6 WEEKS // OAKLAND, CA, LOS ANGELES, CA, & GREENSBORO, NC
Originally from Northampton, Massachusetts, Zoe Sasson migrated to North Carolina eleven years ago to major in Painting at Guilford College in Greensboro. Since earning her undergraduate degree, she has worked as an independent artist and teacher and has pursued various educational and professional opportunities, from studying at the Painting & Sculpture Intensives at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, to working as a Teaching Artist Intern at Penland School of Crafts, in Penland, NC. Zoe is currently an MFA candidate and a graduate teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
Follow Zoe at www.instagram.com/zoesasson
A California Adventure:
Reinterpreting Spaces in Digital Media
The trip began as any new artistic adventure might, with a few travel arrangements, a couple of artist studio visits arranged, a digital camera and laptop in tow--and, oh yeah--a wedding to attend in the midst of it all. Maybe this wasn’t the typical art project. And maybe it was for the best that I didn’t have grand expectations about what was in front of me.
What I knew that I wanted (and needed ) to accomplish on this trip was to first compile a digital archive, using my old DSLR and my macbook. I started in Oakland/ San Francisco and later finished my travels in Los Angeles. Two weeks after starting, I returned to my home and studio in Greensboro, North Carolina to finish my work.
The first image is of the illuminated sign that awaited me when I greeted my family friends, Greg and Tina, in their beautiful home in Oakland. My second time as a guest there, it had been 6 years since I had experienced their idyllic domestic space. From Tina’s dreamy kitchen, to the wrap-around porch surrounded by eucalyptus trees and foraging wild turkeys, to Greg and Tina’s treasures hidden in every nook and cranny, in the house and outside of it. Glass bottles, tiny pots, wooden spoons, bags of biscotti, paintings, sunflowers. Let’s not forget that Greg and Tina are easily the best part of the entire experience. The illuminated sign was just the icing on the cake during my perfect stay in Oakland.
I am not a photographer. I am a painter. This means that I look for compositions that give me the immediate, spontaneous thrill that I also seek in my painting materials. When I take photographs, I often look for images of comfort and beauty, sometimes found in unexpected places. Domestic scenes like these are not only representative of the people who live in this house, but also of the life and personality that the objects themselves take on. When Greg and Tina are not at home, it seems that their dynamic house continues to thrive. It continues to tell stories of the many treasures that have been found and created there. The sounds and smells waft in and out of the open windows, wrapping me in the chilly California air, surrounding me with the tempting sensations of nature. It is not an exaggeration to say that this house feels sacred. It was the perfect place to begin my trip, and I left this house with a very heavy heart after one week.
Everything that came next influences me in ways that I could have never expected. The streets of Oakland and San Francisco were intoxicating. Greg and Tina’s house entranced me like a siren call, and I never wanted to leave. I met artists in the area who helped me to better understand the art scene--A growing, thriving, and incredibly supportive community. And painters! So many painters!
What a total delight of a person and an artist. Marlene was introduced to me over email by one of her mentees, my friend, who also used to live in Oakland. Marlene used to teach art at San Jose State, and since retiring, has been enjoying the extra time to paint in her incredible Oakland space. From her beautiful blue kitchen, to her pristine white studio, I love everything about Marlene’s home.
We first went to her studio to discuss the paintings. I took in her palette of bubble gum pinks, cadmium reds, and cobalt blues. Her milky whites seem to veil previous marks. As Marlene describes in her own words, this is “an attempt to negate what is underneath, but it fails at that and instead results in a hybrid mark.”
This evolution of mark is clearly something she’s interested in, as she explains that the concept of each painting comes later in the process. As I understand in my own work, materials can be unpredictable, and they constantly reveal themselves in new ways as you paint. It is refreshing to hear such a familiar strategy from an abstract painter who is endlessly curious throughout her production, as she explores her painterly universe.
Marlene says that many of her paintings begin as landscapes, though without a direct reference. I tell her that I interpret some as lone subjects that feel curiously lonely. There is a romance, a playfulness, and sometimes a violence in these paintings. Destruction must happen in order for Marlene to birth newness, or a “hybrid mark” in between.
Photographing Marlene’s studio and her sumptuous paintings felt like discovering treasure. Marlene Aneja is a treasure. Do yourself a favor and enjoy her body of work, her statement, and more at http://marleneangeja.com.
