Off the Page, with Selena Wong

Off the Page is an exclusive series produced by the NMAF that reaches out to former National Magazine Award winners to find out what their awards have meant to them and what they’re up to now. Off the Page will appear each Thursday on the Magazine Awards blog during the fall of 2012. This week we catch up with National Magazine Award-winning illustrator Selena Wong.

NMAFBack in 2009 you graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design and your work appeared in, among other places, The Walrus and was later nominated for a National Magazine Award. How did you get started illustrating for magazines, and how did your work grab the attention of The Walrus?

Selena Wong. (Photo by Eugenia Wong.)

Selena Wong: The first illustration that started it all was a piece done for PlanSponsor magazine with Art Director SooJin Buzelli. I had a chance to meet SooJin during a semester of study at the Rhode Island School of Design through OCAD’s mobility/exchange program.

As for The Walrus, I applied for an art internship with the magazine in 2009, and through the interview process I met the art director Brian Morgan and the senior designer Paul Kim. Since I majored in illustration at the Ontario Collage of Art & Design, the portfolio I brought with me was full of illustrations from my fourth-year thesis.

I had no samples of any graphic design/layout work so I wasn’t an ideal candidate at the time, but was later so fortunately offered to do an editorial illustration for the magazine.

“The True Sorrows of Calamity Jane” (The Walrus; July/August 2009); Illustration by Selena Wong

NMAFAt this year’s National Magazine Awards gala you won the Gold award for illustration (“Meet You at the Door”). This piece seems exemplary of much of your body of work: fantastical, dream-like, full of wonder.  In composing a piece like this, to what extent does the text or the author or the art director guide you, and to what extent are you guided by your own style and instinct?

Selena Wong: I really enjoyed illustrating Lawrence Hill’s story and not to mention had a blast at the NMA gala. For this particular project, I worked with Paul Kim, the senior designer at The Walrus, who introduced Hill’s story accompanied by a few proposed key imageries.

With Paul’s suggestions in mind, I highlighted words and phrases that I thought represented the climax of the story after reading it through several times. From that point on, I created two or three sketches based on those highlighted moments I had set aside.  I then sent the sketches to Paul while secretly hoping that he would pick the sketch I yearned most to develop.

Luckily, what Paul thought worked best for the story and the audience of The Walrus was a piece that was meant to capture the most dreamy atmosphere of one specific setting. It was a description of the beautiful starry sky that tried to divert the gaze from the most important job in life in the vast Canadian Prairies.

The approach I used for this illustration is one that I learned and exercised throughout my training in illustration at OCAD. I appropriate the same practice to all of my work. Through illustrating, I aim to determine the part in a piece of writing where the author opens up to the reader. Sometimes this moment is not the most meaningful and significant one, yet it captures the essence of the story. I believe that it enables me to involve and evoke the deeper emotions in the audience.

“Meet You at the Door” (The Walrus; Jan/Feb 2011); Illustration by Selena Wong

NMAFWhat impact does winning a National Magazine Award have on a young artist, professionally or personally?

Selena Wong: As a young artist, it is a great honour to be recognized nationally, which in turn provides many assurances of support for my career. I was thrilled to be nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2009 even though I only received a honourable mention. That is why I was very surprised to learn that I was given a rare second chance and nominated for a NMA a second time with The Walrus!

Even with greater astonishment, this time I was called up on stage to receive the Gold award. An award not only provides charming publicity but it raises the standards in my work and, therefore, produces a wonderful opportunity to surpass my previous accomplishments.

Selena Wong is a National Magazine Award-winning illustrator and graduate of the Ontario College of Art & Design. Her exhibit “Black Math” is on at the Steam Whistle Brewery in Toronto until the end of October. You can view her work at and

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