working through challenging times

Art develops our sense of perspective and dimensionality both physically and metaphorically. It took artists until the invention of lenses to find three-dimensional perspective in paintings and as we develop ourselves and our tools, our perception of perspective continues to evolve. Meanwhile our own collective sense of perspective is going through a shift as the world restricts movement.

by Claire Zakiewicz

Featured photo: Claire Zakiewicz Performing Drawing, Venice, archival inkjet print, photo: Mark Edward Smith, 2019

I have been handling the disruptions in my own life in the same way I deal with struggle and resolution in my studio practice. The most useful lesson I have learnt from long periods in the studio is how creative breakthroughs come from working through challenging times. Embracing difficulty builds momentum in my practice. Pressure causes me to go deeper into my work. 

I have been traveling for most of the past ten years and stayed at residencies in New York, Bergen, Norway, the UK and Ireland. The most recent was in March 2020 at Cill Rialaig Retreat in Ireland with an organised group of 10 artists. The transition from the retreat to lockdown was surreal but in some ways it was great preparation for the change that was about to happen. I arrived back in London 3 days before the lockdown started.

I heard reports that the residency at Cill Rialaig was often life-changing. So, even though I had a forthcoming exhibition in Venice to prepare for (which was later cancelled), I was willing to discard the plans I had and to be open to new ideas, breaking old patterns of working and paying attention to the experience.

Cill Rialaig, Acrylic on Canvas, 40 x 40cm, March 2020  

I painted the view from the cliffs our cottages were sitting on, and painted portraits of each artist in the group. It was a way to connect to the land and people but it also felt risky. I hadn’t done portraits in watercolour since I was a teenager and not everyone was flattered by them, but I developed a method and captured the moment, like a graphic novel or a piece of visual autofiction. Now in lockdown, I have continued working in the same way and the process is making sense in ways I couldn’t have predicted. 

Amy, watercolour on paper, 29.5 x 42cm, March 2020

The lockdown began in London on Monday March 16. It was the same day that my symptoms started. Fighting even a relatively mild Covid-19 case was precarious. I had new symptoms appearing as other ones cleared up. It took two weeks to recover physically. It took a few more weeks to take in the new reality, my new living situation and to organise my time and rhythm and sense of direction. Even now, I feel like the state of shock is still lifting, or perhaps it’s morphing.

I have been isolating with my dog, turtle and fish. I’m thinking about how Art gives me a sense of something bigger than myself. It helps me to grow – hopefully to evolve to a more mature, higher level of existence, a more advanced version or myself. I have been thinking about my purpose and how I communicate my work to an audience. Art has always helped humans to see better and to listen better. It can help us to see the beauty of life’s actual conditions, the fragility of our beautiful planet that may not last long. 

I have a new appreciation for and relationship with computing tools. I have switched off notifications and I open my digital devices only a few times per day for specific tasks. I am thinking about the future – how I want it to look – and some of the worst-case scenarios. I am reading more than ever and engaging in video conferencing discussions with artists and various other groups on Zoom and Instagram Live. I am thinking about ideologies, processing, coded information, bio-technology, reading books on computational art, science and spiritual and philosophical texts and questioning more deeply what it is to be human. I am meditating for 2 hours every morning, trying to understand myself, my mind, thoughts, emotions and how I look at myself and the world around me. 

The role of Art can include a compensation for our lack of memory. It helps us to remember historic moments and all aspects of the world around us and what is happening in society. It makes something permanently available – something precious that we might otherwise lose sight of – to put it in an archive/frame/box for future generations. As I navigate my increasing uncertainty about the future, I practice accepting change by paying attention to the moment. I have been drawing through direct observation through sight – the spaces in my home, my pets, objects, portraits and views from my windows. I want to record this period in as much detail as possible – exactly how I see what is literally in front of me, moment to moment – without interpretation or conscious use of my imagination.

Looking Out, 2020, Acrylic, Watercolor on Wood, 51 x 51cm

When faced with any kind of emergency in my studio or life, I brainstorm. No idea is bad to begin with and trying the less obvious can be helpful – even the opposite of common sense can end up working well. I have thought about what I could sell – paintings, drawings, clothes. But then I decided to give things away then I almost simultaneously made some painting sales. I have been sending home-painted postcards to family and friends around the world. Gifts are a good use for Art.

