Take These Words Pulled From Me Tied To You
watercolor pencil on paper
ZELEZNAK’s precisely rendered wild animals hover, float, cavort and
caress in empty white fields, surrounded by angular, geodesic line
drawings that represent energetic halos, communication and connection
with the unseen forces of the universe. For her, wolves, deer, hares and
foxes—to name just a few of her subjects—are not just stand-ins for
humans. They are a “medium for the expression of the self, yet they
retain their own autonomy,” emphasizing a shared experience of being
between humans and other animals. JenMarie received her MFA from the
Savannah College of Art and Design and her BFA from Cleveland Institute
of Art. In 2015, her work was acquired by the National Museum of Wildlife Art for their permanent collection. JenMarie is represented by Diehl Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming and Søren Christensen Gallery in New Orleans, and Visions West Contemporary
in Denver, Colorado, where she will have her gallery debut in
BOUNDLESS, opening on October 7, 2016. She teaches at Lakeland Community
College and Youngstown State University. JenMarie currently lives and
works at the Tower Press Building in Cleveland, Ohio.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Looking back at your archive of work, I see a trajectory of moving from
expressionistic abstraction—I was completely mistaken (2007) and this is
only a temporary solution (2006)—to hazy, atmospheric landscapes—Remove Me From This Deception That I Called Love and Awaiting The
Burden Of Loss, both 2007— to your newer, more precisely rendered
drawings and paintings of animals in empty space. These bodies of work
look very different, but every piece seems to be an emotional metaphor.
Please walk us through the shifts in style and content you use to
explore our emotional worlds.
JenMarie Zeleznak: As an
undergrad at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I struggled with drawing.
When I began in 2004, they were shifting from their traditional program
to something more theoretical and conceptually-based. From my
perspective, the emphasis on traditional drawing and painting techniques
got lost in that transition. At least I felt the effects of that. As a
painting major with terrible drawing skills, I was exploring what came
intuitively to me in regards to expression. With focus on process rather
than image, I explored color and atmosphere in a way that allowed me to
release inward expressions. These expressions tended to revolve around
themes of loss, death, withdrawal and melancholy, as that was my state
of mind at the time.
But after a few years, I felt burdened by
the fact that I could not draw. Nothing came out how I imagined it,
which was disappointing and unsatisfying. I wanted to explore another
visual language that included representations of actual things. I am not
sure where this desire for imagery came from, but I began to explore
other subject matter like boxes that resembled graves or coffins,
string-like forms that were metaphors for broken connections and
animals. I remember a conversation with one of my professors during a
studio visit in 2008. She asked me, if I had to chose between the boxes
and other imagery or the animals, what would I choose? My answer was,
well duh, of course the animals. I never looked back.
Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt
watercolor pencil on paper
OPP: So you started as a painter, but now drawing dominates your practice. How did you finally tackle drawing as a medium?
I never really addressed my drawing problems until grad school. I had
always considered myself a painter, not a drawer. My sketchbook was
filled with words and poetry, not sketches. I absolutely refused to
draw. I despised it. When I decided to apply to grad school, I found
myself getting rejection after rejection—extremely disappointing
considering I had just completed 5 years of art school. As a last hope I
applied to Savannah College of Art and Design. I was accepted but with
conditions. I had to take “remedial” drawing and painting before I was
accepted into the program. I was completely baffled by this and tried to
appeal it twice with no success. Little did I know, those two
“remedial” courses would change my world. I met two of the most amazing
professors that spoke to me in a way that I could understand; they
understood my needs in a way that was almost unspoken. They were
challenging, yet encouraging and supportive. I learned more about
drawing and painting in a semester than I did my five years in
undergrad. I found myself trading in the oil paints and canvas for
watercolor pencils and paper.
OPP: What has changed since grad school?
In grad school, I became more aware of the decisions I was making to
ultimately convey meaning. I noticed I had seemed to set up some strict
“rules” for myself: the animal has to be approximately to scale, for
relatability, which dictates the dimensions of the piece, and I only
draw animals I have had a personal experience or connection with.
