To Be Killed and Be Still, oil on canvas, 63.75 x 113 inches
We are pleased to announce the newest addition to the Foster/White Gallery roster, Ilana Zweschi. Zweschi’s work is known best for its fresh and vibrant graphic quality. Her distinctive approach employs handwritten algorithms to establish precise arrangements of brush strokes and intricate color transitions. The result is a dynamic collaboration between rigid lines, organic textures and shapes.
Ilana Zweschi is an artist working in Seattle, Washington. She attended Skidmore College, graduating summa cum laude in 2011, where she was an Art Major and Mathematics Minor. In 2014, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in Painting from the State University of New York at Albany and is currently an instructor at Cornish College of the Arts and North Seattle College.
FW: How did your interest in art begin, and how has your process developed over the years?
My mom is an artist and art teacher. When I was 3 years old she turned the building she used as her art studio into our home (she has construction skills), so I grew up in an art studio. There were art supplies everywhere and most spaces were dedicated to creative spaces. I don’t remember ever not wanting to be an artist.
At an early age I started making figurative oil paintings from photos I took from the newspaper and then continued that process of painting from photos all the way through grad school. It wasn’t until I was out of grad school and left to my own devices that I found color theory and systems.
FW: Your art is closely tied to your interest in mathematics. Will you explain how you decided to combine two, in many ways opposite, disciplines?
I went to college intending to be an art major and did not take any math classes my first semester. But once math was absent from my life for the first time, I realized I missed it. While I am not a great mathematician, my mind naturally wants to think in systems and that is what I enjoyed about math classes. I ended up adding a math minor to my degree path and studied painting and math side by side. In grad school I started using systems to make patterned environments for my figures but still did not yet make the direct connection to systems painting.
The real turning point came when I moved to Seattle and got a full time job, painting only on weekends. When I was a student whose full time job was to paint, I was too in love with the act of painting itself to ever stop and think about what or why I was painting. But once I got out of school I had to spend 5 days a week just thinking about painting before I could actually put brush to canvas on the weekends. I was working at Cornish, an intellectually stimulating environment, and I discovered the art of other systems painters. It was having all of that time to think when I was forced out of my studio that left enough room in my mind to start realizing this connection between art and math that had always been there.
After this experience, I would argue that the division between art (creative) and math (logic) is false. They both require creative visualizations and are dealing with abstract concepts, requiring both invention and systematic building.
Grazing Rich, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches
FW: In the past you were a figurative painter, how does this play into your current abstract work, if at all?
The figure still plays a very large role in my painting. The first abstract work I ever made came from adding a grid on top of an old figure painting and using a simple system to cover and reveal that figure, cannibalizing it for shapes and color. I made many paintings that way, even painting figures just to cannibalize them. Nowadays I simplify the process by drawing (rather than painting) the figure as part of the underpainting. This drawing underneath is critical for my process, giving me access to organic shapes—and ones that I am very familiar with from my figure painting years. All of the shapes you see in the abstract paintings now come from the realistic drawing underneath. When you see a vertical or horizontal line, that is when the algorithm told me to ignore the figure drawing underneath. And any organic or curved shape, even very small, came from the algorithm telling me to trace a shape from the drawing at that moment. Then those shapes often grow and echo and transform into something completely unrecognizable. But I could not make these paintings without the figure and in a way still consider myself a figurative artist.
FW: You have been an instructor at Cornish for a number of years now. Has your role influenced your own work?
Cornish has had a huge impact on my life as an artist. When I first started there in 2014 the school had just made a dramatic shift to modernizing the art school model with strong concept and creative thought. Most of my own schooling was spent doing academic study of observation. Being in this almost philosophy-based environment of Cornish gave me a chance to consider the bigger picture of what it means to be an artist today. Cornish has since found a good balance between the academic study and the conceptual but 2014 was a special year for me to have been part of the programming. My time teaching at Cornish is also where I developed my passion for color and was able to dive very deep when given opportunities to teach color theory. Nothing makes me learn something like having to teach it. I will always see teaching as part of my artistic practice because of that.
FW: The titles of your pieces are very evocative. How do you go about naming your work?
Yes, the titles of my work are deeply important to me. Most of the paintings are translating text into painterly actions through algorithms. The texts I choose are always some form of cultural evidence of hidden hierarchies. Any time I feel powerless against the evils of these hierarchies I find strength in turning them into paintings. I get to transform them into something colorful and beautiful, like a peacock eating poison and growing those luminous feathers. And the titles are all related to the text used to make them and are often words lifted directly out of the text. Taken all together, the viewer could consider the titles and start to piece together a narrative.
FW: What is your proudest moment as an artist thus far?
Making a 40 foot mural for a Meta office while in the 3rd trimester of a twin pregnancy! Not only was it an honor to be chosen for such a project in Seattle, but those were two things I was not sure I could do—my first big mural and building two entire humans. Doing them at the same time showed me the strength of the pregnant body and confidence to not put limitations on my practice. It also put me in awe of the artist community when a team of artist friends generously offered their talents to help me realize this vision.
FW: What do you like to do when you are not painting?
I live with my twin toddlers, my partner and two cats (one of which is paralyzed in her back legs), so there are rarely quiet moments when I am not in the studio or classroom! I am also vegan, like yoga and come from a whole family of practicing Buddhists. Most mornings I wake up at 6 am to have a chance to do yoga or meditation before anyone else in my house is awake.
FW: Will you share a little about your interest in death metal? I like to joke that as a vegan metal head I like “death in my metal, not in my meals”. My interest in death metal started when I was in middle school as a way to keep up with my older brother. Many of my fondest memories from childhood are driving to Denver with my brother and his friends to see some obscure metal band from Scandinavia in a dive bar. But sometimes I still can’t believe that interest carried me into adulthood! I don’t know much about music but sometimes I will hear a song and think—I want to make the painting version of that. Death metal can be incredibly beautiful and complex with a captivating balance of harmony and tension.