Local Artists, International Renown Artists Erica Spitzer Rasmussen and Margo Selski Connect in Life and Art

Internationally known artists Erica Spitzer Rasmussen, a White Bear Lake resident, and Margo Selski, who lives in St. Paul, have been friends and creative collaborators ever since they met years ago at the University of Minnesota’s Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) program. “Margo is my kindred spirit,” says Rasmussen. “We connected from the get-go and bonded right away.”  

Spitzer Rasmussen and Selski have a close connection and their work addresses similar themes, but they each came to art through different paths. Spitzer Rasmussen grew up in a family of artists. As a child, she was exposed to different media through classes her mom signed her up for. “I was always told that I could be an artist—and this is how you do it.”

Selski began drawing and painting in 1984 when she was attending Berea College in Kentucky. “At that time, I was searching for something that would provide me a deeper sense of purpose,” says Selski.
Both artists’ work is deeply autobiographical, with fear being  a component that plays heavily.

Spitzer Rasmussen says that childhood fears coming out of myths like, “If you eat tomatoes, hair will grow on your chest,” are a rich source of material for her. Some kids don’t pay much attention to this lore, but Spitzer Rasmussen was highly affected by these stories and they fuel her art—into which she incorporates component images relating to body anxiety.

“For 20 years,” she says, “I avoided tomatoes because I didn’t want a hairy chest.”  Many of her works feature tomatoes or variations on them, like Tomatic Jacket, a deep-red jacket embroidered with a pattern resembling a cross-section of the inside of a tomato.

Some of Spitzer Rasmussen’s work address family history—her father was a Viennese Jew who escaped the Holocaust as a child. One of her pieces, “Silent Harvest” is based on an armless dress form, with the empty center representing the losses of family. “It’s a memorial to my vanished ancestors—the ones who didn’t get out.  It’s granite inside,” says Spitzer Rasmussen. Like a tombstone, it has an opening in the front, with a Star of David inside it, the place where the heart should be.”

Spitzer Rasmussen’s art practice is now about half what she refers to as “paper garments” and half book arts.  “Everything starts with homemade paper,” she says, “Paper is a metaphor for skin—it’s vulnerable and fragile like skin.”

Rasmussen won the 2018 Minnesota Book Artist Award.  She was honored to receive this recognition, especially because she has never had formal training as a book artist. “Winning the award made me feel validated as a bookmaker," she says.

Spitzer Rasmussen is now on the faculty at the Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis and was a resident artist at the center. She is a full professor of art at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, where she teaches classes including textile design, papermaking and book arts.  She also directs the Metro State’s art gallery.

Selski’s work is also intensely autobiographical. “The paintings deal quite explicitly with secrets from my own childhood in small-town, lower-middle-class Kentucky,” says Selski. Selski says she decided to paint in the style of Flemish painting and 19th-century society portraiture so that “no one depicted in my paintings would ever suspect these paintings were about them.” Selski says that much of her work addresses the tension between “the distant and the deeply personal—how much do you share of yourself with someone, and how much do you hold back?”

This past summer, Spitzer Rasmussen and Selski traveled to Italy, where Spitzer Rasmussen had a teaching residency. Selski used the time to reflect on her art and to gather inspiration for future work. “I was able to recharge,” says Selski. “We filled our minds with everything possible on the trip,” says Selski. We traveled, went to museums, churches, to the basilicas, to Bari.” The canals of Venice strongly affected Selski, and she plans to do a series called Daughters of Atlantis. “The characters will be planting gardens and rebuilding the under-areas of Venice,” she says.

Prior to this past summer, it had been 22 years since Selski and Spitzer Rasmussen had collaborated on a show. Selski had been living in Washington state. When she moved back to Minnesota, she and Spitzer Rasmussen decided it was time for them to work together again. The duo did a show at White Bear Center for the Arts this past June.
“It was an outstanding show,” says Danielle Cezanne, WBCA program director. "International artists Erica Spitzer Rasmussen and Margo Selski, while working in disparate media, created a show that was filled with opposites, yet in total harmony. The common themes and rich colors worked together to tie in oil paintings done in a 17th century Flemish style to contemporary paper-making and sculpture.”

Following the show, the center invited Selski to teach an art workshop with second grade students from White Bear Lake, which she based on responses to her painting, “Maiden Flight.” In the painting, Selski plays with the story of Chicken Little, transforming the story from one of fear to one of empowerment.  In the painting, a chicken travels over the city, attached to a pulley system, which helps her overcome her fear and get ready to fly.  The chicken’s head is replaced by the head of a girl.

“Chicken Little ran around saying that the sky is falling,” says Selski. “And she took a lot of characters with her in her demise.  Here in the painting, she practices going over trees, so that when she’s ready to take flight, she knows which direction she wants to fly in.  Chicken Little was afraid, but she was able to change her own story.”

“The students made large paper chickens and decorated them to look like themselves. They wrote down things they feared, and then slid the chickens on to the pulley system. After class, they took the chickens home.”

“The kids got what the painting was about. It’s about fear,” explains Selski. “And it’s about taking a character and empowering them. And the kids understood that.”

“The painting is relevant to me—I’ve rewritten some of my own story. I’ve done a lot of work in order to be a confident artist and a humanitarian,” says Selski. And in my work, “I hope to help remind the viewers of their beauty, strength and dreams.”