Thursday Spotlight: Wendy Seller

Tell us about your background.

At the age of 10 I began making marionettes, and built a full-sized stage within my parent’s newly renovated “den”. For the next 7 years I constructed highly complex marionettes that had up to 25 strings, enabling me to move mouths, eyes, fingers and other body parts. I wrote plays for children’s parties, designed changeable sets, and rigged up multiple layers of lights for theatrical effects. I bribed my friends to assist me in operating my puppets during my hour-long performances (for $2 each), which were usually performed for children’s birthday parties. For years I was convinced that a field in Puppetry was my chosen path.

My vision for my future changed when I attended the Rhode Island School of Design as a freshman and discovered a broader view of possibilities within the field of art. Although no major seemed ideal for my interests, I chose Sculpture as a field of study and continued this through graduate school and into my professional life. I was fortunate to receive three artist-in-residence positions from the Massachusetts State Arts Council right out of school, which permitted me to continue working as an artist while conceptualizing several large-scale projects with children in two public elementary schools in Boston and one in Hull, Massachusetts. I was one of five young visual artists accepted into this state-funded program to assist young artists, and in my first year worked with all 230 children in a South Boston elementary school to collectively redesign an old gymnasium into a two-dimensional and three-dimensional aquarium of exotic fish.

Professionally I was working on a series of wooden box sculptures with surreal environments, until it became clear that the mediums I was using (fiberglass and polyester mediums) were just too dangerous for long-term use. After reading a book on Eva Hesse, who died from a brain tumor in her early 30’s, I began to rethink my chosen path.

In the mid 80’s I turned to painting and started an entirely new way of thinking about my work. I became a highly driven and ambitious painter. Having entered the field of painting from the back door, the slow evolution of developing these works in oils matured into visions that became distinctively my own. This process was linked with periods of frustration because my paintings took so long to actualize. By the time they were finished, I had conceptually moved beyond them.

People, artists, artistic genres that have been influential in your work

I have always had a love for surrealism, where elements not generally found together in reality could purposefully and intuitively enter the world of the imagination. As I dove deeper into the world of painting, I studied the works of Belgium painter Rene Magritte, Spanish surrealist Remedios Varo, Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimbaldo (best known his inventive heads made of objects such a fruits, vegetables and flowers), the more contemporary Mexican artist and poet Alfredo Castaneda, and the theatrical self-taught contemporary Russian painter, Ilya Zomb. These artists served as guides in my finding a unique voice. I had no interest in being them or painting like them, I just wanted to learn from them.

Where and how do you get your ideas?

In 2009, without warning, I took another 180º turn with my work when I reluctantly enrolled in an Adobe Illustrator class to strengthen my teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design.  Despite my initial distaste for digital media as a tool for my own art making, I experienced a eureka moment that radically altered how I thought about my image-making process. While struggling with an assignment for this class (and wishing I was painting), I discovered a direct parallel between my “process of layering” with oils and the “digital layering” capabilities found in the computer-generated programs of Photoshop and Illustrator.

What materials do you work with: describe your technical process

During a sabbatical leave from the RISD in 2011, I set up an intense working schedule and blocked out my calendar to focus solely on developing a new way of working. My first experiments offered tremendous freedom in my artmaking process. As my ideas matured, my intensity for pushing this work into unexplored territory escalated. A year later, I had a solo exhibition of these 18 new works at the Nesto Gallery at Milton Academy, thanks to the gracious support of the Director, Anne Neely, and a generous Professional Development Fund Award from the Rhode Island School of Design. Discussing these works in depth with many invited professionals brought greater insight. The exhibition was entitled “Letting Loose: Digital Collages by Wendy Seller”. There seemed to be a flaw in calling these “digital collages”- they are indeed “my paintings” and I remain (from the heart) a painter.

What do you find the most challenging part of being creative?What is the best part of being creative?

I am not alone in saying that the most challenging part about being creative is finding enough undistracted time to do what you need to do in our studio, without being pulled away with the necessities of life. When you are a thoughtful person and concerned about helping others, it is even more difficult, as the process of creating art in this age requires diligence and selfishness. I am very guarded and stingy when it comes to protecting my time. It takes “time” to get my head in the right place so that I can detach from the day-to-day reality, and there is a strong pull to respond to the daily barrage of incoming emails, especially if you are one who needs to keep your life in order.

What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?

As a student and young artist, I read many books to motivate me and help me to more forward and still do! I put myself through RISD, so I cannot say that things ever came easily for me. One book that was, and still is, inspirational is Letters to a Young Poet, by poet Rainer Marie Rilke. I continue to recommend it to my students. There are many others that have assisted me in my evolving process.

Please tell us where we can find you.

I will be doing a four-week residency at the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan, Ireland in August 2012, utilizing images I have taken within this extraordinary country. In September, my piece “Irish Gal” will be included in the exhibition Strange Glue: College at 100 (Part I), at the Thompson Gallery located at The Cambridge School of Weston (Weston, MA). In October, ten paintings will be shown at the Taft Gallery at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA, and in February 2013, I have a two-person show at the Tabor Gallery at Holyoke Community College. For information on any of these, contact me at my website.

My website is at I can also be found on the RISD website.  My studio, which I designed and built from scratch within an abandoned elementary school, has been referred to as one of my greatest artistic achievements. Images of this can be found on my website (under “Studio”) and on the Claflin School Studios website.

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