Exclusive Interview: Zaria Forman Discusses the Changing Tides

by Nathan SpoorPosted on

Working from her Brooklyn, NY studio, artist Zaria Forman creates pastel landscapes inspired by the beauty and vastness of the sky and the sea. Hers is an art created for facilitating a deeper understanding of a world in crisis. She is fascinated by the constantly-changing nature of water and inspired by the challenges of her medium.

Forman’s drawings are invitations to viewers to share the urgency of climate change in a hopeful and significant way. She believes that art can facilitate deeper understandings that assist humanity in finding meaning and optimism in our challenging times. On one hand, her work is a celebration of the beauty of nature and its grandeur, while on the other, her large-scale compositions address the concept of saying farewell on a global as well as a personal scale.

Zaria Forman studio photos by Francois Lebeau.

So Zaria, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. If you would indulge us a bit, what is your background and what are your main inspirations as an artist?

I grew up in Piermont, NY, about 30 minutes north of NYC. I went to Green Meadow Waldorf school from 6th grade through high school — a very small school with an alternative approach to education, in which art is greatly infused.

The inspiration for my drawings began in my early childhood when I traveled with my family throughout several of the world’s most remote landscapes, which became the subject of my mother’s fine art photography. I developed an appreciation for the beauty and vastness of the ever-changing sky and sea. I loved watching a far-off storm on the western desert plains; the monsoon rains of southern India; and the cold arctic light illuminating Greenland’s waters.

Did you attend an art school for any formal training, or is this mostly a visual that insists that you create it? Or perhaps is your work something of a different nature altogether? 

Although I did major in Studio Arts at Skidmore College, I had been making art my entire life. Either I was born with the desire to create art or it was instilled in me from an early age, and my education fostered my passion for it over the years.

I actually never anticipated becoming a full time artist. Art making was simply an activity I enjoyed, but I never had plans to make it my profession until I was offered to be in my first exhibit after graduating from college. One show led to another, I chose to ride the wave, and am very happy I did!

I’m fascinated by these gorgeous iceberg works, created with pastels on large pieces of paper. Do you do much traveling to gain influences for these pieces or do you create from imagination or photo reference?

I travel quite extensively for my work, because it is important for me to experience the landscape that I draw. While on site, I take thousands of photographs. I often make a few small sketches on-site to get a feel for the landscape. Once I return to the studio, I draw from my memory of the experience, as well as from the photographs, to create large-scale compositions. Occasionally I will re-invent the water or sky, alter the shape of the ice, or mix and match a few different images to create the composition I envision. I begin with a very simple pencil sketch so I have a few major lines to follow, and then I add layers of pigment onto the paper, smudging everything with my palms and fingers and breaking the pastel into sharp shards to render finer details.

Your work seems to lend itself to heightening the awareness of the beauty and strength of natural elements, specifically water. How much of a message do you feel you imbue your works with, and what story are you trying to relay to viewers?

I think most human beings are drawn towards water in one way or another. It makes up more than 75% of our bodies, and covers most of the Earth’s surface. We need water to survive, but we also gravitate toward its beauty — the respite, shimmer, and movement it adds to a landscape. Water provides me with an endless amount of inspiration as it constantly changes, taking on new forms from one moment to next. There will always be more for me to learn about the methods with which water can be conveyed in pastel, and I enjoy that never-ending challenge.

My most recent drawings document Earth’s shifting landscape and the effects of progressive climate change. In August 2012, I led an Arctic expedition up the northwest coast of Greenland. Called “Chasing the Light,” it was the second expedition of this nature; the mission of which was to create art inspired by this dramatic geography. The first expedition, in 1869, was led by the American painter William Bradford. My mother, Rena Bass Forman, had conceived the idea for the voyage, but did not live to see it through. During the months of her illness her dedication to the expedition never wavered and I promised to carry out her final journey.

I have begun a series of drawings inspired by this trip. Documenting climate change, the work addresses the concept of saying goodbye on scales both global and personal. In Greenland, I scattered my mother’s ashes amidst the melting ice.

