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Wilderness Children // Michelle Duckworth // Visitors Center Gallery

Image above titled: Searching, Michelle Duckworth


"The feeling of being a child and looking with wonder and fear at the big, wild world around us is a theme I find myself repeatedly exploring in my work. In the struggle to make sense of our individual realities, to find the way out of our personal wildernesses, stories are often necessary. Stories we are told by others as well as those we tell ourselves. Some of the scenarios depicted in my pieces are inspired by existing stories, many are my own invention, and all are intended to act as a snapshot from the middle of a tale, which allows the viewer to develop her own narrative of the beginning and end."  - Michelle Duckworth

Caged Birds, Michelle Duckworth


MBG: Michelle, I have been a fan of your work for years now. I love that the feeling of your work has been consistent over all these years, yet it seems there is no limit to your imagination! I wonder what sources, other than nature, offer up ideas for your creatures and their relationship to the children characters? Do you have a favorite fairytale? Are you going to start making children's books?

Michelle Duckworth: I certainly am influenced by fairytales and mythology, and I love the weird logic and metaphor present in them. I can't say I have a particular favorite, but there are recurring themes that show up in a lot of them and find their way into my work. Situations like a character being lost in the woods and coming across a creature who maybe there to either guide them or eat them, and the outcome depends on the character's choices. That sort of thing is relatable to me because it seems like a pretty apt metaphor for life sometimes.Visually I take a lot of inspiration from illustrators of the late1800's- early 1900's, people like Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Aubrey Beardsley, etc. I also am interested in traditional/folk arts from around the world, and of course the picture books I had as a kid. Really anything I read, see, or experience can end up filtering into my work, so I try to keep my eyes open and my mind receptive as I'm going about my daily life.I've illustrated a few children's books that were written by other people, but I've never done one completely of my own. People are always telling me I should, and it's definitely on my to-do list one of these days.

MBG: Can you tell the story of how you came to using inks, and stains on wood as one of your preferred mediums? Wood seems like an incredibly challenging surface to make such precise and detailed drawings on!

Michelle Duckworth: I have always been more comfortable with line and value than with color and amorphous blobs of paint, and I was trying to think of a way of doing drawings that seemed more "finished" and had more depth and interest to them than what I was getting from working on paper. I also wanted to avoid the hassle and expense of framing them. One day I was admiring the texture on a piece of unfinished wood I'd ended up with and wondered what it would look like if I tried drawing on that. Tried out dry media like charcoal and didn't like it, so I then experimented with several kinds of ink until I found one that held a line and didn't bleed too much. For adding values I thought I should stay with earth tone colors to compliment the wood, and it occurred to me that wood stains come in a bunch of different colors, and I experimented with that until I found a good working method. It also helps that wood and stains are cheaper than paints and canvases. So basically through trying to work around my own artistic and financial limitations, and I ended up stumbling upon a process that suits me well.

MBG: Lastly, since I've been following you work I noticed you have really been getting into embroidery and the use of brighter colors. Is the embroidery work segueing into something different for your studio practice in terms of a larger color palette?

Michelle Duckworth: As I mentioned before, I've always found working with color a bit difficult and as a result my palettes tend to be somewhat muted or limited. I've been trying to work on that lately and be more adventurous with my color choices. Embroidery seems to lend itself well to the use of bold colors, and I've been having fun playing with that. Also the tactile quality of the process is very satisfying to me and the repetition is relaxing. There are a few other paintings in the show which also involve more use of color. I plan to continue with the wood technique since it is something I enjoy and it fits well with the content and overall aesthetic of my work, but I also like to explore a variety of different media. It keeps things interesting and having a different set of limitations can sometimes lead to coming up with ideas I might not have otherwise.

Hunter In The Garden, Michelle Duckworth


Michelle Duckworth received her BFA from the Memphis College of Art and lives in Memphis. In addition to working as an illustrator, she has shown her artwork in a variety of galleries and spaces. 

To Find What Is Sought, Michelle Duckworth

All images courtesy of the artist and copyright protected. All Rights Reserved.

All art exhibits free and open to the public. A portion of art sales benefits Memphis Botanic Garden’s art, education and horticulture programs. Call 636-4100 for information. 

Posted by Stephanie Cosby at 10:31 AM


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