SAN FRAN AND AN EVOLUTION OF MARK
San Francisco! So much to see and so little time. Since I was staying in Oakland, I ventured into San Fran on two separate occasions. During my first adventure, I took the opportunity to mostly walk, get lost, and to very slowly experience the little details of the city.
I spent a lot of time in Mission District because...Why wouldn’t I? Mission still feels a little gritty compared to other parts of the city, which gives it more color, texture, and character. It made for the perfect subject for my project.
What I enjoy about the scenery of San Francisco are the bursts of life that come from unexpected places. This is not unusual for urban spaces. Since I grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts, urban life still surprises me. I think what strikes me most is the combination of sensations that I get when walking down the street. Colors, marks, smells, and languages. There are people, children, dogs, squirrels, and any number of birds. I even saw a parrot outside of a tienda. Did I say colors? Yes! California offers so many colors everywhere, I could shout for joy. Violets, pinks, reds, oranges… It’s a painter’s dream. These bright colors are set against stained concrete and metal fences. Most of the streets and buildings feel worn; You could not wipe these sidewalks clean if you tried. And why would you want to? On every wall surface, too, one can discover mural painted on top of mural, coated in graffiti. One can find visual information that has probably been there for decades. It is a fantastic visual archive left by the residents of San Francisco.
I was reminded of Marlene Aneja’s concept of the hybrid mark, as the city weaves old and new information together into something never-before-created. Plants grow over graffiti marks, and unusual paint swatches get layered over older marks, as if they are trying to conceal a truth or reinvent a reality.
Other highlights from my wanderings in San Francisco include (of course) eating the food, meeting new people, and riding the bus all over the city. Bus rides gave me the chance to reflect on all of the imagery and the various sensations that I had just consumed.
Linda Geary and Yarrow Slaps
My second studio visit was not a studio visit at all. I had communicated with Oakland artist and CCA professor, Linda Geary over email before arriving in Oakland. As it turned out, I had the opportunity to actually meet her at her art opening at the gallery, Right Window. It was a real treat to see the work in person, especially in the odd and intimate space, flooded with Geary’s friends and fans.
Her work, like Aneja’s, reflects the quirks and sensational oddities of the city. Metallic silver paint bounces off of non-rectangular panels that don’t quite fit together but that also, strangely, complete each other. My favorite part of the show was her display of painted swatches that took over the window display in a splendid composition of colors.
An honorable mention must also be given to artist Yarrow Slaps, who I was fortunate enough to meet on my adventure. Linda Geary recommend his show, which was held at state art and exhibition space. His paintings are incredibly observant portraits of his San Franciscan life. They sometimes feel intensely emotional and often very humorous. Painting anything from basketball courts to plates of dessert, I thoroughly enjoyed the show, as much as I enjoyed meeting the gracious artist.
See http://www.lindageary.com/ and http://www.yarrowslapsart.com/
WHAT LIES BEYOND THE CITY
Urban scenarios excite me, however, I will always prefer observing landscapes over urbanscapes. This project was intentionally not focused on the Redwood forests or the sea cliffs of the Headlands. But it was a bonus for me to be able to explore that territory while staying in Oakland--and explore I did. I know that I can never truly escape my inclination to adventure and lose myself in nature.
On one such exploration, I ventured to Headlands Center for the Arts. The artist residency was in between sessions, so I decided to see the surrounding area and take a long hike. To my surprise, my hike ended at the Black Sands Beach. A much greater surprise was to also realize that there were at least five whales off of the beach, feeding on a large school of fish, I presume. I watched from on top of the cliff, overlooking the beach, which was one of the most joyous experiences of my entire life.
After attending a friend’s wedding in Mill Valley, hiking in Muir Woods, and eating so much fantastic food, it was time to continue to the next stage of my project. As I said previously, it was difficult to leave the Bay.
ONWARDS, TO LOS ANGELES
I apologize for making this photographic essay so chronological. This is the only way I know how to make sense of this experience!
