Artist Justyn Zolli currently lives and works in northern California where he creates colorful paintings, drawings, murals, and prints, that combine elements of abstract art and architectural design patterns. Justyn’s unique artwork has earned him exhibits in San Francisco, Houston, Boston, the Hamptons, New York City, and he has traveled extensively in Mexico, Europe, the British Isles, and India for research. He studied at Rhode Island School of Design, Massachusetts College of Art and holds a BFA from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston /Tufts University. Justyn is presently represented by Gallery Sam in Oakland, California, and he was happy to discuss his experiences as an artist:
Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to become an artist?
Justyn Zolli (JZ): It was in my nature as a child I suppose. Everyone possesses creativity, but not everyone is encouraged from childhood to pursue it as a career. Fortunately, I come from a family with many creative artists who work professionally, and they showed me that it was a viable career. My dad’s brother was an artist and set designer. Many of his modern paintings hung in my house as a kid. I have two cousins who are actors and singers who worked on Broadway and performed nationally, and my grandfather designed buildings. Also, I was raised Catholic in an Italian family and so was exposed to a lot of religious art growing up, in the house and in churches we would visit. But perhaps most importantly my wonderful parents believed that the Arts were important and worthwhile. Appreciating culture is an important family value for them, which they passed on to me. My dad loved photography for a while there as a hobby, but my mother, in particular, worked hard to give me private art classes, trips to the Boston Symphony and the musical theater, and an appreciation of poetry. Just after my high school years, they even took me on trips to England and Spain where we toured a lot of museums, theaters, cathedrals, and architecture. During my college years, I transferred from a design school to a proper art school, and that was the beginning of my professional path. Although I still derive some of my income from design and craft related projects, I really live for making self-generated creative, original works that I invent and that no one has ever seen before.
MM: How did you develop your unique style?
JZ: That took a long, long time. I don’t know if I even have a ‘style’ per se. There are choices I’ve committed to, such as keeping to the language of abstraction, and the medium of painting and drawing. I still get intensely interested in a certain subject, and I explore everything about it, and later it winds up in a sublimated form in my creative works for a while. After I left NYC, I spent several years traveling to many of the National Parks in the West to study the various landscapes here in North America. I wanted to get a sense of how the color of the land looked and how the qualities of light changed. Afterwards, that helped me get a sense of the forms and rhythms of Nature, and afterwards, my paintings became very much abstracted landscapes. More recently, I spent about a month in the Yucatan, researching Mayan pyramids and temples. I must have visited about 20 different archeological sites, and made a lot of notes and photos. It wasn’t enough for me to visit two or three you see, I had to visit that many to truly understand the formal language. Those sharp angles and bold, stepped pyramid forms later came out in the paintings I made just after to my return. So, in a way, I’m always developing my style as I work. I also have certain artists I admire and whose artworks I study, and several who I have studied with or assisted directly who in turn have helped me develop my style by providing me with guidance.
But certain things become clearer to you as you continue to make artwork, certain work habits emerge. For example, a constant use and familiarity with a specific material eventually leads to mastery, and that can contribute to something resembling one’s look or style. In 2009, I got a job as muralist for the Federal government, at the National Park Service. I was working then in oil paint, but the murals were indoors, and the supervisor precluded me from using smelly oil paints and flammable solvents to make them. So, I had to quickly master water-based acrylic paint. Acrylic acts differently than oil and has a different look. But once I got the hang of it, I enjoyed its unique qualities much more than oils, easier cleanup, its faster drying time, etc. so I have stuck with it ever since. It has a unique “look” and quality, and that might have some influence on my style. So, I’m always developing that end.