When drawing I aim to lose track of time and space: to find a timeless moment. My thinking is done through making and my practice involves meditations and explorations in space. I use gestural drawing in response to phenomena in the surrounding world such as atmosphere, colour and sound, testing the boundaries between disruption and unity, and the ideology of ‘freedom’ within the context of limitation. I work with spontaneous and predetermined mark-making that reference historical motifs from Surrealism’s automatic drawings and writings, Action Painting from the Abstract Expressionists and Japanese Calligraphy. Some of the gestures involved have a similar quality of line to the traditional Japanese ensō – a circular ink drawing, symbolizing enlightenment and the universe. Zen practitioners relate the idea of the ensō to the aesthetics of imperfection, or wabi-sabi. When drawing it is clear that improvised gestures have a greater sense of unity and flow than those made with conscious thought. I have also noticed how drawing with one’s attention and focus on something other than myself almost always produces a balanced quality of line and symmetry, even – or especially – on a large scale for a prolonged period as conscious control slips further away.

I have been thinking about resilience, resourcefulness and care for the planet, using the materials and objects that are literally around me – in front of my face. I am using recycled materials and reworking older paintings. I make home-made charcoal, watercolours, dyes and use gouache and pens that are non-toxic and are easy to clean. I work on a tiny scale and also on a large format with full body movements. I have felt a need to be productive. I have painted, drawn and written every day but for the first two months it was impossible for me to finish anything. I tried, really hard, but I missed deadlines and eventually I accepted and realised I need to surrender ever more to process and being in the moment. 

Drawing on paper is an act of movement; my drawings materialize movements. My work affirms the human body. It is about how I experience time and impermanence. I articulate the works through film, performance, sound, painting and live video streaming. The work, in a sense, makes itself through improvisation and also through the viewer. I try to keep everything open.

A good drawing, like a good performance, reveals the essence of things. I translate speech, sound, beats, poetry and silence – empty space – into drawing using gestures, motifs and depicting from sight. The relationship between the image and the source may be very clear; for example, a high-pitched sound might be represented by a high mark on page, or the response may be more complex, abstract, or random.

Variations for Winds and Strings, ink and pastel on Arches watercolour paper, 18 ” x 18″ (46 x 46cm), 2015

At this point in history the world needs more artists, poets and for everybody to be more creative and resourceful. During this global crisis, I have started teaching online classes on creative failure and experimental aesthetics. The tools I am teaching are more important now than ever – not just for artists but for everybody navigating the insecurity of change as we all are. 

Art can represent and provide a philosophy for life and make an argument for what life is about – it is OK if we are wonky and misshapen. I have learnt that allowing ways of being that we naturally prefer to hide – weak, nervous, unsteady – can be the ingredients for the most compelling artworks and performances. Psychoanalyst Thomas Moore has written about the need to ‘carry the fool’ as an essential ingredient in the creative process. With that in mind, I try to remember to embrace challenges. Some of my methods with collaborators include exercises such as swapping roles. I might take a singer’s role and the singer might become the dancer. I sometimes even try to make ‘bad’ drawings as a means to make myself think outside the box or to create new patterns of behaviour. Surprisingly often ‘bad’ ideas and situations have turned out to be ‘good’ in one way or another.

Process is my focus rather than finished products. The tension between failure and perfection – struggle and resolution – using mistakes as material, and exploring the balance between the unfinished and ambiguous. Process entails an ongoing emotional navigation through anticipation, tension, struggle, striving, surrender, submission, resolution, abandonment, and so on. Failure, disruption, intentionality, control, chance happenings, chaos, entropy, emergence and degrees of letting go are important elements in the flow of time. Failure creates new pathways; it disrupts prescribed patterns. 

Focusing less on expectations and functionality and more on experiment can break down the strictly binary success/failure polarity. Allowing imperfections to be not only visible but also in focus allows us to consider the life, history, and value of the hand-made object. Although connected to deadlines and death, failure and resolution are both as fleeting as any other point in the flow of time. What comes next is making something new.

Risk, failure and improvisation have been a theme since I played saxophone as a teenager – improvising either with jazz music, experimental musical ensembles or over dance tracks in clubs. My drawing and painting practice is also very improvisational. Improvisation in drawing embraces the aesthetics of failure, the unfinished and uncontrolled – the accidental and the incidental. Improvisation involves letting go, acting intuitively, allowing for and perhaps embracing disruptions and mistakes, taking risks. And a good performance involves moving past one’s identity and persona – being willing to look bad, to fail, and to lose control. 

