When it comes to visual art, my tastes vary from the sweet, playful illustrations of Molly Idle, the creative imaginings of Gediminas Pranckevicius, and the hip characters of Frank Morrison to the elegant paintings of Kevin Sloan and lifelike wildlife of Julie Bell.
I’m also passionate about color and texture and juxtaposition, about fantastical worlds, realistic representations, and great storytelling. Each of these latter traits and some of the former are found in the breathtaking images of Zaria Forman. Sometimes the fantastic world is Antartica or The Maldives, the story one that has been unfolding for millions of years.
I love when art moves me and the work of painter Zaria Forman does just that, in ways I hadn’t experienced before. Her incredibly realistic paintings of nature, in particular of water and of ice, appear at first to be photographic captures of specific instances quite literally frozen in time. But settle in and explore these remarkable paintings and see if you don’t feel something moving inside of you, as if some deep down inherent part of you isn’t connected to the art.
I had the pleasure to interview Zaria via email. Below are some of her exquisite paintings and her thoughts which I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do.
Other Cool Birds: Children’s author, Jacqueline Woodson says that writers tend to focus on the time in our lives we’re still working through. Is there an element of truth to Woodson’s claim as it relates to Visual Artists (or to your work)? If so, how?
Zaria Forman: I think Woodson’s claim is probably true of most artists, because something is driving us to create and the act of creating is, in itself, a process of “working through” whatever that impetus is. My work centers around natural beauty, its celebration and preservation. Inherent in that is the exponential challenge of climate change. It is the biggest crisis we face as a global society and one we continue to “work through.”
My drawings explore moments of transition, turbulence, and tranquility in the landscape, allowing viewers to emotionally connect with a place they may never have the chance to visit.
I choose to convey the beauty as opposed to the devastation of threatened places. If people can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps they will be inspired to protect and preserve them. Woodson’s claim speaks to my dedication to translating and illuminating scientists’ warnings and statistics through an accessible medium, one that moves us in a way that statistics may not.
OCB: What sort of background do you have (formal training, apprenticeship, workshops, self-taught, etc)?
Zaria: From 6th grade through high school, I went to Green Meadow Waldorf School–a very small school with an alternative approach to education, suffused with art. I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a crayon though, so it’s really the years that trained me, though I also majored in Studio Art at Skidmore College, and spent a semester abroad at Studio Art Centers International, in Florence, Italy.
Additionally, I realized very early on that artists play a critical role in social and evironmental change. The actions I take as an artist toward conservation and preservation of the landscapes I attempt to memorialize in my drawings, coupled with the expeditions that allow me to experience them, are indelible in my practice and in their own way, a unique form of self-navigated apprenticeship.
OCB: What are you painting/creating art for (as in, what is the deep-down driving force behind your choice to paint in the first place)? Is there something about the act of being creative that speaks to you/resonates with you most?
Zaria: Like I said, I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to hold a stick of charcoal. 😉 So in part, it just comes naturally, and is something of a meditative experience for me. It quiets my mind. I don’t perceive what I am drawing as water, or ice, instead the image is stripped down to its most basic visual form of color and shape. I can get lost in these simple details for hours and not notice the time pass.
But beyond my natural born love for drawing and the meditative state it allows for, a constant driving force behind my creativity and activism is my mother. Her affection for the Arctic echoes throughout my travels and my work, illuminating both the power and fragility of the landscapes. The sheer size of the icebergs is humbling; the ice fields vibrate with movement and sound in a way I never expected. That’s what prompted me to bring recording equipment on my more recent polar trips, and to expand the scale of my drawings, to give viewers the same sense of awe I experienced.
OCB: What is it about the process that you like most? Least?
