In a turn of small-world events, I first saw Zach Mory's drawings at ArtPrize 2014 in Grand Rapids, MI where he coincidentally exhibited in the same venue as my dad was in, just one room over! Fast forward a bit, and Mory, who is from Wisconsin and studied art in Madison, has been mastering drawing as a medium, emphasizing hand lettering and a recent interest in mask-making. I'm really into the inherent concept of identity built into masks, and Mory's distinctive drawing style adds a beautiful grotesqueness so them that pulls from numerous influences. Check out the great Q&A below!
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YS: So, a fellow Wisconsinite! Although you're currently living in Illinois, you're from Wisconsin and earned your MFA from UW-Madison with an emphasis in drawing a few years ago, and have been pursuing art and teaching since then. What first attracted you to drawing?
ZM: That’s a big question. I guess it starts off with comic books. My uncle, John Davis, owned a comic distribution company called Capital City Distribution in the 80’s. He would inundate me and my siblings with comic books and graphic novels every year at Christmas and we would devour them... we were probably reading a lot of stuff that young kids should not be reading, but that’s neither here nor there. I particularly remember loving the comics Nexus and The Badger, which are great comics with a Madison connection. He also gave us reprints of old EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and I used to practice drawing the characters and superheroes, just like so many other kids that grew up in the 80’s. That, along with my older brother’s voracious consumption of obscure movies, really formed my visual foundation and love of story-telling, which ironically is not present in a lot of my work.
Fast forward to high school… that’s where drawing itself really settled in as my preferred medium. It came out of necessity really. I was having a really strange, dark, psychedelic, emotional, and wonderful summer right before my senior year and I instinctively just picked up a pencil and started drawing with a frenzy. We had a class called Senior Studio at my school which was basically do whatever the fuck you want as long as you can turn that into a good show at the end of the year. It was the culminating class for artists at my school. I never took any of the prerequisites like painting and sculpture and all I could really do was draw. I asked to get let into the class regardless and the teacher, Mark Pflughoeft, was nice enough to let me in. I guess drawing was always about immediacy for me. I could make marks anywhere and on anything without having any particular skills other than a desire to make something.
The so-called "establishment," or at least art history, usually considers drawings to be preparatory for larger or more "complete" works. Do you ever run into any challenges because of your medium? Or perhaps you find it liberating?
Yes and yes. In the early days, I never really considered it too much. Drawing was what I did and that was that. Some people painted and I drew. To me they were, and are, on equal footing. To put it in context, I had a disastrous freshman year at UW-GB way back when and moved back to Madison. There I started taking life drawing with Bob Schultz MATC. That was life changing. Here was a guy who only draws, and draws beautifully might I add. I took five semesters with him and got a lot of confidence about my own desire to focus exclusively on drawing. Yet I think that decision had a cost as well.
I’ve found that being someone who draws has always left me feeling a bit like the odd man out. I was not a painter, so all of those fumes, colors, big studios, easels, and chemicals were foreign to me. I couldn’t even tell you how to stretch a canvas or mix oils. I wasn’t a sculptor, so I couldn’t make these huge, impressive objects. I wasn’t a print-maker, who I always considered to be the coolest of all artist groups. To me the print-makers were these super-human artist/technicians/collaborators with good taste in music who were involved in a very hip secret society of print exchanges all while drinking PBR. That just wasn't me, except for the good taste in music and love of beer, of course.
I was just some dude with a pencil or pen quietly scratching away in a coffeehouse. So in that sense, and in the fact that no colleges ever hire just a drawer in anything other than adjunct capacity, it is a bit lonely. I'm pretty sure that other artists who draw probably feel the same way on some level.
But it is also very liberating. Drawing is a direct line to the sub-conscious in a very pure way that you can’t rally reach with other mediums. At its most essential, the only barrier between my mind and the world is a very sharp piece of H graphite. I can plug into a drawing in a matter of seconds. There’s just me reacting to marks on a piece of paper. That’s pretty special.
What is your studio setup like? How much time do you spend on your own work during the day?
Currently I don’t have a studio, but truth be told I never really needed one. In reality, I’ve always been a vagabond of sorts. I like to draw at coffeehouses. I draw on my kitchen table, on big pieces of paper pinned to the wall wherever I can fit them, in my car, outside…basically anywhere. That being said, grad school was nice in that regard and those three years with a studio was heaven.
I draw daily, though now that I have two young daughters, I have to be a little creative about when to draw. I draw during my lunch break at work, I draw late at night and early in the morning. As much as I love to sleep, I wish there was a way I could not so that I could keep working. It is all a bit manic and compulsive I suppose.
The trouble with my work is that most of it takes a very long time. I work on pieces for tens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of hours. I’m pretty specific about the tools I use as well, so I use H or HB graphite pencils or .005, .001, and brush pens, which means that the mark-making process takes a very long time. Time is valuable to me and I literally have to draw daily or else nothing would get done. Currently I’m back-logged a good 20-30 projects/series in my head, so there’s no time like the present I guess.
You mention on your website that you initially began with figurative work and have moved into the abstract. What prompted that shift?
