Artist Interview | Paintings As Places

Selma Makela and Fionna Murray consider the idea that a painting can be a place in itself.

Selma Makela, Coastal Watch, 2021, oil on canvas, 28cm x 34cm; image courtesy of the artist. Selma Makela, Coastal Watch, 2021, oil on canvas, 28cm x 34cm; image courtesy of the artist.

Selma Makela: In many of your paintings, it seems as if you are both inside and outside. You repeat motifs, which I guess all painters do as a visual language, but you also pay attention to often unnoticed or overlooked things. The images of the parks are so familiar to me since, like you, I spent my childhood in those parks – my only sense of nature in London. I realise now that places like Hampstead Heath were constructed idylls. Your park paintings fill me with a memory of this idyll, but also, the idea that a painting can be a place in itself.

Fionna Murray: Yes, that notion of a painting being a place in itself was very strong when I was making the watercolours – the sense that the space that you create is a parallel reality. The painting is prompted into being by the world, but it also has a life of its own. The nature of paint as a medium evades certainties and of course that’s what makes the process unexpected and what makes you want to embark on another painting. Maybe the places that we first experienced as children have an essential influence on our visual vocabulary. Like you, the London parks formed my notion of a rural space, albeit a constructed one. 

I have a quote in my notebook by Albert Camus, who said that one’s life “is nothing but a long journey to find again… the two or three powerful images upon which his whole being opened for the first time.” It does feel like that sometimes, when I ask myself why I am painting. Is it a need to make sense of those powerful visual memories from those formative places? And I wonder is that stronger when you have moved to another country from where you grew up? The displacement makes you want to gather those fragments of that other place into the contained space of the painting. And you have to do it again and again because the idyll evades us. 

Does this resonate for you in terms of your paintings? There is a vastness of scale within your small works and your places often seem to be on the edge of somewhere. The figurative elements, whether human, architectural or animal, are a small but necessary part of the atmosphere of the painting. The weather is palpable as in say, Precipice, 2018. With an economy of means you seem to capture the experience of being caught in a snowstorm, physically and maybe metaphorically, out there on the ice.

SM: Place is such a huge thing when you have emigrated, and even more so when one’s parents also emigrated. I can relate to this relationship to place, and the idea of the painting as a place, having had to negotiate four distinct cultures whilst not being fully part of any. Formative images for me were childhood trips to visit family in Finland and up past the Arctic Circle. This experience of no night and expansive space has never left me and has definitely informed my visual language. These images are also muddled with car journeys across Europe to see family in Cyprus. 

I have often looked at weather and geological processes as a language to dissolve fixations on nations and borders, which become meaningless when facing a climate emergency – and dare I say, viruses! But as much as paintings can be a distinct place, I am always curious about the relationship of paintings to each other. The pigments are like capsules of time, often made from ancient earth minerals. So when I make a series of paintings, I see them as nuanced arrangements of multiple, oblique and entangled perspectives, rather than self-contained works. I think that’s why I never frame work; I think of them as fragments of time and images. 

FM: These sentiments echo my own, in terms of how I see my paintings – as fragments that are in a kind of dialogue with each other. It is intriguing to see how pieces work together and set up their own narratives; how arranging the paintings at exhibition stage is an integral aspect of making a body of work. In terms of imagery, I too may start off with a general idea for a painting, possibly taken from a photo or a collage, but the process of making really does push you into accepting that certain imagery has to be painted over – even the bits that are working! – so that the thing comes together as a whole. In fact, over time, I prefer some of the slightly awkward paintings more than the ones that have a harmonious quality to them. Maybe it’s because they have struggled more, in order to be seen. In a small way, the act of embarking on a new painting, or any work of art, is an act of hope, that maybe we can do it better this time.

SM: I like the idea of painting being an act of hope. I rarely work on one painting at a time; I have a lot of paintings in process and just pick one up, work on it for a while and move on. I like to see them as scraps of paper – I mess them up and am not precious about any of it, in the hope that a freedom will be possible in the marks. Then sometimes, something amazing can happen: you get what I call a ‘gift painting’ – the one that falls through fully-formed in minutes, sometimes on an unused canvas but mostly after many other layers. Does that make sense? 

FM: Absolutely. However, those paintings that feel like gifts can only come about because of all the previous work; it builds up a flow. I remember Philip Guston saying in an interview about how boring it is to see yourself putting paint on, which I recognised, and thought was very funny. He said that at some point something grips on the canvas, and you have a few hours where there’s some kind of release – where your thinking doesn’t precede your doing. It does feel like a painting can form itself during such moments.  

SM: I do wonder sometimes, why we are bringing more objects and things into the world. But after this pandemic and the screen fatigue so many of us have felt, the fact that paintings need to be seen in the physical world is such a relief. Maybe they locate us to that moment and place for a while in the looking. 

FM: Yes, post-pandemic I am looking forward to seeing new exhibitions in actual places in the physical world! 

Fionna Murray is an artist based in Galway city and is represented by The Eagle Gallery, London.


Selma Makela is an artist based in Galway. She is currently working towards a solo exhibition at The Whitaker Museum and Art Gallery, UK, opening in October 2022.