Throughout my work, I do not desire to depict the natural world. When I
take the animals out of their original contexts and into a blank space,
it suggests an emotional, inward space of the mind—a space between
thinking and being.
I spent a lot of time alone and isolated in grad school when I created Lovesick: The Psychological Animal
body of work. My depictions of animals during that time tend to reflect
my isolation and longing for connection. I actually struggled to create
work for quite some time after grad school. My mental and emotional
state had changed and my perspective on the world was changed as well. I
spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and writing between 2012 and
2014. I knew I wanted my work to have a more “positive” feeling but I
didn’t know what that looked like. I experienced a spiritual awakening
in 2013 that changed my perception of the world around me. I became
heavily interested in astronomy, science, spirituality and nature. I
spent a lot of time looking up at the sky on a clear night. I found
myself lost in the stars. I began to feel energy and almost see it
manifested within the interactions of everything around me. I felt so
deeply connected to everything. The Universe became my source of love,
protection and guidance. I had no doubts. Around this time, my work
shifted direction and the geometric shapes in various formations, which I
refer to as star maps, appeared.
I Never Said I Was Brave, No. 2
watercolor pencil on paper
OPP: I was going to ask about those angular, line drawings.
They make me think of 3D rendering programs or geodesic structures, and
they read differently in different drawings. Some times they seems like
energetic halos, as in These Dialogue Stars, No. 2 (2016); sometimes they seem like communication, language or sound, as in Talking to the Moon, Trying to Get to You (2013). How do they relate to the animals?
I appreciate your understanding that. They are connections of stars
from NASA imagery. Obviously there are an infinite number of stars in an
isolated image of the Universe. I try and not think too hard about what
visible stars I will connect but try to place as many “dots” as I can
in a random way. I then spend time copying those dots and connecting
them in certain ways based on the animal gesture and imagery. Usually
when I begin a drawing, I have a general sense of the placement of the
star map, but that can change as I go along.
The animals in my
drawings find themselves in introspective emotional and spiritual
situations. The star maps serve as a visual for the invisible energy
that is felt, but not seen by the animal subject. However, we as viewers
are witness to both. We are onlookers of someone else experiencing
something deeply or going through an emotional moment. We can see how
the energy affects them. Maybe it is protecting them, or it is a
fleeting moment of clarity. Perhaps they are experiencing desire or lack
of desire, or they are experiencing unreciprocated feelings in a
romantic relationship. Sometimes they are feeling trapped and fighting
themselves, or maybe they are simply calling out in a surrender, to
connect with something larger than themselves. . . calling out for help,
The Ends of These Reaching Arms Need the Touch of Something Real
OPP: Tell us a bit about your drawing process.
There is a disconnect for me when using a paintbrush. The pencil and
paper are much more satisfying and intimate, although drawing does still
make me feel awkward, incapable and embarrassed at times. I feel much
more vulnerable and exposed when drawing. When I begin, anxious
scribbles and neurotic mark-making hastily fill in the animal form. I
work with watercolor pencils in a manner both sensitive and crude, using
my saliva and sweat, hands and fingers, to manipulate the material onto
paper. This personal and direct connection, much like caressing or
grooming an animal, gives me the intimacy I need in the work as I bring
in the animal into being.
This process was essentially
discovered by accident; little did I know it would become so crucial to
my process. I sat down to play around with the watercolor pencils and
realized I didn’t have water or a brush in my vicinity. Too lazy to get
up, I just smeared it around with the lick of my finger pushing around
the pigment on the paper. When I finally had a brush and water, it was
not the same thing, nor did it create the same effect. It was sort of
embarrassing, and I was very secretive about my process for quite some
time. I never really wanted anyone to know how my drawings were made.
Once I began to understand how important it was to my process and
feelings about my subjects, I started to understand there was nothing to
be ashamed of, in fact, it makes my work quite unique in that way.
I Was Swimming Through The Waves, For What Must Have Been Days
watercolor pencil on paper
Your titles are very poetic and they contextualize the imagery or
abstraction as relating to inner experiences of the outer world. You
even reuse titles. When do titles show up in your process?
