Conversation between Zahar Vaks and Nickola Pottinger
Okay, here we go. This is Zahar Vaks. And—
And we will be having a conversation about our experience in the last eight or nine months, and how we’ve collaborated, grown, how our work was affected, and how we’ve been weathering this whole pandemic thing. So I guess we’ll start.
Nickola, how have the last eight or nine months impacted your creative practice?
So, in the beginning of COVID we were working from home primarily to be safe and to limit our contact with others. I was actually looking forward to it because I very much love our home. It’s a sanctuary for us ––, [a fortress of healing]. And I was also curious how it would have an impact on the scale of work that I like to make, and the materials that I had access to; although at the start of it all, before things were truly locked down, I had collected some paper and drawing material from my studio to carry home with me. But I intentionally didn’t take everything.
When the lockdown did go into effect, I didn’t really have any longing or miss anything in particular. I missed my studio, but I also was glad to have the time to be at home, which is so rare. Pre-COVID, we had become accustomed to getting up really early in the morning, heading to work our separate ways, then maybe going into our studios after work, and coming home late at night, probably having a quick dinner together, going to bed, and on repeat like that for such a long time. I was burnt out.
So yeah, I think we both already subconsciously welcomed the idea of making work at home. I mean, it’s always been a dream of mine for us to have a studio together in the same building. Something I’m still working on to make possible, but the shutdown afforded us that.
And I’ve always been curious about the cross-pollination of our separate practices and how they would stimulate new things in each other’s mode of working, or materials chosen. Like you’re cooking and baking a lot at home. I’m doing a lot of that too now.
And so, using my hands in those ways during that time was kind of a catalyst for the shift in how I was making work. Traditionally—I had always worked on paper, drawings using oil pastels, and various other media. Large scale, eight feet, typically collaged, and also in large segments that would morph and have a kind of installation effect of inhabiting a particular space.
And so, that’s how I made work pre COVID—and yeah, with all the baking and cooking and learning—everyone’s been learning how to make their own sourdough for the first time, I was a part of that—I started to make my own paper pulp at home using what I had around me. I was collecting and shredding paper and using a lot of cardboard from the Park Slope Co-op.
Essentially my environment informed not just the subject matter of the work, but how it would be made and with what medium.
I was drawing large shapes on these big banana boxes. They’re the biggest boxes you could find at the Co-op—and then cutting those out and sometimes wrapping them in plaster, and making these “flat sculptures,” as I was calling them at the time. Then at some point I departed from calling them “flat sculptures,” because they took on a new meaning for me personally, and conjured this idea of relief.
And to me now they are reliefs, which I think of as a kind of symbolism in these days of the pandemic; they are by definition a mix of conveyed emotions and sculptural techniques. I mean, it seemed like a natural instinct to go in that direction. And I loved making these smaller, obviously smaller than my typical drawings, pieces that would be two feet by two feet sometimes, or two by three or so forth.
And they were also very meditative; like they were allowing me to meditate on things that were collaged into or present in my drawings that I had time now to sit with and kind of ruminate on.
Then after a few months at home, we started feeling comfortable going back to the studio and so I took my works to the studio and I remember, because the work felt so new and fresh, we painted the walls white so we could see everything in full clarity. And we just sat there for a few hours looking at the work back in the studio, and it was then and there that I realized that these new relief works were like magnified versions of details in the drawings which I had not referenced the entire time while I was making them. But it’s just crazy how… Not crazy, but I just love how…though I was separated from my studio, and I wasn’t sad to be making work away from there, I always felt I was there, like there’s a spiritual connection.
Because at the end of the day we make our work, and the studio is a habitat and ecosystem for those works, and for our practice. But yeah, I just felt like I needed to have this personal residency at home. I finally got a residency! When I could never fathom that would happen, especially with my day job and everything.
But I want to hear how you tell your perspective.
So, I had a very similar experience, grabbing stuff and taking certain things home from the studio, but not everything. I took a very limited amount of painting materials. In fact, I just took these cellulose pigments that I had been using a lot. And I think I only took one or two of the colors and mostly just paper and some limited drawing materials home.
And for that first two months we were both at home working in the same space, making art while also… I had to teach and Nickola was working, at least through March before the furlough. And then at some point, it was just a lot of teaching virtually—making a lot of demos in the middle of the night, and time just seemed to melt into itself.
And it seemed like there was no separation from teaching and what my ideas were for my studio practice. I guess that was a trigger to then start to use the demos I was making for my students. Like doing a demo for the one Point Perspective assignment and then using that as a jumping-off point for something else, like a collage that could then potentially enter one of my paintings or just exist as a cutout on its own.
So there was something interesting happening there with the spillover of what was happening in my teaching and my studio practice. Then, when we did get back to our studios in May, I was able to bring over a number of these cutouts. And some of the works on paper that I had initially taken with me were actually older works that I re-engaged under lockdown.