In New York over the past few years, I crafted characters with a set of limitations or very simple instructions for performing drawings. One example is the character of a submissive, blindfolded draftsperson who responds intuitively to touch or sound through gestural mark-making. In one performance, I moved further away from the source of control by becoming a paintbrush as I was moved like a tool by a composer/choreographer through improvised dance. During another performance, I created a drawing by manipulating the movements of an actor who drew in response to my own improvised soundscape. The draftsperson’s role was to instinctively respond to the sounds from moment to moment within the prescribed set of limitations. When you reduce something, the rest enlarges.

‘Wah Wah’ at Noumena: Initiation (curated by Jana Astanov), June, 2018
The Plaxall Gallery 5-25 46th Ave, Long Island City, NYC
Siw Laurent: Active Body Listening
Claire Zakiewicz: Drawing and Sound Design
Alviarez: Sound Design

While documenting and reflecting on these live drawing experiments, strange patterns became apparent. On one occasion, I drew without sight for one hour onto a 25-foot roll of paper in response to a live musician. My focus was on the music, which I responded to via automatic drawing. I soon lost track of my location in the room, but the resulting image was balanced with an impossible symmetry. Another performance, records my body returning to the ‘corresponding’ patches of colour when a collaborator gave me pots of paints as I worked blindfolded for hours with my attention fixed on the sounds within the room. These observations reveal something about the way we perceive and connect with our surroundings that cannot be fully explained through logic or science as we currently understand it. 

The Exit, pastel and ink on Arches watercolour paper, 300″ x 54″ (762 x 140cm), 2014

Art develops our sense of perspective and dimensionality both physically and metaphorically. It took artists until the invention of lenses to find three-dimensional perspective in paintings and as we develop ourselves and our tools, our perception of perspective continues to evolve. Meanwhile our own collective sense of perspective is going through a shift as the world restricts movement. People are confined to their homes and computational tools are growing increasingly powerful. My own perspective on life has never shifted as much as it has over the past two months.

Claire Zakiewicz Performing Drawing with Mariana Alvierez on a video call, during Lockdown, London, 2020

Claire Zakiewicz has spent the past 7 years living and working between London, New York and Venice, Italy.  Her practice explores parallels between the languages of music and drawing and the evolution of our human experience. Her drawing practice examines the differences between internal and outward observation, varying degrees of focus, drawing from the imagination, from sight, blindfolded or with self-imposed physical limitations.

Her works have been presented at international institutions such as Tate Tanks and Tate Britain, (London) in the exhibitions Tweet Me Up, 2011 and Label, 2012, in the group show Alive In the Universe for the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019 and have been shown at NOoSPHERE Arts (New York), Bill Young’s Dance Studio (NYC), The Last Frontier (NYC), and The Aldeburgh Beach Lookout (UK). As well as performing in her own productions, Zakiewicz  recently appeared in He Said, I Thought, by Carol Szymanski at Signs and Symbols Gallery (New York), 2019 and Triple Moon Goddess by Jana Astanov at The Cell Theatre (New York) and at Spherical Symmetry ARTI3160 (Venice, Italy), 2019.

In 2018, she formed the ensemble Assembly, which includes multi-disciplinary artists who focus primarily on concepts of improvisation. Communication between modes of perception is the main focus. Members have included the dancers Mariana Alviarez and Laura Colomban, actor Siw Laurent and singer/cellist Lenna Pierce.  Assembly has performed at institutions including The Mothership (NYC) Plaxall Gallery (NYC), Itinerant Performing Arts Festival, (NYC) and ARTI3160 (Venice).
Between 2009 – 2012 Zakiewicz was a member of the ensemble Fig. with the Norwegian based composer/performer Alwynne Pritchard and sound designer Thorolf Thuestad with whom I performed at Landmark, USF, and BEK (Bergan Norway), PointB Worklodge, (NYC) and live on Resonance FM (London).
Zakiewicz studied Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art, London and Cambridge College of Art, prior to completing a research-based MFA at Sir John Cass School of Art, London.

Instagram: @ClaireZakiewicz

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