Constant Cravings, 2012, Transformations series

Constant Cravings, 2012, Transformations series


By Leslie Fandrich // Theme: Layers, Meaning // Category: Creative People
 

Lisa Zukowski is just trying to be heard. For her, art is communication. If she elicits a response, either positive or negative, she is pleased.

I first met Lisa during the Open Studio Tour last Fall. When I walked into her space I was in awe, not only of the work that I saw, hanging from the ceiling, covering all the walls and stacked in piles, but also of where it was made. Her studio is a dream space. It's huge (even though she says, "Not big enough, never big enough!") and she has separate areas for painting and printmaking. There are old letterpress machines and wooden type sets. Stacks of vintage photographs, cigar boxes and random pieces of plastic. There is a tool area, a computer area and a bathroom completely decked out with religious objects and iconography. It's conveniently located right next to her home and she can work out there any time of the day or night without disturbing anyone. It's pretty much art heaven.

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Besides her enviable space, her work is simple gorgeous. There are subtle colors playing off each other. There are textures and 3D surfaces. Pieces range from huge to very tiny. There are letters, numbers and layers and layers of wax and paint. Certain pieces move and others are frozen in time. To look at them is obviously pleasurable, but what took me a moment to realize was the depth and emotion that each piece contains. It's almost as if Lisa somehow captures her very soul, makes it into a physical substance and pours it into her work to mingle with everything else. If her work could talk, it would reveal her secrets, I'm sure.

I like to make interactive (viewer participative ) work. I like to make work that is either very big or very small. I like abstraction, hidden layers, secrets. I like work that has multiple meanings, and in which the underlying meaning is not always apparent.

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Her work has been growing and building on itself for years, and the work she is making now is as complex as anything that you take apart and rebuild over and over again. 

Unravelling the themes and issues wrapped up in these pieces isn't easy. There isn't a linear story that she is trying to tell, but she is playing with change/transformation, decay/lost identity and ritual/cleansing/healing. The last few years have been tumultuous for Lisa, her father died, her husband retired after a coronary bypass and she has lost significant weight. These are big, major events in her life and I believe she processes her feelings surrounding them through her art. 

Lisa prefers to work within the constraint of a series and she has four that she was recently showing: Nexus, Transformations, Clootie and Beneath the Surface. Out of the four, Lisa feels that the Clootie series is one of her most successful and it was the first time that she really put herself in her work. It's the series in which she feels she is the most "naked".

Tobar Casherick, 4'x4', dyed gut, 2010

Tobar Casherick, 4'x4', dyed gut, 2010

Clootie Dance I,  6"x6", fabric/wax/pigment, 2010

Clootie Dance I,  6"x6", fabric/wax/pigment, 2010

Clootie Dance II,  6"x6", fabric/wax/pigment, 2010

Clootie Dance II,  6"x6", fabric/wax/pigment, 2010

Lisa drew inspiration from ancient Celtic places in Scotland and Ireland called Clootie Wells. Strips of cloth are dipped into water by visitors and then tied to a nearby tree. It is a way to heal or cleanse oneself. In 2010, for a show at the Beacon Artist Union, Lisa created an interactive art installation called Clootie Wall in which visitors took a piece of cloth, wrote their wishes on it with a marker and tied the cloth to the wall. It is now 16 feet long and a 4 foot section was created in Berlin in 2012. Lisa has also created encaustic works that reference the Clootie Wall, trapping cloth in wax and transforming it. The cloth she used came from clothes that didn't fit her anymore after she lost weight.

   Clootie Wall, 2010

   Clootie Wall, 2010

Clootie started out as an interactive installation, but then morphed into a series of paintings, then paper pieces, then prints and textile based works.  And I am still making work that references that piece in some way. I think it tapped into something primal for me. I often wondered how an artist, for example Rothko, could spend years making work that was so closely related, so similar one piece to the next.  How is it they didn’t get bored?  Did they only have the one idea, or did they choose to make that same thing over and over because it sold well? Clootie was the first piece I made that had “legs”, that I could foresee years of works based on or derived from the original piece.  It was quite an epiphany for me.
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Lisa's Transformations series is similar to Clootie in many ways, but these pieces are more monochromatic and seem to be lighter in both color and also in the emotional weight they seem to carry. They are more hopeful. There is movement in the pieces that are made of paper and a key component is the process in which they are made. Lisa is literally transforming her materials into beautiful textures and compositions and by doing so she is also transforming herself.

Milady, 2012

Milady, 2012

In Shreds, 2010

In Shreds, 2010

Ragtime III, 2012

Ragtime III, 2012

From her 2012 exhibition at Bau: "Lisa Zukowski’s new series, Transformations is a natural outgrowth of her well-received interactive Clootie installation exhibited last year at Bau and this year in Berlin, Germany. Zukowski continues the theme of shredding, cutting, compartmentalizing and shedding the past. “Transformations” echoes and expands on the use of repetition of action, wrapping, painting, concealing and celebrating the humblest of materials, old clothing, burlap coffee bean bags, paper, and wax. In an attempt to quiet the inner demons, Zukowski employs a quiet and calming palate of creams and graphite."

