Summer Goddess (2020), by Margo Selski Oil on linen
We’re excited to feature one of the two winners of the Art Renewal Center’s 16th International ARC Salon Competition’s special Enchanted Living Award: Margo Selski’s Summer Goddess. (Stay tuned for the second winner in our summer issue, and find out more about the competition at artrenewal.org!) After choosing this gorgeous piece, we wanted to find out more from the artist herself.
Enchanted Living: Can you tell us about your work generally? What fascinates and inspires you?
Margo Selski: In my surreal and magical realistic oil paintings, I’m known for women in ornate garments and armor from the 14th to 16th centuries, oversize rabbits in oxford wing-tip shoes, insects on leashes, dresses covered in crying eyes, and young lady underwater gardening societies. I’m influenced by fairy tales, mythology, and my Southern Gothic upbringing. I am drawn to mysteries that are quirky, dark, nuanced, and hidden beneath layers of lush beauty.
EL: How did Summer Goddess come about?
MS: My painting Summer Goddess was inspired during the spring and summer of 2020 as I explored a wooded area called Sleepy Hollow. This small patch of wild is tucked just over the railroad tracks outside the Lowertown area of St. Paul, a short walk from my sixth-floor industrial art studio. Each time I returned to my studio, I daydreamed of the busy vibrations of the insects, the smell of the earth, and the intense colors of nature. The pandemic summer was a difficult time in isolation with my teenage daughter suffering from a blood disorder and grieving the loss
of lives to Covid. Those walks fed my soul and filled me with a sense of awe and gratitude. I went through many interpretations of ancient mythological nature deities. These goddesses were based on those which later became witches in Western culture. Often after a walk, I would add or rework an element to the painting. One evening at dusk, I watched rabbits stretch high on their hind legs nibbling bits of bark off of saplings, and soon after a rabbit in wing-tip oxfords and striped socks emerged onto the canvas. For me, the painting allowed nature into my brick-and-mortar studio and surrounded me with flora and fauna.
EL: We feel like there’s a strong witchy vibe in the image. Did you mean to capture that?
MS: I’m inspired by the same things that inspire witches: the care, growth, and healing effects of plant life, insects, and animals. Painting all three phases of the pomegranate—berry, flower, and fruit—I explored the rich mythology of death, fertility, and power. The Mother Nature Goddess’s skirt is a massive honeycomb teeming with bees that I associate with fertility. I gave her an anthropomorphic rabbit familiar who, for me, symbolizes wisdom, resourcefulness, luck, and fertility.
EL: Can you tell us a bit about your process?
MS: Recently I became nostalgic for both the darkness and the beauty of my Southern roots. I began to explore how to stretch and exhibit my current work so that there could be a contrast between the refined nature of the traditional oil painting and the unrefined essence of the raw materials. I stretch the Belgian linen onto stained oak supports with
a combination of sinew (thread made from fibrous bands of animal tissue) and imitation sinew (man-made thread of synthetic fibers coated in beeswax). After stitching or quilting a border with thread, I primed the surface with rabbit-skin glue and a thin layer of clear gesso. I chose this path because it was familiar to me growing up in rural Kentucky. I remember strapping quilts onto wooden supports, stretching and tanning deer hides, pulling sinew from animal tendons, preparing looms for weaving rugs, and creating crude gourd drums with bits of hide and sinew. With this new approach, it is my intention to draw the viewer first into the elaborate refined fantasy of my oil painting before being pulled back to the reality and simplicity of linen, rabbit skin glue, sinew, and wood.
EL: And, finally, how do you stay enchanted?
MS: In my studio, I am working on an experimental technique that I find enchanted. I call it the planned pentimento. I have paintings where over time eyes weep, lyrics of a song emerge and float from a singer’s lips, a butterfly rises from a cocoon, a child’s white cat-eared cap turns pink, and a ghost twin joins her sister. In art history, a pentimento is an artistic mistake in which an earlier image reappears after it has been changed or painted over. I intentionally hide images and words under thin opaque layers of handmade oil paint, and over time they reveal themselves on the surface of my paintings.