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skulls and ribbons

Anna Michałowska: My first question is already out of the common. I’d like to start off by talking not so much about portraits, but what’s behind them. In many of your works, backgrounds seem to play a role as important as the portrait itself. Sometimes it is a patterned wallpaper, other times a straightened fabric with very realistically painted creases. Where does this unusual approach come from?

Oliwia Smoleń: About two years ago I was going through the stage of empty, single-color backgrounds on top of which I would place portraits. The effect was very postery and I quite liked it, especially that I could focus on the character, rather than on the background for which I often had no better idea anyway. But at some point this way of doing things became boring to me, and even my art professor suggested I should explore new fields. So, as a way to exercise my patience and reconcile with backgrounds, I picked something that I liked very much, namely ornament. Decorative trends such as Art Nouveau had always been very close to my heart and I wanted to live up to it somehow. The first painting from my ornamental series was Morris Seaweed whose background utilizes the motif of the same name. Painting this picture was an interesting experience, which I went on to recreate later in several other works. To this day I turn to Morris’s designs from time to time. I find their beauty captivating, I can analyze them endlessly, and somewhere during that meditation an idea sprouts to try and do something similar myself, to go and design patterns and ornaments for my paintings. That said, I arrived at the creased-fabric motif kind of by accident. I had an idea for a painting set against a smooth burgundy wall, but since I had no such wall, I had to hang the fabric behind the model. At that time I didn’t even notice that it was creased; it was just supposed to give me the idea of how the rest blends with this color, how this color responds to light, etc. But then, as I was painting, I realized it would be boring to have a simple, smooth wall for a background. Instead, I noticed that those creases complement the picture quite nicely, introducing a new element to the composition and creating a slightly theatrical effect, which I like very much in painting. And just like with ornaments, I was soon enamored of it.

Patterned backgrounds are often inspired by William Morris’s designs, himself a Pre-Raphaelite and co-founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. Is his art particularly close to your heart?

Yes. I think I have similar longings. I hold craftsmanship and beauty in high esteem, and I see immense value in his work.

Among your works we also find self-portraits alluding to Maria Sibylla Merian, a gifted illustrator of plants and insects and the first female entomologist. Are you interested in and inspired by nature, or in this case was it more about paying tribute to the artist about whom so little is known?

I’d lean towards the latter, though her botanical illustrations are themselves extremely inspiring to me. I don’t know much about plants, but I love looking at them. My house is full of dried bouquets, and similar motifs appear on my fabrics, pillows and posters. I’m strangely drawn to them. Then again, I’m not one of those people who run around meadows barefoot and lay in the grass looking at the sky. I like living in the city and I have a fear of bugs, so maybe just surrounding myself with such illustrations is a kind of compensation for that. And I read about Maria Sibylla Merian a few years ago in a book somewhere, and I was very intrigued by her trajectory. I remember at the time I was going through a period of great interest in lesser-known artists from the past (somehow I couldn’t believe that they didn’t exist, although that’s what the canon of art history teaches you) and that was when Merian’s illustrations, among others artworks, stole my heart, in part because they stand for the qualities that are dearest to me: passion, patience, craftsmanship. And somehow the idea came to me to refer to them in my works.

Who else inspires you, or at least the works of which artists do you like looking at and taking in?

I love the work of so many artists that, whenever I’m asked this question, I never know what to say. One of my favorite painters is undoubtedly Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I also love Friedrich, and people sometimes compare the atmosphere of some of my paintings to Vermeer, who I’m also very fond of. I love Art Nouveau, so I can’t not mention Mucha and Klimt, and most Young-Poland painters for that matter. Recently I’ve also been drawn to Rousseau. Of course, there’s also a wealth of contemporary painters who inspire me – for example, this theme of inverted figures is inspired by Daniel Coves. Thanks to social media I stumble upon new artists almost on the daily, some of whom are just a few years older or even younger than me.

