Ten Minutes with Artist Tonja Sell (Part I)
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Summertime in Duluth is a season of tourism, activities and events. One of these events that's near as reliable as the season is the Park Point Art Festival which this year had 122 exhibits of creative expression from photography, painting and sculpture to fiber art and jewelry. One artist who work stood out to me this summer was Tonja Sell. I chatted with Tonja and aimed to interview her later this summer but as many good intentions go, summer slipped away and I'd misplaced her contact information. C'est la vie.
Last week it happened that while re-arranging some of my paintings at the Red Interactive Phantom Gallery Superior I ran into Tonja again as she was painting in Kathleen Kollodge's Tuesday painting class there in the New York Building. Once more I was impressed by what she was working on, and this time followed through with the interview questions.
Instead of replying to the various questions I asked, she sent back this interview which she had done for another artist newsletter, promising to answer my questions as time permits. She is a mother as well as artist and busy juggling all the other responsibilities of a household. Here's Tonja, talking about various facets of her life as an artist.
My father was a builder and currently a full-time glass-blower and my mother was a high-school art teacher, so I grew up in a very creative home. It was evident early on that making things was very much a part of my nature. I most of my childhood in a very rural part of Northern Wisconsin near Lake Superior where winters are long and brutal but the landscape is stunning! I was continually building forts, making mud sculpture. One of my earliest memories of "making art" was from the age of about four, a young friend and I painted automobiles in a apartment complex parking lot with house paint that we had discovered. From about six on I drew all the time. If I wasn't exploring the 80 acre woods we moved to, I would be found drawing.
Making Time for Art
Upon high-school graduation I received a scholarship to attend MIAD (Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design). Since I was a lousy waitress, and needed to pay for art supplies, I chose to sell the fused glass jewelry I made from a cart in downtown Milwaukee that I made with my father from old bicycle parts. That was my first "professional" art experience!
After college I married my "product/industrial designer- now pastor" husband of 22 years and moved to the Phoenix, AZ area where I did freelance illustration, some murals and worked on some minor book projects. I also taught art to children and adults and did glass fusing that I sold at street fairs.
In 1994 we returned to Northern WI to raise our family and build the home and studio where we currently reside. I continued to work as I was able while raising and home-schooling 4 kids, now ages 17 to 6. I had drawings and paintings in a few galleries and continued to make glass jewelry.
My repertoire includes fused glass, metal-glass-oil painted sculpture, felting, printmaking, photography, pottery and ceramic sculpture, watercolor, acrylic painting, mixed-media, sewing, charcoal, pastels and oils with a few other odds and ends thrown in.
Though I have been able to work some, I haven't worked seriously until jumping back into it in 2009.
So much of the art community seems to emphasize the shocking, odd social commentary, the ugly or strange for the sake gaining recognition. I think an artist is a social reporter whether or not they are trying. It seems so many people try so hard to become a certain type of artist that they often aren't being very truthful. I focus on what moves me. Usually it's simple, beautiful things. That is the world that is mine. It's not that I am oblivious to the ugliness in the world I just don't feel the need to focus on it. I don't care if I am "discovered" I just love the process and activity of making things.
I like art that draws me into someone’s experience. A point in time, a moment, that I can become a part of. I have a harder time connecting with completely abstracted images for that reason. I can appreciate them on a certain level but They lose my attention very quickly.
The human element is important to me. People are the reoccurring subject for me- usually women- after all it's what I know best as I am one.
Though I am interested in nature themes and landscape I find it more difficult to interpret it in a way I am comfortable with and find it doesn't hold my attention the same way the figure does. My landscapes tend to be very quick studies.
I am in experimental mode right now. I am interested in so many things it can be difficult to focus. I love to work and have multiple things going at once. Drawing is my first love, I love the feel of the paper, the noise the tool makes as I am working it, the motion of it. I am pretty aggressive as I work. I just love making marks!
I am learning to paint. I only had intro painting exposure my first year of college so I am finding my own way. I started with acrylics and now am experimenting with oils. I have found acrylics to be frustrating since the dry so quickly. I am very much enjoying oils but have much to learn.
Collage is quite foreign to me I love the idea of layering images and using found objects that tell a story but there is much about technical application that I do not know. Glass fusing is collage with color, layering to achieve unexpected results. Glass has also been an income staple for us. I have been able to easily incorporate into a busy lifestyle in a way that I could not with painting and drawing previously.
Developing the Craft
I personally believe drawing is vital. It is the starting point. If someone cannot interpret image with line and shadow it's evident in their other work as well. If you can, anything else done will only be enhanced by that knowledge and skill.
My daughter dances ballet so she made a lovely study model as I began to work again. Dance lends itself so wonderfully the drawing process. I try to draw daily now and have joined a local drawing group that meets weekly. We meet for fellowship and inspiration. It is a time where I can work uninterrupted by family activities.