Deborah Zlotsky is an Associate Professor at RISD, and paints in a studio attached to her garage in upstate New York. She chats about the roles of intention and chance in her work, and balancing a practice and full-time job with, well, life!
Tell me a little bit about you!
I grew up and went to school in Connecticut. At Yale, I studied American studies and art history, and I received my MFA in painting and drawing at the University of Connecticut. Over the years, I’ve lived in Albuquerque, Pittsburgh, and Cedar Falls, Iowa, but I now live in upstate New York outside of Albany and teach as an Associate Professor in the Experimental and Foundation Studies division at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. I’ve been teaching full-time since 1989.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
Right after college, I started graduate school in an American art history program at the University of New Mexico. New Mexico was a revelation. I was finally living on my own in an unfamiliar and beautiful place, but on the first day of school, I realized I had made a huge blunder. I couldn't begin to imagine a life as an art historian, despite my training and interest in art history and the American experience. I could, however, imagine painting and drawing, something I had continued to do after taking an undergraduate painting class.
I definitely relate to your "blunder" in studying art history initially as an eye-opener that pushed you in a different direction. Have you experienced other moments like this in your artistic pursuits that helped to clear the path to what you actually wanted to focus on?
Nothing since then has cleared a path so dramatically. Mostly my thinking/making process is incremental, with tiny steps moving toward something new or slightly away from how I’m currently working.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
Here's a recent short statement: I’m interested in how a cycle of construction, accumulation, rupture, and repair creates a system. As I work, I follow detours and choose contingencies within a syntax of stripes, planes, paint drips, abrasions, and stains, and trompe l’oeil supports that act like small prosthetics within the pictorial space. Each painting materializes out of a friction between intention and coincidence, much like the daily processing and deciphering required to be in the world.
What is your process like?
The research process consists of scores of thumbnail sketches over a long period of time as well as processing a pretty catholic collection of readings on history, etymology, cognition, behavior, culture, development, health, and psychology. I do a lot of experimenting with materials, references, visual languages and color to understand what’s possible. And I look at contemporary work and works from the past.
I work on 3-6 paintings at a time for the usual reasons of following similar rules for all, or needing a dry surface to proceed, or figuring out a way into a difficult passage in one painting by working things out in another painting. My process requires getting stuck and finding a way around or through. With a long and accommodating process, the paintings can get complicated, and can retain, to a certain degree, some of the ways they got complicated.
Describe your studio.
I have a 16’ x 20’ studio attached to the garage (about the size of a small garage) that was added onto the actual garage 2 years ago. It’s my first real studio as I’ve always worked in a bedroom. In the studio, there’s a big window that looks out into the back yard, which is dense with evergreens that block my neighbors. I pretend I’m at Yaddo, looking out into a wooded glen, even though I live in a bland-looking suburban neighborhood of small houses from the 1960s that we moved to in order for our son to go to an OK public school.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
Having enough time to work in the studio, with the time needed for a full time job, child, and partner plus all the time-consuming, everyday processing time for car, yard, dog, home, keeping up with emails and Instagram, etc.
What are three words you would use to describe your work?
Abstraction, contingency, processing
What do you do when you find yourself in a creative rut?
Perhaps because I never feel like I have enough time and perhaps because I teach and am engaged in helping students learn how to innovate, I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced this. I’m always frustrated by my lack of time and my list of new ways to experiment.
What do you love most about your medium? What challenges or surprises you most about it?
I love the flexibility and richness of paint, charcoal and graphite. With painting and drawing the noun is the verb: the act is the outcome, the process is the product, as indicated by the words themselves. Since I’m more of a visual thinker than a concluder, working in ways that allow me to actively search, all the way to the end of the process and even perhaps leave the evidence of that search in the painting or drawing, makes sense Drawing is even more open-ended as the drawing/drawing of the verb/noun isn’t tied to a specific medium like painting/painting is. There’s an immediacy, openness and graciousness to drawing that I seek out.
What keeps you creating?
I think I have some sort of neural gravitation to creating. It’s a cliché, but when I create, I feel most human, purposeful, alive, and part of the world.
What are you working on right now?
New paintings based on the colors of the comics I read growing up, some sewn vintage scarf experiments, and a variety of drawings and collages.
Is there a significance to the comics?
During my childhood, I read a lot. Actually consume is a better verb to describe it. There were a lot of lonely hours in the day for a young person growing up in the 60s and 70s and being in a constant state of story immersion with a comic book, Mad magazine, literary novel, short story, or best seller was a rewarding and effective way to escape boredom and isolation. What I read shaped my inner world in that powerful way early experiences do. DC comics and Mad magazines burned a permanent visual memory and the color has stayed with me.
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