OtherPeoplesPIxels Interviews JenMarie Zeleznak

Take These Words Pulled From Me Tied To You
watercolor pencil on paper

JENMARIE 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?

JZ: 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?

JZ: 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?

JZ: 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, for anyone.

The Ends of These Reaching Arms Need the Touch of Something Real

OPP: Tell us a bit about your drawing process.

JZ: 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

OPP: 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? 

JZ: 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?

JZ: 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 own.

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?

JZ: 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 condition.

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 animal.

To see more of JenMarie's work, please visit jenmariezeleznak.com.

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.