And then after re-engaging them, along with these other newer works that stemmed from things like demos for my students, I brought them all back to the studio and just laid them out. Some of them I ended up using, and some of them are just still lying there on the table, but there was something special, back to what Nickola was saying, about looking at them in a fresh light after returning to your studio. There was a new appreciation of the studio after having been away from it for so long and adapting to working in a new way.
And also, like Nickola mentioned, there was a moment at home where we swapped materials and I got into using some of her senneliers [oil pastels] in my work. And Nickola got into some of the cellulose pigments that I had around. And it was just a nice symbiotic thing that happened with our use of materials, and trying new things based on our circumstances.
So there were a lot of these really interesting, seamless, cohesive moments together. And then there was also just the time we had to be together more, a lot more, because our schedules were now totally enmeshed. And it was really nice to meditate more together and exercise more. I still struggle with being consistent with this stuff, but the one silver lining from the COVID lockdown is being more engaged in the exercise routines and the meditative practices, being more mindful of the need for that in both of our lives.
Yeah, I think, because our schedules were so different, we always wanted to have more time with each other. And this shutdown kind of presented that scenario. And at the same time, we were able to build our own relief systems in the process of cultivating a lifestyle that would be healing and nurturing. It was so nice to be able to have a kind of set schedule with Zahar where we could wake up and do exercises together or do meditations together or cook together or walk together. And whatever it was, there was always this intention of relief. And I miss it now that I’ve gone back to work. It puts a lot of things in perspective.
So we both touched on this, but I think we can go a little bit deeper. We described the new work in terms of material, but maybe we can talk about it in terms of content. What’s been the new work that we’ve been creating in this time? For example, does it relate to or respond to, resist or reflect the current historical time and space that we’ve been living through, whether it’s the political climate or social climate or… You want to answer this first?
Yeah. I think there’s different iterations of that, of how we’ve responded to all the different climates we’ve been living in. And as I said before, for me it was very important to cultivate some type of healing, because, yes, I was angry. Yes, I felt so empathetic to all the suffering, the pandemic, the protests; however, I’ve always believed your health is your wealth. So, for me, creating opportunities for healing and relief was essential for navigating these crazy times.
Also, on a more personal note, we were supposed to get married in Jamaica this year, and we’ve obviously postponed it. But I had been really looking forward to going back home and seeing a lot of my family and my grandparents and my cousins, and just being on the Island, on the land, and how spiritual it is for me to go to Jamaica, and how revitalized I am every time I come back.
And because we didn’t go, I felt more distant from my families there. So my work during this time was also exploring themes of my Jamaican ancestry, Caribbean diaspora, race, and femininity.
And the times that I was able to see my relatives here, the stories that would arise from the conversations were just… It was magical, because you know your family for so long, and then you learn a little bit of something new every once in a while.
So my art practice was demonstrating more of an importance of not just process in general, but also using specific techniques like burying and carving marks, and cutting and rearranging works on paper. All this went hand in hand with how I was feeling, how we were feeling, in these tumultuous times.
And it shed a lot of light on why I was making this specific type of work, and why I was gravitating to these other ways of working as well. When you have a practice that involves destroying drawings and paintings, and then reconfiguring them, using them to construct built-up surfaces worked over long structures of time, you think about the origins of that way of working and what influenced you to work that way.
And ultimately it’s a lot of… I think a lot of history, and I won’t go further into it, but I mentioned how we were cooking and baking a lot. And how my work has always tried to emphasize a handmade materiality and an imprint that I find intrinsic to the way we both work, Zahar and I.
We were both children of immigrants who came to America at a very young age. And in our work from this time, there are these fragments from our cultures and upbringing, but also from our Rolodex of memories and photographs and films and books that we use in our research, that I think we were able to excavate during this time of lockdown together, because we had more time to sit and ruminate over those things and talk with family and have some quality time with ourselves.
I mean, I love being alone (laughs). I like my alone time. And that’s what happens to Nickola when you give her alone time.
But yeah, I think there’s this legacy of migration that reflects the broader emergence of our peoples, and what is happening in global metropolises, and how it’s symbolic of universal concerns weighing on our hearts, our minds, and the tensions between place and placeness, nationality and belonging, immigrant and citizen. We are products of all that, and that all informs our work.
And, I mean, we also felt very alive too. In the end, being able to conduct my day as I wanted, to the best of my ability, was a real gift of that shutdown time for me.
What about you, Zahar?
I’ve always been fascinated by exploring a material narrative in my work. Even before COVID, this idea of cooking and marinating, the alchemy of painting, has always intrigued and inspired me. And I love that quote by Roland Barthes, “Painting is cooking and writing,” which I always go back to.
But under COVID, especially when the protests started to happen, I started having these thoughts about painting as a mode of empathy; like, just the act of painting itself being a way for someone to experience empathy with their senses and their body, not just in their head.
I don’t know…there was just something about touch, and thinking about something that’s going on, and then attempting to communicate that in some tangible form. And texts started to creep into my work. To me, text always represents fragmentation. And fragmented wholes have always been something that I think about, but again, it was emphasized more during this time of amplified fragmentation. In response to the police killings and protests that were happening, I would feel the urge to write down a name on the canvas, to preserve it, and also even like sayings and slogans of solidarity. But then doing so would make the painting feel forced, or the empathy feel performative or something; so I would try to find ways to react to that and make the process and the painting both more honest and more subtle and more natural.