In one of the interviews you gave, I read that you are an aesthete with a soft spot for pretty objects. I’m curious as to how you decorate your apartment – is it posters, paintings by other artists, or maybe knick-knacks rummaged up at flea markets?

If I had unlimited funds, my apartment would sure become a landfill of beautiful things. I would have an Art Nouveau house with stained-glass windows, with handicrafts and paintings all over the place. But for now it’s mainly posters, the majority by Polish graphic artists or from exhibitions, a few wonderful linocuts from a certain French female artist, plus some smaller paintings and illustrations that I got from friends. And while these things keep piling up, my storage space doesn’t. And when it comes to knick-knacks, I could definitely use some more.

What was your artistic path like? Did you know from a young age that you would go on to study art, or did art enter your life only later? And was oil painting your first choice?

I’ve been drawn to art since I was a child, but I had absolutely no plan for what I wanted to do with it. The only thing I knew was that I wouldn’t be good at anything else. After elementary school, I went to the Junior High School of Fine Arts in Tarnów, majoring in design which wasn’t quite my forte; I drew a lot, but I didn’t like painting too much. Up until then, still no plan. I thought I would study graphic design, but my lack of enthusiasm and limited skills led me to drop that idea, too. What I did was take a gap year, frequent a private studio to enhance my portfolio – just for the sake of it at first, as I still had no idea what I wanted to study. Later, the teachers there noticed my potential as a painter and I grew to like painting, so for lack of better alternatives I focused on that. I didn’t get accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts the first time, but that’s because I still wasn’t sure if painting was really my thing. But over time I grew to enjoy it more and more, until I got completely lost in it, in a good way. The second time around I got accepted easily. I had finally found something of my own. Before that, my life was such a mess, not knowing what I wanted to do and where to channel my energy. That isn’t to say my love affair with oil painting has been all roses right from the start, but perhaps I’ll leave that story for another time.

I’m always curious to learn about the process of creating a painting. Do you have your own ritual that you follow? Do you discipline yourself to sketch or paint every day, or do you only sit down to a canvas or a piece of paper when you already know what you want to portray?

My creative process is very organized. When I have an idea in my head, I usually draw a rough sketch not to forget it, or if possible, I go straight to taking photos. Then, based on the photo (or a pose, if I paint from the live model), I make a drawing. Based on the drawing, I seal the canvas, I cover it with a ground mixed with pigment (I don’t like white ground; if I have to work on one, I’ll put a layer of underpainting on top), I transfer the drawing, and I paint. I don’t start painting on canvas right away, because I’ve always had a strange tendency to scale down – the composition almost never came out the way I wanted, I couldn’t quite fill the canvas as I planned, I had to change the idea on the fly, find a way out. Of course, painting sketches is a whole different story and I’m much more liberal with them. I am a perfectionist, so everything in the painting must be shipshape. I have sometimes abandoned projects just because the figure was moved a centimeter too far to the side. Anyway, the stage of drawing and preparing canvas is very important to me. I try to paint every day, and since I usually have several pictures laid out in front of me, I transition smoothly from one to another. It’s been a while since I didn’t know where to put my efforts. It happens, of course, that an idea goes pasts its due date and doesn’t seem as interesting to me as it did a few weeks ago, but it’s not very common. I rarely work on more than one, tops two paintings at a time, otherwise it’s hard for me to stay focused and I end up thinking about the painting other than one currently in front of me. As a rule, I don’t like leaving my works unfinished. Last but not least, every day before I start painting, I brew myself a cup of tea. 😊

If we could maybe go back once again to the subject of nature, which we referred to in the context of Maria Merian. Skulls are a recurring theme in your paintings, and not only animal skulls. Is it an homage to death and the passing of time, the way it was in Baroque painting, or do these objects have a different meaning to you?

