A Studio Visit With Tara Sellios

Untitled No. 14 from series Lessons of Impermanence 

Untitled No. 14 from series Lessons of Impermanence 

Tara Sellios and I were to become good friends, but this was the first time she had asked me to help her create a photograph. One flight up, we reached her apartment and quickly stepped into her studio. I'm not sure if I expected some sort of dungeon with torches as the only source of light, but I was surprised to find a perfectly neat, bright white studio space in a quaint, Somerville, MA, house.       

Crisp sunlight cascaded into the room, perfectly illuminating the tables covered in bones, paints, and years of drawings. Religious imagery and totems were scattered throughout, though there was no sense of hierarchy within the space. Delicate bird skeletons were balanced with platters of glistening props, and a mirror reflected back a wall of sketches, signifying the layered process Sellios works within.        

I looked at the singular table with a board painted red behind it; in my mind I pictured all of the trauma and beauty that had been created on this one tabletop. There were a few options of wine glasses sitting in pairs near the setup, seemingly hopeful to be included in today’s photograph.    

My personal constraint of not wanting to make a mess was tested when we began to shoot and Sellios had to remind me to let the wine pour in abundance. She disappeared beneath the black cloth of the camera to perfect the frame and set the exposure. I know under the shroud she is experiencing her creation. This image has existed in her mind and she now has the materials, light, and extra hands that she needs to bring it to fruition. So we pour. Between exposures we each open a new bottle.

The floor was stained red, wine dripping from the drenched tablecloth...I watched the substance seep into the fresh white linen and take shape around the folds of the fabric and the outline of the glass. Merlot eddies formed around the base of the stemware as the velocity of the streams increased. The table became a wash of bloody burgundy, but the sunlight felt so soft. 

Sellios creates exquisite and exaggerated still lifes that are comprised of animal parts, fish, wine and luscious foods. Her work is reminiscent of late 17th century painters, resurrecting the vanitas style by incorporating elements of a feast and the remains. She first creates sketches, meticulously planning out her image, then later photographs the set up with a Zone VI 8x10 camera in her studio. Using only daylight to make the photographs, she controls every aspect of the set to mimic a baroque-style lighting scenario. The images are meticulously detailed, and when viewed up close, the display of wounds and deterioration of her subjects results, says Sellios “in an image that is seductive, forcing the viewer to look, despite its apparent grotesque and morbid nature.”

Though she studied photography at The Art Institute of Boston, her inspiration and interest lies in a broad range of art history. Altarpieces have influenced her use of multi-panel images, which allows the viewer to have more than one access point, and artists such as Walton Ford have added to the conversation of predator and prey.                                               

For the sake of making the images she desires, Sellios allows chaos to erupt in her tidy studio. Gallons of wine have met the aged hardwood floor, and her shelves have been filled with gutted fish and bloodstained creatures to satisfy her specific vision. Stemware shrapnel sticks to once-white linen, and pollen from the lilies drops into oyster shells, mixing with red wine and a touch of seawater. The mess is only temporary, though. For each image Tara arranges the subjects in a very precise way, generating what may seem like disorder in the gathering and setup. Yet, ultimately, the pieces find their designated homes within her frame. Once the image is created, she keeps the imperishable items and disposes of the rest. She reminds me of a hunter who gathers and feasts on her prey but washes her plate immediately afterward in anticipation of the next banquet. 

The hunt is no easy task, however. Oftentimes sketches will exist long before she acquires the materials to make it, initiating a quest for a very particular set of structures in her space. We look at a painting of two skulls surrounded by lilies that has lived on her studio wall for a while now. She says that she is waiting to make this one, explaining that there is a hold up on receiving additional skulls due to some mold on their necks. Her journey now becomes a meeting of aesthetics within human and Mother Nature.         

Dependent on others who have interest in collecting—butchers, sommeliers, and fishermen—her series becomes infused with collaboration and results in her forming significant relationships with others. A postcard hangs above her desk that reads, “I thought great artists had great compassion for people.” This and all of her surroundings serve as a reminder for gratitude and mercy while Sellios works.

Her imagery walks a thin line between deep romanticism and vulture-like darkness. Viewing Sellios’s series from Lessons of Impermanence to Impulses, we take an emotional journey that moves through vulnerability and fragility to dominance and codependence. Nuzzling goat skulls, entwined octopi tentacles, skeletons, and freshly slaughtered forms all convey personalities in their postures and gazes. What seems to be initially expressed as grotesque and predatory becomes relational and intimate, part of a love story. A shark’s jawbone leans casually against the edge of the wall, neighboring a few snake vertebrae that appear to be conversing with the fish bones. Sellios looks at them, laughs, and calls them her pets.  Her space is filled with both characters we’ve met in her photographs and new friends and creatures.

Sellios refers to the installation of items pinned to a wall as a visual idea bank. Allowing herself some freedom from the timeline of creating works, she talks excitedly about overlapping projects and upcoming exhibitions. She hopes to incorporate an interactive element into an upcoming public presentation, and all I can imagine is sitting at a long table toasting the host with a piece of severed trout on my glass. Such is her imagery that it moves us from mundane to impossible.

She continues to make work that acknowledges death and the sacredness of independence. Her upcoming series is going to be lush, filled with an abundance of flora that signify revival and durability. A glimpse of new imagery is placed around the room. The palette is darker, listing in a gray scale spectrum. Later this year, Sellios is moving to a much larger, yet much darker, space, but she embraces it as something ‘cosmic.’ She knows where the final images will turn, but says, "I can't do the end now." 

This article first appeared in Issue 3.

Frances Jakubek is Associate Director and Associate Curator of the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA. As an artist she explores photographic media to understand an ever-changing visual language.