Those things were all popping up—and also while I was meditating on this idea of empathy through painting, I was feeling really intense moments of rage. And, especially like Nickola was talking about, us having this immigrant experience. We both immigrated to this country. I lived in the Soviet Union, and I had this intense experience with Uzbek people versus my interaction with Russian people, and of being Jewish in the Soviet Union.
All of these things started to come up again. And I started thinking about immigrants that voted for Trump. Like, say for example, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant (like myself) who experienced crazy amounts of antisemitism in their life. And then they move to America and are embraced and are given opportunities. And then later they cannot find a way to empathize with the people that are protesting against systemic police brutality and systemic racism. It just really enraged me. So I guess that also fed into this idea of painting and empathy.
And then the other thing related to COVID, some of the inspiration that I started leaning into, especially after coming back to my studio, I was listening to a lot of science fiction, like the Authority Annihilation Trilogies by Jeff VanderMeer. And some of the descriptions of mutations that the book describes, like plant species merging with each other, or a deer that could have plants growing out of its antlers. That stuff was really feeding my imagining of what COVID is like on a bio-microscopic level. So yeah, I guess that stuff was kind of feeding into what I was thinking about too.
But what about collaboration, did we collaborate on any artwork during the shutdown?
I mean, I think our collaboration has been more like… as co-directors of an artist-run gallery space. And just also as… I mean, there’s other things.
I feel like we collaborate in a way where maybe I find it to be a collaboration, or maybe it’s more like you guiding me. But the fact that we have certain routines, like the meditations and certain things that you’re more disciplined in following and are more committed to in a way, but I’ve been slowly exposed to, and have been letting some of that stuff come in, and seeing positive results. I think of that as an influence at least, if not collaboration.
Yeah. That kind of stuff is all conducive to the ritual for me. Being an artist, all of those things inform my work. Moving my body, dancing, reading, cooking, everything I think is intentionally there because I know it directly affects what work I make and how I make it. And so, it’s like we never leave the house without washing the dishes and just go to the studio without awareness and intention. I have a system for everything that keeps my mind and spirit balanced, so I’m able to get from point A to point B in a good healthy way. Ultimately, anything that relates to healing directly is key. That was actually the whole idea of the ‘reliefs’ that I was working on during this time.
It was also just great to be using Zahar’s materials—and him using mine, but me really stealing a lot of his materials (laughs).
Oh, stop it.
But for real, having access to things that I normally wouldn’t have had in my studio to experiment with. And I really found a voice using these, they certainly spoke to me. I live with my soulmate and then, through this experience, my art practice kind of found its soulmate materials.
We’ve also talked about collaborating in the future in terms of—it’s funny that we’re having this interview now, but this is something that we’ve actually considered before, interviewing other artists together and visiting other artists’ studios. So perhaps this could be a trigger for that in the future.
Yeah. For years we’ve talked about meeting with fellow artists and thinkers, makers, writers, dancers, creators—and recording our time together, editing it, and sharing those conversations and offerings. Because we wanted to amplify these talented people and widen their audience. And we just thought it would be a generous thing to do for our community and to help people keep building.
Especially for visual artists, the work shouldn’t end with you just having a show, an exhibition, that runs for a month. I mean, everyone wants to have an exhibition. But maybe not everyone comes to see it. And it’s like, all this build-up and then it’s just over.
And of course, it’s also just important to share who you are and have that be a living testament, an imprint on the world, a memory that lives on, that remains for others to appreciate and share and archive for the future.
So that was always a thing. It’s still an opportunity. But where do we find the bloody time? (laughs)
Yeah (laughs). I think that’s good.
All right. Thank you.
Nickola Pottinger has had her work shown at Parker Gallery in Los Angeles, CA, The University of Arts in Philadelphia, St. Charles Project in Baltimore, Mild Climate in Tennessee, Spring Break, Deli Gallery and Ortega y Gasset Projects in New York. She was nominated twice for The Rema Hortmann Emerging Artist Grant. Born in Jamaica, WI, she received her BFA from The Cooper Union. She is a co-director of the artist run space, Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn. Her work has been written up in Contemporary Art Daily, Hyper Allergic, and Epoch Times.
Zahar Vaks (b.1983, Tashkent, Uzbekistan) is a visual artist based in New York, NY. He earned his BFA from Tyler School of Art, and his MFA from The Ohio State University. He has shown in New York, Philadelphia, Columbus, Las Vegas, Houston, Vienna, on the island of Svalbard in Norway, and most recently in Beijing,China. In 2018 Zahar was invited to participate in the Rauschenberg Residency. He attended the Galveston Artist Residency from 2012-2013. He will be participating in the Artists in Residence (AIR) University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2021. Currently he is a member of the Ortega y Gasset Projects (OyG), an artist-run curatorial collective and exhibition space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.