I see them as a symbol of my pessimism, sentimentality, and the tendency to ponder the passing of time. The past is something that I can’t seem to be able to cut myself off from; I often think about it and miss it. I have the impression that my mind doesn’t really keep up with my body or the calendar, and that mentally I am somewhere else completely. As a child I never dreamt of being an adult, I wasn’t looking forward to my eighteenth birthday. Besides, skulls are interesting to me because of their painterliness – there’s something about their form, shape, and color. Also the idea that they are on one hand objects, but on the other hand were once part of a living being, terrifies and fascinates me in equal measure. And of course I’m a huge Baroque fan, so that’s also one of the reasons.

There are many self-portraits among your paintings. Is painting yourself more difficult or easier than portraying others?

It’s definitely easier for me to paint myself. When painting others, I feel more pressure to “get it right” – I don’t want to spoil my subject, paint them badly. This is especially true for my friends and family – I don’t want the portrait to disappoint them. It’s somewhat less stressful with painting live models at school, but that’s because I know that they’ve seen things and aren’t as sensitive to it; they’re well immersed in the subject, and just in general, school is where you’re supposed to practice and learn, so I try to look at it like that. But when it comes to painting my own face, that’s when I feel most at ease and it’s the best way for me to experiment. Then again, it happens that I grow tired of seeing so many self-portraits, and being able to paint a face other than my own is then very inspiring to me.

And why did you choose portrait over landscape, genre or abstraction? Are you planning to try your hand at forms other than portrait, or do you feel this is the best outlet for you?

It’s hard to say, really. I’ve just always been drawn to portraits and to characters. My childhood and teenage drawings are proof of it. Somehow I could never grow to like landscape, and the same goes for other forms. I’m not saying I’ll never try anything else, but I don’t think I could ever give up portrait entirely. I tend to be constant in my feelings and the same is true for my passion for characters. I also have a feeling that it is the easiest way to convey a certain kind of atmosphere and mood that I try to capture in my paintings. Besides, I’m fascinated by the colors, textures and forms of the human body. This decision is based mainly on intuition and emotions, which both guide me in my painting.

When creating a portrait, do you use photographs or paint from the live model in front of you?

At the moment, I paint mainly from photographs, because I have no conditions to paint from the live model – neither financial nor space-wise. At school I paint from the live model, and it’s a bit of both  for sketches. Either way I like both forms.

So far, your work has been dominated by female characters. Are you planning to paint some male portraits in the future as well?

I would certainly love to paint a male portrait, though admittedly, the visions for my future paintings concern mostly women. Often for trivial reasons. Women have long hair that can be fiddled with, they wear dresses and fancy blouses, laces and accessories that all can be played about with in the picture. Men in our culture are somehow stripped of that playful dimension, and so we aren’t likely to see a man wearing a hairbow, for example. And as much as I’m fond of theatricality, I want my paintings to be equally natural and realistic. Of course, this is me generalizing, but this is to get my point across. Besides I’m a woman, so maybe that’s why I feel more familiar with female portraits. But I’ve been thinking about painting men for a while now, and I’d very much like to confront this challenge in my own way. Maybe some new inspirations will emerge along the way, too, and I’ll start to gravitate towards a different kind of mood in my paintings. Anything can happen.

Many artists create custom-made portraits. If you were ever approached – say, by one of our readers – with such an offer, what would you say to them?

It depends. As a rule I’m very much open to this kind of projects, but this is of course a very individual matter. So if anyone’s interested, please feel free to drop me a line. As long as the idea aligns with me somehow, artistically speaking, there shouldn’t be a problem. One thing to keep in mind, though, is the turnaround – if we are to work against a specific deadline, you’d better write me well in advance, as I switch between commissions and own projects, hence 3-4 months is the minimum.

Where do you see your art go in the coming months? And what can I wish a young artist like yourself?

My plans keep changing so it’s hard for me to say. Whenever I get my schedule in order, new things come up and I have to postpone my plans. But whatever happens, I’ll be there painting. And as for what you could wish me – definitely motivation and the drive to keep on working, courage, lots of inspiration, and for me to be able to live off what I love and reach people with my art. Because I don’t paint only for myself.

transl. Jakub Majchrzak

  • "Morris Seaweed", 2019