cruising the Boardwalk back in Brick. 

Seme wound up at Florida State University with the help of his high school Latin teacher, who was working on a doctorate there. Having grown up a devoted surfer and with little else to occupy his time other than hanging out at the bowling alley, Florida seemed like a good idea. So he piled into his white VW bus and pointed south.  “It didn’t go over 55 miles an hour,” he says. “From New Jersey to Tallahassee took about 26 hours.” One of his sidelines to surfing in the Gulf of Mexico was catching and milking snakes for Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute in Silver Springs. On the academic end, he studied writing with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-in-residence Michael Shaara (author of The Killer Angels) and graduated with a degree in English. “I loved him. He was such an inspiration to me,” says Seme. “What he taught me about writing applies to painting. Write what you know. I tried to paint what I knew.”

With a post-grad job offer to teach English at Raiford Prison, he headed instead to the North Carolina mountains, where his brother, Danny, was in school at Lees-McRae College. He finagled a job in the ski shop at Beech Mountain and spent his afternoons on downhill runs and his nights writing short stories.

One day in the Banner Elk post office, Seme got two pieces of mail. One was a check for $90 representing payment in full for his first published work, set to appear in a magazine firmly positioned in the salacious rather than the literary world called Mr. and titled “Not With My Sister You Don’t.” So, maybe it wasn’t The Paris Review, but he was getting paid to write. The other letter was from his draft board in New Jersey, ordering him to appear in April 1968. The aspirations of the federal government were even less artistic than Mr.

Seme was drafted into the Army but wound up a Marine. “They put us on a bus to Newark. We’re all being herded around in our underwear, taking tests and stuff,” says Seme. “This Marine captain walks in. ‘How many of you boys are college graduates?’ I raised my hand. He says, ‘Congratulations’ son, you just volunteered for the finest fighting outfit in the world, the United States Marine Corps. Fall in on my left.’ I said, ‘What?’”

His college degree coupled with the ability to locate the keys on a typewriter with his index fingers led to an intelligence post with a fighter squadron in Yuma, Arizona, instead of a firebase in Vietnam. He was routing classified files — weapons reports, nuclear reports, atrocity reports — in a room with three safes and an incendiary grenade for each in the event that Yuma should be overrun by, say, Pancho Villa. He also had a red light over his door, turned on whenever classified material was in open view. “I pretty much had nothing to do,” says Seme. “I’d close the door, put the blinking red light on and write. I was working on my master’s thesis on William Faulkner.”

On a weekend leave with buddies in California, Seme saw a coffee table book of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. “Oh, man. The book was $75,” he says. “I had an Honda Superhawk, an old motorcycle. I sold it for $100. I got a 48 (a two-day pass) and hitchhiked to Laguna Beach to buy this book. I still have it and it’s in the original box.” That’s around somewhere, too.

Seme got out of the Marines in ’71 with every intention of pursuing a career in academics, maybe end up teaching someplace like Michael Shaara. Instead, his brother, Danny, who by then was out of Lees-McRae, talked him into returning to the mountains and opening a private club. “My brother sold me on this deal. You’ll be the general manager and we’ll get this club running and you’ll have time to write,” says Seme. “You can kick back. You’ll be in the mountains.”

The Hub Pub Club was born. “We had two round buildings, connected. It looked like a circus tent. We had an entertainment room and we had a dining room. We opened with the Kingston Trio and Jackie Vernon, the old comedian. We had Peter Nero and Oliver — you know, ‘Good Morning Starshine.’ Everybody thought Oliver was from England. He was from North Wilkesboro. His name was William Oliver Swofford. His brother, John, is the commissioner of the ACC,” says Seme. “We had Doc and Merle Watson. Doc was from Deep Gap. Merle was killed one night about three o’clock in the morning on Wildcat Road driving his tractor home from a party. We had Jimmy Buffett. He wore a cowboy hat in those days. Jimmy was 150 bucks a week, a place to sleep and all the liquor my bartenders could supply.”

Seme’s candle, however, wasn’t burning at both ends, it was being incinerated. “I was losing my sanity,” he says. “I got down to 120 pounds. I was working and not sleeping, drinking a little bit, smoking a little dope. It’s what we did.” Hey, it was the ’70s. So, he threw himself a lifeline. He went out and bought a box of watercolor paints, took a page from Wyeth and found some barns. A natural, the paintings were good enough to hang in the hallway to the men’s room of the Hub Pub Club.

One night Seme was behind the bar washing glasses when an elderly gent strolled up and asked who had done the paintings in the hallway. Seme confessed. “Well, son,” the man said, “there’s a spark there and I think maybe you ought to pursue it a little bit.” The man was the by-then retired art critic of The New York Times, John Canaday, who was giving a seminar at Appalachian State.

“I hated the club business. It was killing me. It was killing my marriage. By then my brother had gone off to develop Snowshoe (in West Virginia),” says Seme. So, just like that, he became an artist. After the Seme brothers were gone, co-owner Bill Shepherd moved the Hub Pub Club to Winston-Salem, where one of its early acts was Steve Martin. The fortunes of the club went in one direction, Martin’s in the other.