LA was a whirlwind for a couple of reasons. For one, most of LA life is spent in a car, driving or parking. It is also generally more fast paced than San Francisco. That being said, the culture of LA is RICH. There is so much to do and see, especially in regards to art. My list of art excursions included galleries Blum and Poe, Susanne Vielmetter, Philip Martin, David Kordansky, and Hauser & Wirth. I also was also fortunate enough to go to LACMA and to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum to see a Jasper Johns retrospective. Seeing Jasper Johns’ work was one of the major highlights of my time in LA. I won’t share any Jasper Johns photos here because I don’t think that my camera could ever capture the effect of his work. See more information here: https://www.thebroad.org/art/special-exhibitions/jasper-johns-something-resembling-truth
During this next part of the trip, I nervously drove a rental car for part of the time, still with my digital camera in tow. In some ways, the streets of LA are quite similar to San Fran, especially around my brother’s neighborhood in East Hollywood, where I was staying for part of the time. Colorful signs, tiles, doors, and other urban landmarks are scattered throughout the neighborhoods I walked through. Also like Oakland and San Francisco, gentrification makes its marks in the form of brunch spots, boutiques, and overpriced restaurants that advertised “activated charcoal pizza crust.”
Besides the new trends, LA still has plenty of charms. It similarly offers a great diversity of marks and textures that I was eager to capture on my camera. All kinds of trinkets, paint, and plant life crowd the city. It is curious how deliberately placed objects felt clumsy and mismatched. Things are left partially painted and plants are left wild and unmanicured.
CLOSING THOUGHTS, BEFORE HEADING HOME
My photo archive from these travels is a prized possession that will continue to drive my work. With subjects ranging from plants, to architecture, to patterns and shadows on the sidewalk, to graffiti, to mountains-- I honestly believe that the most important physical element from these photos is the observed light and color. Color always drives my paintings. Color carries a character and a history and it allows me to interpret my found objects in any way I desire. Color transfixes me and allows me to escape into fantasy.
Besides color, something that drove me in these photographic archives was the everyday grime found in such urban settings. I was so curious about these places that had been traveled so much and that carry all kinds of debris and waste, sometimes hideous to behold, but also sometimes very seductive in their display of color, light, and pattern.
The camera gave me the excuse to stop and look at every turn. This exercise of intensive looking was the most satisfying part of my journey. It also provided me with reliable visual materials--both the physical representations and my clear memories of each place. I have a tremendous wealth of materials to use while back in my studio in North Carolina.
Which brings me back to Greensboro, NC…
MY DIGITAL UNIVERSE, EXPANDING AND MESMERIZING...
Back at UNC Greensboro, a lot my work has been computer-based. With the program, Sketchbook, I choose photos that have the potential to be manipulated and layered with other photographs, textures, and patterns. The result is a series of several digital paintings and collages that are playful and fantastical, and at times, psychedelic. Working with the equipment on UNCG campus, I ordered a roll of paper that prints beautifully, with vibrant, heavy, and matte prints. The prints are then painted on, cut into, and collaged.
In the past weeks, the studio has often appeared in total disarray (this is how it usually suits me!). Besides the photographic prints, I try to not have much hierarchy of materials in my space. Oil paint, acrylic paint, spray paint, and drawing mediums all compliment a combination of prints, papers, and canvas. I am especially fond of a couple souvenirs from my trip: a unique floral fabric, and a couple swatches of old wallpaper. These also find their way into new compositions in my studio.
What I could not have expected was how much freedom, play, and experimentation I would bring back from California. Perhaps it was the change of pace, the change of scenery, or both, but I am attempting moves in my paintings and collages that I would never have attempted prior.
I also cannot ignore how influential the digital aspect of the work has been, and I question this constantly. I first approached this project because I knew there was an itch I needed to scratch. I was (and am) curious about my love/ hate relationship with technology. It has prohibited my imagination in many ways over the years. It has distracted me and distanced me as an individual. As a society, we are addicted to a constant stream of pleasure, fed to us on laptops, tablets, smart phones, and televisions. Growing up watching more television than reading books, my brain is a unique makeup of brightly-colored, fast-paced images that help me to forget present horrors and convince me of another universe that is far more tolerable (and much more entertaining). I recognize that there is a dangerous line that I must walk, to find a nuanced version of this digital world that helps me to better understand my interpretations of the present, while not falling completely under the spell of its enchantments.
This project has helped me to sink further into these questions and has formed several more. While experiencing the surroundings of California, I still behaved as a painter and not a photographer. I captured images based on color and texture and transformed these images with several painterly tools. I am thus not only translating but also enhancing this archive of digital materials, which is a thrilling endeavor. The California archive and all of its visual information begs to be investigated over and over again within the new universe that I am creating.