Zaria: Travel is necessary for my art and life experiences––one cannot exist without the other. So I would say that’s my favorite part of my own creative process. When I travel, I take thousands of photographs. I often make a few small sketches on-site to get a feel for the landscape. Once I return to the studio, I draw from my memory of the experience, as well as from the photographs, to create large-scale compositions. Occasionally I will re-invent the water or sky, alter the shape of the ice, or mix and match a few different images to create the composition I envision. I begin with a very simple pencil sketch so I have a few major lines to follow, and then I add layers of pigment onto the paper, smudging everything with my palms and fingers and breaking the pastel into sharp shards to render finer details.
As far as my least favorite part, it’s probably the business side of things. It is a necessary part of being a full-time artist, but it detracts from the creation of your work. About a year ago I hired a studio manager who handles most of the business aspects for me, so I still have more time to work, but it’s definitely an unavoidable distraction from my creative process.
OCB: What is your relationship with color?
Zaria: My father is a neuro-ophthalmologist, and he recently checked my eyes for the first time in 20 years or so. A basic visual field test revealed that I have an unusually heightened foveal sensitivity, higher than my father had ever seen in his 30 years of practice. This basically means that I have a heightened sensitivity to minor shifts in light and color. It’s unknown whether this is a condition someone is born with, or if it’s like a muscle that one can develop over time. In any case, I thought it was an interesting thing to learn about myself and my relationship with color.
OCB: What is one thing about art you think people might not understand?
Zaria: If only viewing my Maldives drawings, it’s not immediately clear that they are about rising sea levels, unless the viewer knows that my work addresses climate change. I think people can still appreciate my work without knowing the meaning or purpose behind it, though.
OCB: If you could work on any art project (illustrating a book, developing a personal idea, doing some time-travel and working on an historical piece with an artist you admire or a contemporary collaboration) what might it be and why?
Zaria: I have a long list of low-lying island nations that I would love to visit and create works around. I also want to see the areas of Greenland I haven’t yet traveled to. I need to spend at least three weeks (ideally more) visiting a place I intend to render in my drawings. There are only so many months in one year, and of course I need time to actually make the work. I only hope that in my lifetime I’ll have the chance to draw every landscape I would like to draw.
OCB: How does your art reflect your personality?
Zaria: My mother always taught me to focus on the positive rather than the negative. That’s what I do in my work. I don’t want to shock viewers with images of destruction, because I think that can be paralyzing. I try to stay positive, to show the beauty of what is still here, and to emphasize the achievements we have to celebrate. I think that empowers people to take action and to feel like it is still possible to do something to protect this earth that sustains us.
OCB: I see that travel with your family as a child to remote landscapes and your mother’s photography influenced your drawings. What do you find similar (and different) about photography and your work?
Zaria: Pastel on paper is the medium through which I feel I can best convey the message behind my work. It has to do with the reactions viewers have once they realize it’s not a photo. It prompts them to move closer to the piece and look at its details, creating an intimate connection that might not have happened otherwise, had they simply kept their distance. This closeness is a side effect I hadn’t intended but makes sense for what I’m trying to do: immerse viewers in the details of these beautiful places so they can experience them personally and emotionally through my drawings.
OCB: What technique/media did you use to create “Greenland no. 52?”
Zaria: As I mentioned before, I work in pastels and the process for “Greenland no. 52” is the same for all of my pieces. The process of drawing with pastels is simple and straightforward: cut the paper, make the marks. The material demands a minimalistic approach, as there isn’t much room for error or re-working, since the paper’s tooth can hold only a few thin layers of pigment. I rarely use an eraser––I prefer to work with my “mistakes,” enjoying the challenge of resolving them with limited marks. I love the simplicity of the process, and it has taught me a great deal about letting go. I become easily lost in tiny details, and if the pastel and paper did not provide limitations, I fear I would never know when to stop, or when a composition were complete!
I first encountered Zaria in an article on National Geographic on how she was inspired by her mother’s photography of some of the most remote places on the planet. Check out the article and the video here. And be sure to visit Zaria’s website to learn more about her and her incredible paintings and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.