My titles are very important to me. Generally they are generated at the
end after the piece is completed, though I may have some ideas in mind
beforehand. I have reused a few titles from many years ago, as I still
feel connected to the words in the same way even though the form is
different. Lately, I find that the same feeling is often extended over
multiple pieces, telling an evolving story. While I am not really a fan
of the whole “No. 1, No. 2, No. 3” thing in titles, I often find myself
creating a new work that is almost a continuation of the previous piece.
I’m not one to just not title something or hardly give a title any
thought. It could take days or weeks after finishing a piece to think of
a title. I choose my words carefully and make sure they help
contextualize the work for the viewer. I’ll repeat the titles in my head
over days and glance over at the piece waiting for it to tell me, “yes,
that’s it, that’s the one.” When it’s the right one, even if it means
reusing titles, it just clicks and there’s no doubt in my mind about it.
I just have to go with it.
Trying To Get Back There, No. 3
watercolor pencil on paper
OPP: Can you talk about twining and/or pairing in your work?
I understand my works as self-portraits. The imagery, when in pairs,
generally speaks to confronting the self. Internal struggle is like a
battle in my own head. But just as often, I think about social and
romantic relationships when I pair animals. I desire love, attention,
intimacy and affection from another and my life is pretty void of that.
Intimacy is hard and scary—at least in my recent experiences. Some of my
animals seem as though they are being rejected or have lost a
connection or their feelings are left unreciprocated, though I never
intentionally anthropomorphize them.
I never work from a direct
source where two animals are already together. What interests me is
combining two animals from different source material into a new image as
if they were that way all along. It is crucial that I do not alter
their expressions or gestures, so it usually takes some time to find the
right pair to speak to one another. They may appear to be “twins,” but
they have slight and subtle differences that make them unique. I enjoy
that ambiguity. Each work can be about the self and the other or about
the self and the self.
I Can Hear It In Your Sigh
watercolor pencil on paper
OPP: Using animals to explore our emotional needs as
humans in relationship, whether romantic, platonic or familial, is a
reminder that we are in fact animals. Our emotional needs are
biological. . . part of our animal brains. But our culture often
emphasizes our separateness, our superiority to animals. Why do you
think this is?
JZ: Humans have created an artificial
boundary between ourselves and other animals. The unique capacity of the
human mind is one of the few things that separates us from other
animals. This is the conceptual foundation upon which evolution has been
built. We have created the illusion of control through mental concepts,
embedding in the human mind that animals have no control over their own
lives or minds. We have imposed so many thoughts and concepts onto the
animal that there seems to be no way of viewing the animal as purely
autonomous. Through eons of exploitation and misunderstanding, there is
an inability to accept their condition of existence as similar to our
Humans have to “transform” an animal into a human being in
order to attempt to understand the other. Otherwise, it just remains
entirely other. We attach our own consciousness to animals and
auto-affectedly respond with human emotions towards them, treating them
as though they were capable of response. This is essentially an act of
anthropomorphism, which perpetuates a satisfying relationship with those
we desire to know but are not able to understand.
It's Almost Like We've Died Entwined In That Way We Are
watercolor pencil on paper
OPP: How do you avoid the pitfall of anthropomorphizing your subjects?
Though my depictions of animals might appear personified, I’m strictly
interested in honoring actual gestures and expressions as they are
documented, so as to maintain the authenticity of the animal’s condition
of being. It is extremely important to me that I do not alter the
gestures or expressions of my source material. I proclaim the animals as
autonomous and self-referential, but also as an emblem of the human
As Derrida once said, “We are not ourselves without
representations that mediate us, and it is through those representations
that emotions get felt.” The animal is the medium through which I
attempt to articulate and reflect on my own experiences. The intimacy
and empathetic nature of my process speaks to my fidelity towards the
animal as emotive and autonomous, just as my fidelity towards the
expression of my emotions and personal experiences speaks to the human
condition. I believe it is in that duality that there is room to think
about psychological and social issues concerning both the human and the
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis.
When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in
cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is
an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006,
and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian,
Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive
installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work is on view in
SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition from September 16 - 29, 2016.