But if one is asking about more formal choices, such as my subject matter and the forms represented in the work, then that really has to do with my lifelong interest in the intersection of the visual arts and modes of spirituality throughout the world. This has led me to really distil my formal interests down into a few key elements. Namely, a focus on light by way of intense color, simple centering geometries based on mystical art and sacred architecture, and the gestural freedom found in modern abstraction. In my studies, I can see that certain artistic concerns and forms seem to run through the world’s great mystical art and sacred buildings. I believe this is because they directly speak to humanity’s inner consciousness. Circular mandalas are found in Buddhist art and temples, but also as the glowing, stained-glass rose windows in 12th-century Gothic cathedrals. Conversely, I’ve explored 5th century Buddhist and Jain caves in India that very closely resemble the inside of a gothic cathedral, right down to nave, arches, altar, and columns. I’ve studied petroglyphs and rock paintings all over the desert southwest of North America that very closely resembles the petroglyphs I visited in the Italian Alps. Pyramids like those of the Maya and Aztecs I visited appear in Egypt at roughly the same time in history but on opposite continents. There are timeless creative currents that flow through humanity’s consciousness, and come out in their arts. So, I make my work along those lines and try to bring forms out that resonate to our innermost mind, forms that speak to “primacy.” I’m not in a position as a single artist to create a great temple that people can sit and be still and contemplate in, but I can make a small light-filled composition that can help center the viewer and hopefully give them an experience that is similar but in a more modest way. I think this is the same reason why people create shrines in their homes. I’m trying to create shrines in their mind’s eye.
MM: You enjoy architecture. What styles most influenced you?
JZ: Undoubtedly it would be ancient sacred architecture, which I have visited and studied all over the world. I’ve learned that throughout the ages and in widely varying cultures, the structures reserved for contemplation of the cosmic Divine are typically the most impressive. There’s too many to list, but some of my favorites from my travels include the great High Gothic cathedrals of France such as Chartres, Amiens, and Sainte-Chappelle, the ancient bronze age ceremonial sites in the British Isles, such as Newgrange and Stonehenge, Buddhist caves like Ellora and Adjanta, the great Hindu temple complex Khajuraho, and the ‘Red Mosque’ Jama Masjid all in India, the Southwest desert cliff dwellings of the ancient Anasazi, the bold Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City, the Roman Pantheon and ancient temples of Pompeii in Italy, the great Mayan temple complexes of Uxmal, Ek Balam, Chitchen Itza, and Kabah in the Yucatan peninsula, and the Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan of Mexico City to name a few. I also love the Rothko Chapel in Houston, as he is one of my most favorite artists. I also especially love the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. I have visited buildings from all phases of his career throughout the US. He was a great creative spirit who made his homes into temples to living. Walking in one is like walking around in a giant work of art.
MM: Which mentors had the biggest impact on your work?
JZ: I can truly say I’ve been blessed with exceptional mentors over the years. In my youth, my uncle Michael John Zolli stands out. He was an art teacher and an accomplished theater and film set designer with two MFA degrees. He helped me get into art school and showed me that there was a path in the Arts for me. In art school, I gravitated to a teacher from Japan, the late Kaji Aso. He was a true renaissance man, an accomplished tea master, and a calligrapher. He taught me watercolor, but really his way was much more like a Zen master, and he extolled the Japanese ideals in art, and this really opened me up to a different aesthetic sense than the western modernist one I was studying at the Boston Museum School. His was a teaching that was much more about the act of painting, the contemplation of the fluid form and its relationship to the void, and a delicate, direct, nuanced approach to brushwork. He was a great, wise man.
But perhaps the two mentors that have had the biggest impact in my professional life in recent years have been my eastern guru-ji, Professor Om Prakash Sharma of India and my western mentor, master Arthur Stern of Benicia, California. Both of these men have influenced the direction of my work in profound ways. Arthur Stern is an accomplished public artist. He creates complex geometrical compositions in huge architectural glass installations commissioned for all manner of buildings, and his projects are in over 35 states and several countries. I’ve worked as his assistant on and off, and he’s always been a huge source of support and guidance for me since I moved to California. Not only is his work in glass truly masterful, he really models for me how an artist can be hugely successful outside the gallery system. He also taught me a lot about how visual art integrates with architecture, and how to think about and manipulate light in a space.
Professor Om Prakash is an amazing human as well. He’s 84 now, with a golden mind and he continues to make amazing paintings every day. He was one of the founders of the Neo-Tantra art movement, which combined modernist, geometric abstraction with the mandalas and diagrams of Tantra, the esoteric path of Indian mysticism. He was a Fulbright scholar in the 60’s at Columbia University, and upon returning to India, he taught art as a college professor and was eventually appointed the president of the National College of Art of India. He is in museum collections all over the eastern hemisphere but is somewhat unknown in the West. Along with Gallery Sam, who reps him here, we’re trying to remedy that. I met him through his son, and I was invited to India to meet and study with him. We traveled to the Himalayas together, and also his ancestral village in Alwar. It was amazing. Last year we held a big exhibit of his work in Marin County, California, with 80+ paintings shipped from India, and he came out for the opening. It was a thrill for me when Arthur showed up as well, and these two men who are so important to me met each other. Om really models for me how a committed artist can make personal work that is contemplative, spiritual, rooted in the ancient, and yet also simultaneously contemporary, powerful, and modern. His is a complex art that is derived from the inner path but expressed in open, contemporary terms and is both cultural and transcultural. I can only hope to paint on his level someday.
