Visiting a friend last year, painter Anne Siems was struck by her ten-year-old daughter. “She had an odd beauty that you have to look twice to see. She’s a redhead, and you can’t see her eyebrows or eyelashes very well. She doesn’t have the normal social graces–she isn’t trained to be cute. Unlike most little girls she seems unconcerned with showing herself off or with what other people will think of her. There’s something enigmatic about her–you can’t really tell what she’s thinking. She seems vulnerable and self-confident at once. I feel like she’s my muse.” Most of Siems’s portraits at Peter Miller are painted from photographs of the girl. Now 40, Siems painted self-portraits when she was younger, but “I can’t imagine painting myself at this point,” she says. “I can project more onto her because she doesn’t have that history.” Siems made several paintings of the girl she thought had more energy than her other works, and wondered whether that was because the redhead was a living person. But after photographing a couple of friends and painting them, she found that she “didn’t feel that need to return to their faces. This little girl is the only person that I want to keep going back to.”

In Black Bird a blackbird perches in the girl’s hair. “I think animals have spiritual qualities,” Siems says. “In Native American cultures, different animals are totems for individual people, like guardian angels.” Sketched on the girl’s dress are white images of plants and animals, and white roses are among the figures, plants, and animals interlaced in the background. Family Portrait, one of the strangest paintings, shows four androgynous versions of the redhead posed as parents and children. The white plants and animals on their somber clothing are echoed by white trees in the background–a reference to family trees, Siems says. All of the paintings are on panel, combine acrylic and glue, and show heavy drips of white paint, making them seem weathered. In one of the paintings from an old photo, Hop, a dark-haired woman surrounded by birds and a deer is superimposed on a landscape.

Born in West Berlin, Siems was encouraged by her art-teacher father to make crafts projects at a very young age. When she was four the family moved to Argentina for three years and traveled in Latin America, where she was impressed in churches by sculptures of Christ trickling blood and by the flat portrait paintings in retablos. In high school, while hitchhiking across Spain, she discovered a love for abandoned houses that may have prefigured her interest in old things. “I liked the sense of probing into somebody’s life. Sometimes we found old photographs or several layers of wallpaper or a cat skeleton.” She disliked her art school in West Berlin, where the male professors, she says, “were just full of themselves. The huger the canvases, the bigger the van to move it, the better.” Later she was inspired–by a woman teacher and by Shelagh Keeley’s drawings of “inner organs, plants, and bodily fluids”–to shift from expressionist portraits to drawings that included insect and cell shapes. After graduating in 1991 she moved to Seattle, where she lives today.

Siems’s fascination with nature began when she flunked an art school exam: “I began to look outside myself, to the huge net of interconnectedness we so easily ignore.” She started painting mushroom and organ shapes on newsprint and on sheets of sewn-together paper bags, which she covered in thin layers of wax to give them the translucence of old parchment or vellum. By the mid-90s she was becoming interested in Indian miniatures, outsider and folk art, and “anything antique.” Faces and figures started to creep back into her work, and inspired by retablos she began incorporating “stiff, crudely painted faces.” Soon she was painting from old photographs, wondering what kind of lives the people in them had led. Her subjects’ blankness invites the viewer to imagine their feelings while the paintings’ apparent age gives them an imagined history.

How does Siems’s child model respond to the paintings? “She thinks they’re weird–she makes a face.” But her mom, who loves them, bought one.

Anne Siems

When: Through Sat 1/28

Where: Peter Miller, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-951-1700

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.