Norris resident reflects on life, art and competition

  • Seth Haverkamp poses with a new painting that also incorporates magical realism, like the one that won the international portrait award. - Crystal Huskey

  • Haverkamp’s artwork is often influenced by his children. Here, he looks over a note written by Penelope, age 10, while his son Caspian, 8, looks on. - Crystal Huskey

Norris resident Seth Haverkamp won the grand prize at this year’s Portrait Society of America International Portrait Competition.

More than 3,000 artists submitted their work to the competition, and only 24 were presented at the annual awards ceremony in Atlanta.

Haverkamp has been drawing for as long as he remembers but recalls a specific moment in fifth grade when he became known as an artist.

“Instead of a science project, I drew a bunch of birds of prey,” he said.

He added in some text about ornithology so it would pass as “science-y.”

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever been interested in,” he said. “I remember being four and being in my room, always drawing.”

He said he was a bit of a loner — as much as someone with 11 brothers and sisters can be. His father, Keith Haverkamp, was a pastor, and the family moved around a lot. Art became his solace.

The most challenging move was his junior year, when they moved from upstate New York to West Virginia.

“It was a new high school, a new state,” he said. “And I wasn’t your typical West Virginian. If there is such a thing.”

The family moved again his senior year, this time to Norris.

He focused on learning how to paint, and after he completed his first oil painting when he was 16, he never looked back. He was accepted into the Cleveland University of Art, where he met his wife, Catherine, the first week they were in school. They have now been married 18 years and have four children.

Painting is his life’s work, although it wasn’t his first career choice. As a teen, he imagined earning a living as an illustrator, and was especially interested in illustrating fantasy books.

It’s an element that, although he focuses on realism, still shines through in his work today.

The portrait that won the competition is “about as fantasy as it gets,” Haverkamp said. It’s a portrait of his son, Caspian, holding a string of origami birds.

“It’s all the techniques I love,” he said. “This painting, I tried to put a ton of colors in him and still make it look believable. There’s bright pinks and yellows and oranges, so many layers and glazes.

“I was trying to basically sculpt forms with super bright colors. Fantasy is still an element. It’s real, but it’s lit from below. It’s magical.”

At some point, though, he’s going to be painting dragons.

“And it’s going to be fun, and I’m going to enjoy it,” he laughed.

He said his daughter Esse, 14, enjoys drawing more fantastical things too, and at some point he may paint a portrait of her “doing what she’s doing.”

While he has had many mentors and sources of inspiration over the years — W.C. “Bill” Houston and Robert Liberace, to name a few — a two-week workshop in Philadelphia taught him more than his entire time at art school did. He learned to draw quickly with Nelson Shanks at Studio Incamminati, and lost the obsession with perfectionism.

“Art is nothing but two straight lines,” he explained. “You put another angle in there and you have an arm. I learned to allow it to be wrong for a while. That first three hours of that workshop was a life-changer. My first kid, and my first three hours at Incamminati, changed my life.”

His family is frequently the focus of his work. He has placed at the portrait competition before, including in 2008 when he entered a portrait of his daughter Echo, now 17. His four children often serve as inspiration — he’s working on one now of his entire family.

While he wouldn’t trade his career for anything, relying on his creativity to support a family can be stressful.

“I’ve destroyed paintings in the past because it just isn’t working, or it’s frustrating,” he said. “But I think mornings are key. You go to sleep, and the morning brings a new day. If you’re working on something that’s driving you bonkers, it’s a fresh start, and you can approach that painting like it’s a new painting. I’ll leave the studio sometimes because I’m so frustrated. But before I go to sleep, I’ll come up with a plan on how I’ll approach the next day. As long as you have a plan, you can kind of control the demon inside of you.”

In his free time, he makes guitars.

“There’s nothing hanging on that, so it’s a way to relax,” he said.

Haverkamp’s art can be seen at the Rutledge Street Gallery in Rutledge, South Carolina, and the Haynes Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee. For more information, visit