MM: What mediums do you work with most? Are you hoping to experiment with other mediums and materials in the future?
JZ: Mostly I work with acrylic paint on canvas and paper. I also work in mono-printing and drawing with ink. I also have mastered architectural stained glass, and I am a trained glass-painter, although mostly I do that work for specific projects of traditional windows. I also make a lot of digital photographs, but mainly I use it as a tool for documentation and to train my eye for composition.
MM: How many pieces have you produced overall? Do you have a favorite?
JZ: Too many to know… You know, things go out, they get given away or sold, and they get lost, destroyed, or end up who knows where. I gave a lot of my early production away over the years and destroyed a lot too, especially when I had to move cities. It can pile up. Some student oil paintings didn’t survive being rolled up. I rarely give pieces away now that I’m becoming known and in fact, some things I make never really stand on their own as Art. They only exist to get me along to the small percentage of my work that really sings. My favorite works are always the ones I’m making right now.
MM: Was any piece particularly challenging or well received?
JZ: The last few years, the large paintings I’ve made like “Convergent Offerings” (2015) or “Grail Knight” (2016) were exhibited to thousands of people in big art fairs and well received. I try to make a new piece for each art fair the gallery does. I got a lot of love recently in NYC when I exhibited a body of paintings on paper I made after visiting the Mayan temples, many people on social media posted images of them, and I had a sale (yay money!). But really, for me, it’s more about the process. There are home runs, and sometimes there are failures. I just try to express whatever is inside that wants to come through me, so I try not to take positive or negative criticism too personally.
Each work is meant to stand contained and on its own, and each composition is unique, but each piece is also part of a process and is fueled by a desire to express for our age what the great mystical art of past ages did for their time. That alone makes the reception tricky because some people understand it and its message instantly, and when I speak to them they show me clearly that the work resonates with them. But perhaps more people think of it in comparative terms of what’s going on in the contemporary art world, and that is the world I’m operating in right now, so it’s a bit tricky for me. I’m trying to make timeless art that speaks to the spirit, but I must operate in the world of commerce, exhibits, commissions, career, etc. and in an environment that values the big, splashy, shiny and new over the quiet and deep. It’s a challenge for someone of my nature, for sure. It’s why I avoided approaching galleries or exhibiting widely until I had developed a confident message and a mastery of my materials. It will probably remain a challenge for my whole working life I suspect.
MM: How did you initially go about getting your work displayed in galleries?
JZ: I avoided approaching galleries until I felt I could clarify for myself what my aims were in my work, that I could make a consistent body of work, and that I could maintain a production. I worked my way up to it, by slowly clarifying my artistic concerns, and at the same time exhibiting in various non-profit spaces and artist-run gallery spaces. When I felt that I was confident in the quality of my work, it was then that I approached dealers. Galleries are business entities. They exist to sell art, and without sales, they don’t operate for long. The good ones present like a museum, but they need to sell to stay in business, and that means they need good consistent quality pieces. You need to make work that the gallery can reasonably sell to its clientele. That being said, it’s not enough just to make good work, I feel. You as the artist need to find a gallery whose program you feel fits your work, and if accepted then you also need to work hard to help the gallery to be successful as well. I feel that if the artist makes the success of the gallery a priority, then the gallery helps make the success of the artist. I believe it’s a team effort. Otherwise, the gallery takes all the risk, and may not last long, and that’s not good for anyone involved.
MM: How did you find Gallery Sam and come to be represented by them?