Ragtime II, 2012, Transformations series

Ragtime II, 2012, Transformations series

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Lisa works in a wide range of materials and her favorites change constantly. She says she has ADD of media. It serves her well though and despite the differences in how she produces her work, there are very clear threads that run through everything and tie it all together.

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← Watch a video about Lisa's work.


I will be seduced by paint, by wax, by paper, anything really, and for a time it becomes my primary medium. But that only lasts for a while, and then is replaced by the next new love. I don’t abandon the old loves – I just pay more attention to the new ones. It is transitory and cyclical.

Lisa is constantly exploring new ideas and materials. She enjoys the challenge of mastering something new and these changes are critical to her work. As her life and experiences change, so do her ideas, interests and the intent of the work. 

Currently Lisa is taking a sabbatical from showing her work and being involved in the local artist run galleries (like Bau and Gallery 66) that she has been part of for the last eight years. She feels it's time to press pause, review her past work and figure out where she is going next. I get the sense that Lisa is on the verge of a big leap and that she is ready to take things to the next level. I can't even imagine what that might be, but I know that when she emerges from her studio, I want to be there to see what she has made.

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Lisa is a maker. She is never done making art. It's a life-long commitment and even when she isn't physically making work with her hands, she is still mentally making.

Her secret is that she doesn't have a secret. To make art she says you must have a foundation in materials and methods, a smattering of art history knowledge, an idea of what you are trying to say and a willingness to risk what is required. She says, "Don't be safe. Put it all out there and go where it makes you uncomfortable to go. Why bother if you aren't going to go all the way?"

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Her advice when you sit down to make your art is to ensure that you will not be interrupted and that you focus. You don't necessarily need to be alone. 

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I’m trained as a printmaker and that is a cooperative environment so being in the studio with other artists is okay. It is when friends and family pop in or the phone or text intrudes that it gets problematic. I used to work in the middle of the night when everyone else was sleeping. I’ve since learned a bit to set boundaries - turn off the phone, etc. I never answer the house phone, even though it rings in the studio. And I try not to check email when I am working. I can get easily distracted, especially if the work is not going well.

Lisa plans her work extensively. She researches, finds references, does thumbnail sketches and writes in her notebook to conceptualize and visualize what she is trying to accomplish. When she actually begins the work, she lets it evolve and enjoys surprises, but anything unexpected that happens is not random or by chance. It is the result of her experience combined with all of her preparation.

Lisa knows a piece is finished when she is totally and completely satisfied with it, even days or weeks later. If she feels compelled to stare at it, it's not done. When it's finished, she disconnects.

Untitled, gut, 2010

Untitled, gut, 2010

Mirror Mirror, 2009, Beneath the Surface series

Mirror Mirror, 2009, Beneath the Surface series

Proof, 2009, Beneath the Surface series

Proof, 2009, Beneath the Surface series

Lisa attended Brooklyn College after high school but left to work odd jobs, eventually ending up at a fabric design house as a textile designer. She married and had a daughter, and when her daughter was five or six, she returned to Brooklyn College to study painting and printmaking and worked as a printer for the Brooklyn College Press. She found her purpose in conceptual art and moved from representational to abstract art. Her father was a master craftsman and she learned much from him about tools and construction. Besides making art, Lisa also enjoys renovating old homes, something she also learned from her father. She finds soul, character and beauty in decay, age and the passage of time.

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Nexus Series, 2012

Nexus Series, 2012

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I choose my subjects by realizing what it is that I am most focusing on at that moment – something catches my attention, or I notice a pattern, and that becomes the theme. It could be a shape, a number, a color, or an object.

I am drawn to patterns: visual patterns, thought patterns, geometry. My choices are also influenced by where I am at the time, sometimes physically, often emotionally. Themes and imagery reoccur and overlap. Sometimes a shape or a color will fascinate me for years, disappear for a time, only to reappear in a new series.

It's a Family Affair, fabric, 2013, Layers & Lines series

It's a Family Affair, fabric, 2013, Layers & Lines series

This Old House, fabric/wax/pigment, 3-2'x4' panels, 2013, Layers & Lines series

This Old House, fabric/wax/pigment, 3-2'x4' panels, 2013, Layers & Lines series

In Lisa's newest work, the Layers & Lines series, she is attempting to synthesize everything she has discovered into sculptural paintings. She wants to deconstruct the Clootie Wall and re-imagine it and she is working with fabric from the clothes of people she loves. This Old House is made with her father's old clothes and It's A Family Affair is made with clothes from her own closet, her husband's and her daughter's. She is also working on unifying the various mediums that she works in and trying to find a way to bring it all together. She is not quite sure what this year will bring, but she's excited at the possibilities.


I want to thank Lisa for letting me into her studio to talk about her work and her life. I learn so much from each artist that I visit and I'm so grateful for the lessons and the time that each of them gives me. I hope to see Lisa's work gain more attention, especially from museums and collectors. It deserves to be seen and experienced by as many people as possible.