Yeah, so going back to my time with Bob Schultz, I was starting to get good at drawing from life. I mean, Bob is the master and I really wanted to have the same level of craft that he has. The problem with that is I’m a bit of an independent loner, so emulating Bob never felt genuine. I was learning his trade, but I didn’t know what to do with it for myself. It felt like I was making magic tricks to entertain people rather than making serious art. I’d show someone a drawing and they’d be wowed by how closely it resembled whatever it was I was drawing. That response was very nice for the ego, but it felt empty beyond that. In some ways, I was beginning to feel trapped by drawing, or at least by drawing in that particular vein. I started looking at art history much more seriously to find some footing and became interested by work that had lots of mark-making involved, like certain AbEx painters and minimalists, as well as automatic drawings from the early 20th century. When I transferred to UW-Madison, Pat Fennel, Richard Long, and Jack Damer were really influential in pushing me in new directions as an undergrad. I began exploring repetitive mark-making simply for the sake of mark-making. Then I added white chalk to my drawings and was able to create a sense of shallow depth on the picture-plane. These revelations “worked” and sent me off in a whole new direction which I felt was finally my own. It was all non-objective mark-making all the time moving forward, but instilled with the work ethic that Bob had taught me.
Can you tell me a bit about your process? Where do your ideas come from, and how do you get started on a piece?
I’m not a big sketcher. I like to just jump in and work, which I why I like to create systems to work from. I guess you could summarize my process by saying I have a long planning stage, where I establish a series of marks that are interesting, that I can build up on the page, and that allow some flexibility for change/evolution. It’s kind of like a hypothesis. If I use these marks and let them build on the page, what will happen? Once a system has been established, I just take off and stay with it until it feels exhausted. For much of my work, I don't try to make things, reference things, or even create images. More so, my work is about different permutations and mark-making combinations, at least with my more minimal drawings.
Lately though, images and shapes have been creeping back into my work, which is kind of refreshing.
Your masks are a relatively new project, but they share a style in common with earlier drawings. Why masks?
Masks have an ability to hide, but they also allow the person beneath to take on a new persona. Going further, masks can also reveal something deeper about the mask wearer whether it is because they feel liberated from their identity or because they take on the qualities of the mask. It is this interesting mix of hiding and exposing at the same time. These different layers all occurring simultaneously seemed ripe ground for exploration. This series of masks, entitled The Wastoid Void is about memories, or rather how I remember and imagine those memories some twenty years later and how I perceive that younger version of myself now. As we get older, it seems that memories are nothing more than cherry picked imaginings of how we want to perceive our past selves. Memories mingle with imagination and lo and behold a new persona is created, possibly completely different from reality. These masks were a reckoning of sorts with how I perceived myself to be in my late teens and early twenties. Those were pretty turbulent times in my life and I wanted to look in the mirror and pierce that bubble of personal mythology which I cling to.
What has been your most significant accomplishment or favorite moment so far as an artist?
This is tough. I remember getting some advice when I was young which I fully believe and also tell to all of my serious students: the art world has less to do with talent and much more to do with perseverance. Those who fight like hell to stay in the game and work harder than everyone else are the ones who make it. I guess I bring that up because I’ve found that for every success, award, exhibition, sold work, there are ten times as many failures and rejections. I try not to get too caught up in the accomplishments or the failures and focus on just creating and working as hard as I can. So I guess my favorite thing about being an artist is this: I get to live my life on my own terms and make the work that I want.
On the other hand, what do you find most challenging? How do you handle it?
Making the work is easy. Getting people to see your work is hard. I’m not a natural promoter, though I love to share my work, so getting my work in front of people has always been a bit spotty for me. Networking has always been difficult for me, so I've had to rely on exhibition calls and the like to get my work out there. That can be tiring, logistically difficult, and expensive. I remember I had some work shown in Italy two years ago and it was a nightmare getting the work there and back. Just the other day I had to take a vacation day to drop off work an hour and a half one way, then drive three hours the other way to pick up work from a show and then drive home. That’s just part of the game though. You handle it because you love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you could meet up with anyone for a cup of coffee and a chat, who would it be and what would you talk about?
My mom passed away when I was 13, so I would say her. I can’t really remember her voice or even imagine how she looks (aside from pictures of course), so being able to hear her and see her in a real light as opposed to what I remember of her would be great. I’d love to see what kind of a person she is outside of the built up persona as “mom” which I’ve attached to her in my mind. I’d like to see her mannerisms, how she holds a cup of coffee, listen to the pacing and phrasing of how she tells a story, hear her laugh, maybe even hear her yell at me just so I could have a better frame of how she was as a human being and not just an idea.
Wow, this is starting to sound like an Ingmar Bergman film now. Best to move on to the next question.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions/projects?
I’ll be showing my work this February at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison for the “Let’s Draw” exhibition and I’ll be having a solo show at the Bubbler in August of next year as well. Aside from that, I have a whole separate design practice under the moniker of Denfather that I’m launching. You can follow that @denfather on Instagram and follow my art @zdmory as well.
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Find more at zachmory.com!