Local artist Wendy Walker Silverman has crafted her work in many forms, including paintings, wallpaper and textiles. Her latest collection, An Opal Ring and the Stories That Scared Me, now on display at Galerie Tangerine, consists entirely of paintings, Silverman’s most beloved artform to create. The collection is a journey into specific sensory memories and details from Silverman’s childhood. Many of the pieces involve particularly scary stories she learned as a child and an opal ring given to her by her parents. The exhibition is a raw dive into those fleeting flashes of childhood that cross our minds, revealing themselves to us as fragmented memories with a very strong sensory recall.
The Home Page’s sister publication the Nashville Scene spoke with Silverman about her collection.
Why did you choose to focus on those scary stories from your childhood for this collection?
I actually had a really lovely childhood and that may be why I was drawn to the scary stories. … I think I was really anxious as a child, so just reading “The Little Match Girl” for the first time … it’s the Hans Christian Andersen story of the little girl who freezes to death, and I read that when I was about 7 or 8. I thought, so OK. There are grown-ups in the world that know that they’re not afraid to talk to children about death, and I sort of fixated on that as a kid.
What is the connection between the opal ring your parents gave you and the scary stories?
I had a tendency to try to escape into my imagination a lot as a child, which I think most children do, and certain things were sort of portals for me, for my imagination. And just looking at the facets and the colors in this opal, in this ring my parents gave me, was one of my favorite places to retreat to and let my imagination go. … I set out doing this work with the intention of really honing in and meditating on childhood memories, and not all of them are a story with a complete narrative. … I’m trying to build a world that relates to my specific memory but also a world that’s open enough for other people to, I hope, feel pulled into the moment and sort of go to their own memory or sensory experience.
I read that you tried to incorporate a lot of those opally colors. I definitely noticed that while I was walking through the paintings. I noticed a lot of reds, yellows and oranges in the collection. Why did you pick those colors to use?
These are colors that kind of just please my eye. … My work had always been representational for the most part, and the palette that I had used predominantly for the past several years was super muted. … As I’ve gotten more upset with just the state of the world and thinking about women’s place in the world as a whole, it feels like a dark time to me, and so I needed to see these bright, feminine colors again. It was like my eye was craving them. It was almost like I had some sort of visual vitamin deficiency … Seeing the juxtaposition of a palette that I haven’t used for a long time or that I’ve never used, just mixtures of colors against other colors and seeing how they react — it is like a new revelation every day.
That’s awesome. How do you feel that creating art helps you remember those childhood memories or reflect on them? Because a lot of times with childhood memories, it’s not really clear what was happening. You just kind of have these random flashes.
The childhood memories that really triggered me to start working on this collection are the ones that seem almost magical. … Right before I would go to sleep… I would have this ocular experience where you see the sparks that look like fireworks. … I was also really fearful of going to sleep at nighttime. … There’s a piece in the collection that is called “The Long Way or the Short Way.” … I had a great aunt, she was a widow. I’d never known her husband. … She would just sit there and twist her wedding band, and I would always ask her to take it off so that I could see it and wear it, and she would say that she couldn’t take it off and that it used to have orange blossoms on it and that she had twisted it so much that she had worn them off. It was just this magical thing to me. One day, I was probably 6 or 7… my mother said, “Stop asking Aunt Floy to take her ring off.” And I said, “Well OK, but why?” And she said, “Because her husband gave it to her, and he’s dead and it makes her sad.” … My mother said he got cut in half on a railway track, and she said to never talk about it again.
Now I know my mother, who is a sweet, sweet lady, meant, Don’t talk to Aunt Floy about it. … But as a 6 year old, I thought, OK. I can never talk about it again. As an anxious, fearful little kid, the thing from that point on that I would fall asleep thinking about every night … was [whether] he was cut in half the long way or the short way, and I was afraid to ask anybody. … When I was an adult, I told my mother that story, and she was quite mortified that I dwelled on it so much, and her answer was, “You are so silly. It was the short way.”
When I was younger, I read a story in a magazine about a girl who lost her legs on a train track. I was terrified of that. I remember I hid the magazine on a shelf in my kitchen. I couldn’t bear to look at it because it freaked me out so much, and I was terrified of trains for years.
After the gallery opening, there was just a really small group of us still here and someone asked me about that painting, and I was telling the story, and
Lilli Robinson’s boyfriend said, “My grandad got killed on a train track.”
So in terms of all of your art and not just this collection, is your childhood something that you paint about a lot or create about a lot?
Mary Oliver said, “The child I was is with me in the present hour, and it will be with me in the grave.” It was sort of synchronistic that I read that this morning, but it’s pervasive in a way that my work all connects with nature. … I grew up on 80 acres of woods. … The smells and the sounds of nature really are imprinted on me.
So do you work with textiles as well?
Why did you choose to exclusively include paintings in this collection?
I just kept dreaming about painting. … I had spent … the first part of last year working on the textiles, but ultimately I’m a painter first and my love is with painting.
Is there any one painting in particular that you really want people to hear about?
“First Perfume,” and the one that’s hanging over the console in there, which is called “First Fig” … These paintings are both about sensory perception as a child, and I tried to convey what I see when I remember smelling the first perfume I had, and it’s just this abstract swirl of patterns and colors. … And so “First Fig” … my grandmother plucked a fig, and I was really small, and we were standing at the tree, and she opened it and let me taste it for the first time. It’s just something that I’ll never forget, and I tried to convey those smells and those sounds.
I noticed that several of your paintings are titled “Delicately Dramatic.” What does that title mean?
I really feel that titles should be little gifts. You may not walk out with a painting, but I hope you’ll walk out with a title stuck in your head. … The last time I had a solo show, which was in 2013, the curator described my work as “delicately dramatic,” and I was just like, Gosh, that’s it. … It really is descriptive of one of my favorite times of year which is late winter-early spring, and so the paintings in this series that have “Delicately Dramatic” in the title or “Delicate Drama” and “Quince Thorn Root” and “Before the Greening,” those are all just based on that feeling of those first bits of color and the delicate drama of soft petals against the stark bark and limbs … the very ephemeral, very fleeting beauty. … I just felt like those two words together really sort of describe one of my favorite times of year.
An Opal Ring and the Stories That Scared Me by Wendy Walker Silverman is on view at Galerie Tangerine through Aug. 9.