JZ: I found Gallery Sam at an art fair. But I didn’t approach the owner, Evan Morganstein about my own artwork initially. For the last 10 years or so I have made part of my living as a freelance Exhibit Preparator, which means I handle, mount, install, and de-install art, sculpture, and exhibits, for all manner of museums and institutions. I’ve worked for most of the major and minor museums in the Bay Area at one time or another. Its technical work, but it gives you a great familiarity with all manner of art. The San Francisco Fine Art Fair hired me as a ‘floating’ Preparator to essentially go around and help out galleries who might be a bit short handed or need some expert art installation in their booths. I met many dealers that way, and I could get to know them in the context of offering them my services, and not simply as an artist trying to get their attention. This helped me see through the art world glamor and remoteness which I had some reservations about, and I came to see them as just people trying to make a business run, not unlike any other entrepreneur. Evan was really short-handed those days because he was trying to run booths at two art fairs that were being held simultaneously, so I helped him a lot. We became friends and I really liked his program, and only many months later after trust had been established did I approach him about showing my work, which he ended up liking. Evan has an exceptional eye for art, and an encyclopedic knowledge of 20th century and contemporary painting. It’s really uncanny. Most art historians don’t have the knowledge he has. He started as a collector himself and became a dealer. He has been an enormous supporter for me (and all his gallery artists), and become a dear friend. I travel with him and help him install his art fair booths in various cities, accompany him on his studio visits which is just thrilling for me, and help the gallery however I can. I created and maintain the Gallery Sam social media page for example, and document the exhibits. I really just want success for all of us.
MM: What is the most rewarding part of working as an artist?
JZ: I would say for me it is that moment when you are working on a piece, and then something comes together right there, and something new is born right in front of you from your own creative efforts. It’s that moment when it all starts to coalesce into an image that you’ve never seen before, and that the world has never seen before, yet it feels like it came through you and not from you. It is yours, but it is not yours at the same time. There’s an “Ah-Ha” moment when you start to see what it is and that is the exciting moment I live for. And then you bring it to completion and there it is shining before you. What was once inside your mind only is now out in the world as a thing. It might not be exactly what you envisioned but it has its own uniqueness and character that was beyond your control. And eventually, it will speak to someone else and communicate something beyond words. And that’s an encouraging thought. That’s the reward. All the rest is just something else we attach to that.
MM: What advice would you give to a person who is striving to become a professional artist?
JZ: Practice Every Day. They say it takes 20,000 hours for mastery. So, whatever you pick as your medium, practice as often as you can. Art-making is a creative practice. No one gets good at something without practice. Your ideas will find clarity as you practice. Take the time to master your materials. Quantity leads to quality so make a lot of stuff. Discipline is what separates the true artists from the hacks.
Study Nature. Every quality of light, every color, every texture, every nuance of form is to be found there. Study the landscape, the geometry of flowers, the course of a river, the changing light on a mountain or a desert, the reflection in a lake. Drink it in. Even if no art comes out of it directly, it is important for conditioning your mind in its aesthetic apprehension and will sharpen your inner senses. We are Nature.
Find a Mentor. If you don’t have an opportunity to study in an art college, then find an artist you really like and work as their assistant. Apprenticing to an established artist is a time-honored way of learning and in fact may help you much more than a degree when it comes to running your own studio.
If you need a job, find a way to work in the Arts.
There are many ways to earn a living in the Arts while you develop your own work. But once you start to work in retail or real estate or tech, it becomes all too easy to lose one’s connection to the community of artists and the art scene. It’s better to stay involved in some way I think. Most of the breaks I’ve gotten in the art world have been through my peers, mentors, and friends.
Go to museums often.
Also make a habit of visiting galleries, temples, libraries, and interesting architecture wherever you go. The world is full of amazing places mankind has created through the ages, often full of wondrous objects. Go learn about our world and our history via art.
Believe in Yourself. This is the most important thing. Making art is a pretty thankless job. No one really cares if I get up and go to my studio or stay in bed. So, I have to believe in myself, and believe that what I have to offer is worthwhile, and that the act of doing it is vitalizing. A vital person vitalizes and they in turn vitalize others. We’re only on this old Earth for a short while, so make it count. Wherever the flow takes you, go with it.
MM: Do you have any future projects or upcoming events that you would like to mention?
JZ: I will next be exhibiting at the ArtMarket SF Contemporary Fine Art Fair in San Francisco, California at the end of April 2017 with the always excellent Gallery Sam. The gallery is planning forthcoming exhibits at art fairs in both Houston, and in Miami during Artweek this year, so I’ll be making some new pieces for those events. Hope to see you!
[Featured Image by Justyn Zolli]