Catching Up with Artist Tonja Sell
Catching Up with Artist Tonja Sell
by Ed Newman
Her output is impressive, her imagery inspired and inspiring. Oulu artist Tonja Sell has been making her mark and building a following here in the Northland.
EN: What are you currently working on?
TS: I am constantly wishing my schedule and body could keep up with the speed of my brain. I am forever working things out in my mind! My husband teases that I need minions. I’ve yet to find any. I usually have several things going at once.
Right now I am working on a collage that is about 4’x4’ where I am experimenting with acrylic under-painting, layering natural materials such as moss, pressed autumn leaves, and flowers. I’m working out some of the technical difficulties, curious to know how thick I can go before I have issues with clouding or cracking. I am also painting over a drawing that was included in the Phantom Gallery Show at 1112 Tower last year. I am trying something where I layer wet tissue paper and other materials to build up texture. So far, so good!
I have several small sculptures in the works—figurative ceramic sculptures that incorporate driftwood, Lake Superior stones, and blown glass. I have been wet felting raw wool as well, turning it into wearable art, mostly scarves. The sculptural possibilities within this media are exciting and I am enjoying the exploration right now. Dan and Tami Edmonds at the new Art in the Alley Duluth have been featuring them for me. It’s good to have deadlines. I am preparing for the start of glass-blowing season at Oulu Glass (my parents’ gallery in Oulu, Wisconsin). Blowing runs daily from mid-November until mid-January. It’s a great time spent with the family focusing on all things molten! In January I intend to begin a series of woodcuts and possibly a small series of encaustic paintings following that.
EN: Where do your ideas come from? How do you choose your subject matter?
TS: As I mentioned, ideas come easy. I have never experienced anything akin to writer’s block. I’m sure I would be placed on some form of strong medication if I were a child today (ADD, ADHD, etc.). I assume it’s similar for most creative thinkers, musicians, and inventors. Parts and pieces are always assembling themselves in my head. I suppose my subject emerges as I choose the noisiest one! I’m a visual sponge. I soak up bits of everything and eventually some surface. Pinterest has been a fun source of inspiration of late.
EN: What have you learned this past year through showing your work?
TS: Wow, how very generous people are. At shows and the gallery openings people have been very complimentary and kind in their comments, which has been fun! I am quite introverted, not a comfortable public speaker in the least, but I do find that I enjoy talking with people about their work, what they are exploring and learning. That’s been great. I’ve been producing some form of art publicly for over 30 years so that’s not really new to me. What is different for me is getting involved more locally and with increased volume and pace.
EN: How do you decide when a piece is finished?
TS: My work is considered done when I can get it out of the house before I feel the urge to paint over it. Because I work on many very different things at once, I have time to pass by a piece in progress for a while, always with a critical eye. Sometimes I work on it for 10 minutes and leave it for a few days or even weeks. I love the process, doing it that way, because the piece changes directions depending upon what else I am working on. I usually have a pretty clear direction when I begin, a gesture or expression. But as I am building a bust or working with soap suds and raw wool, something will grab me about that process and it will wrestle its way into the painting. I love the way one experience feeds the next. I never really know it’s finished, I guess—I just know it’s time to stop… for now, anyway.
EN: What is your greatest accomplishment? And who or what inspires you?
TS: My real inspiration and sense of accomplishment have nothing to do with my art. While I am thrilled and passionate about working and being able to express myself in this way, I see it as gift. Not my gifts, talents, or abilities, but a gift to me, a blessing to me from the one whose creativity is immeasurable. Anything I make flows from a life of gratitude, offered back to the Savior who gave his life for me. As a Bible-believing Christian, I view my world through a lens that sees life as precious and beautiful even in the suffering. Inspiration is everywhere! I am thankful for every day that I can spend with my family, for the wonder of nature and creation we get to enjoy living where we do, for the people I have the privilege of coming in contact with every day.