Continuing the story of polar melt, which is the main cause of rising seas, I followed the meltwater from the Arctic to the equator. I spent September 2013 in the Maldives, the lowest and flattest country in the world, collecting material and inspiration to create a body of work celebrating and representing a nation that could be entirely underwater within this century.

My drawings invite viewers to share the urgency of climate change in a hopeful and significant way. Art can facilitate a deeper understanding of any crisis, helping us find meaning and optimism in shifting landscapes.

Along with exhibiting in galleries and museums, you’ve also created large-scale works to function as backdrops for ballet – Giselle at the Grand Theatre in Geneva, Switzerland. What was that experience like and how did that come together?

I conceived a series of ten drawings that were used as the set design for Giselle, a classic ballet that premiered at the Grand Theater of Geneva, Switzerland, in October 2012. Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg and I collaborated to choose each image and its details. Working in this way was a new challenge. It taught me how to collaborate artistically, and allowed me to render textural effects I wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. The ballet has since toured in Asia and Europe.

What is the daily life of Zaria Forman like? Do you have a set time to create or do you find yourself working only when the spirit moves you?

I would love to be able to work only when the mood strikes, but when exhibition deadlines are looming, that becomes impossible. I often work very long hours, drawing for two hours at a time and taking short breaks, from 9am to midnight. I have quite a full exhibition schedule for the next year, so I am doing my best to pace myself and take time off to enjoy the beautiful outdoors.

From what I can recall, pastels are a very dusty and delicate medium. How do you manage or control such a powdery element? Do you work in layers or spray a fixative as you progress through a piece?

Yes, the material is quite dusty. I use a non-toxic, workable fixative and often spray in between layers. The drawings are never entirely fixed however, and are very vulnerable until framed.

One of my favorite questions revolves around challenges and advice – what have you encountered that you learned from, and what advice or knowledge could you pass on to others beginning their artistic journey?

In residence at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in the Spring of 2012, I created a drawing entitled “Greenland #63”. Working amidst masterful paintings of Greenland’s ice by artists such as William Bradford and Rockwell Kent, I was both intimidated and inspired. The setting compelled me to push my own artistic boundaries. The scale and level of detail I undertook were the most challenging of any drawing I had yet created, giving rise to the most rewarding drawing experience I have ever had.

My advice to any artist is to discover subjects you are passionate about, and push your personal boundaries to challenge yourself. I always have the biggest breakthroughs with my work when I step outside my comfort zone and try something I didn’t think was possible.

Looking to the future, what can we look forward to coming up with you? Are there any exhibitions we can see or projects in the works that our readers can find your work in?

I currently have work on display in the exhibit CRB: Contemporary Realism Biennial, 2014 at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, IN (Sept 20 – Nov 30, 2014) as well as in We are One, an exhibition at the Living Earth Ecological Insitute, Phoenix, AZ (Oct 1- Nov 30, 2014).

I am currently showing work in “Environmental Impact,” a traveling museum exhibition, which began at the Erie Art Museum (Erie, PA August 1 – September 30, 2014). The show is continuing with exhibitions at Peninsula Fine Arts Center (Newport News, VA, Oct. 25, 2014 – January 4, 2015), Brookgreen Gardens, (Murrells Inlet, SC, January 31 – April 26, 2015), Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (May 16 – August 16, 2015), The Art Museum, SUNY Potsdam, (Potsdam, NY, September 1 – October 31, 2015) and Stauth Memorial Museum (Montezuma, KS, December 6, 2015 – January 17, 2016). Also, in addition to many places all over the world that I would like to travel to and document.

I have been forming a collective with two other artists that came to Greenland and the Maldives with me, Lisa Lebofsky and Drew Denny. Our project, titled “Ice to Islands,” continues to evolve and take shape through drawings, paintings, film, performance, and education. Future exhibition plans involve a group showing of our work, as well as other artists’ work pertaining to the subject of climate change, specifically ice melt and sea level rise. Along with exhibits there will be educational and performance based events, including panel discussions with climate change scientists, activists, and artists.

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