“My first year I wasn’t comfortable,” Seme says of the career move. “I had to mail my license plates back to Raleigh after I left the club business but then things just started to happen. Later on, I traded two paintings for a Porsche. It wasn’t a new one but it was still a Porsche.” He moved into an A-frame on top of a mountain, where he lived until he and his treasury of stuff migrated to the coast in the late ’90s. “It’s about driving down the road and coming around the bend and seeing a beautiful old barn with the snow on it and the icicles and the sun hitting it and snow melting off and hearing the dripping and the hair stands up on the back of your neck,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

The ability to draw that had been so apparent in high school floated back to the surface like the answer in a Magic 8 Ball. “I started with water color and I found out I couldn’t control it the way I wanted to,” he says. “I realized I could paint in acrylic and could do glaze after glaze. With acrylic, once it’s dry you can go over it and over it and over it, build up your textures and get your shadows and highlights.”

He found an old mill on Brookshire Road near Boone and painted it over and over again. He studied Andrew Wyeth’s work in the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. While delivering a painting he’d done of a large mill in Virginia — a work he titled “Second Manassas” since the mottled stone mill, just a ruin now, was close to the location of the Civil War battle — he visited the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. “Remingtons. Russells. William Harnett, a great still life painter. Very three-dimensional. That’s what I liked. They had a big Harnett there and I sat down in front of it for a half hour and this guard came by and said, ‘You’re an artist, aren’t you? What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m painting it.’ I wanted to figure out how he got from here to there.”

It didn’t take long before the self-taught Seme began exhibiting with other artists like the classically trained Robert Dance and another self-taught artist, Ward Nichols, whose paintings are in the permanent collections of eight different museums around the world. The three remain close friends.

“I tell people it’s all self-inflicted,” Nichols says. “Formal training makes you so aware of the rules that are not to be broken that it hampers what you do. You’re not supposed to do this; you’re not supposed to do that. Where, if you’re uninstructed, you just let it go and not worry about it.” Of course, a wee bit of talent helps, too.

Seme began exhibiting with Dance in the early ’70s. “If you go to college and study art, they’re probably going to have you doing avant-garde art, which is not realism,” says Dance. “If you teach yourself, you’re probably going to end up doing realism. When I went to art school in Philadelphia (the Philadelphia Museum College of Art) we did study drawing and realism so, as a result, I’m sort of an extreme realist. My work is very detailed and so is Joe’s, but Joe has done it on his own.”

Seme’s art falls into three main categories: his more traditional landscapes; his still life paintings done in a trompe-l’oeil style; and his duck decoys, which are works of art in their own right. His watercolors appeared in American Artist. He was commissioned to do the 25th anniversary painting for JanSport. “Waterfowl was my big thing,” says Seme. He was honored in various states by Ducks Unlimited. When Abercrombie and Fitch was America’s No. 1 outfitter, he’d go on assignments duck hunting for four or five days with the company’s biggest clients and when it was over deliver a personal painted memento. It was Seme who convinced Dance to exhibit at the Easton Waterfowl Festival in Maryland, where on separate occasions both he and Seme were awarded green coats, the festival’s version of the Masters green jacket in golf.

Save for a small Renoir etching, the walls of Seme’s living room are filled with either his originals or copies of his favorites long since sold. He bought the Renoir, a re-strike, after his daughter was born. Art was to be her inheritance. The old mill on Brookshire Road is on one wall. On the opposite side is an original he calls “Iron Sam.” It’s an antique arcade game painted in the trompe-l’oeil style he gleaned from sitting in front of that Harnett. “I love folk art,” he says, “and this is a terrific piece of folk art. You feel like you can grab his hand.” Every nick, every piece of chipped paint shows. The work took months. Nearby is “Simple Tastes,” a shelf filled with labels from wine bottles and old corkscrews that look almost like you could pick them up. The Great Recession hobbled the art market but so has technology. “What took me a month to draw, with the right computer program you can do it in a couple of hours,” says Seme.

Off the living room, beyond the sun porch, is a pond. His second wife, Deb, was a painting contractor and when she fell ill, Seme eventually found himself up on a ladder finishing jobs. He sold Christy Mathewson’s letters and other collectibles to brace the bottom line. “She had a bone marrow transplant that was successful for 42 days, and then the leukemia came back with a vengeance. She sat on the porch and wasted away,” he says. “The morning of Deb’s service I was standing by the window and a great blue heron landed in the marsh and walked up on the shore right at the backyard. He turned around and walked back into the marsh and took off. I just believe that was her spirit telling me everything’s fine. She’s OK.” That was 2011.

Seme has since remarried. Her name is Sharon Waite, but everyone calls her Sam. She handles the website for his art and pretty much anything else that needs handling while struggling with health issues of her own. “Eight years ago they gave her six months to live,” he says. “She said, ‘That’s not acceptable.’ We go to Chapel Hill every three months for cancer screenings. They’re keeping it at bay right now. I was a Marine and I thought I was pretty damn tough, but they’re (Deb and Sam) 10 times tougher than I was.”

Seme is back up the ladder, using broad strokes instead of intricate ones to steady the bottom line. Mostly absent is the rush of being on a roll in his studio, looking out the window and being surprised to see the sun rise. “I’m not complaining,” he says. “I got to make a living as an artist for a long, long time. When you get a letter from somebody saying ‘I bought this painting from you. It’s in my breakfast nook. I look at it every day. I love it,’ that’s the kind of thing you do it for.”

For more information visit joesemeart.com.

Jim Moriarty is the esteemed senior editor of PineStraw.

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