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A Little Corner of the Universe: A Conversation with Tom Zuk

Artvoices. April 2012

When Virginia Beach-based artist Tom Zuk left his career as an architect in 2007 to become a full-time visual artist, the U.S. economy was not kind to him. However, the intricate level of detail in his work combined with a naturalistic world view has allowed Zuk to reach a level that affirms his occupation change. Zuk was kind enough to discuss his professional trajectory, philosophy and the primordial universe with me.

Tori Bush: Tom, will you tell me a little bit about your background? When did you start creating works of art?

Origin of the Universe, 42” x 42” india ink on fabric on panel

Tom Zuk:I started painting and drawing while working construction, before beginning my architectural career. I made my way to Ithaca where I rented studio space and began a lifelong pursuit to paint and draw. This was in the years 1975-77. Early influences during this time were the Fauves, including Andre Derain, van Gogh, Matisse and Vlaminck. In 1977, I began my studies in architecture and worked in a series of offices in northern Virginia. Hand drawing of construction documents was standard practice in those days, which I very much enjoyed.

TB: How do you see your practices of art and architecture intersecting? Does one inform the other?

TZ: The practice of architecture gave me a degree of patience. Much of my earlier work, after leaving the architecture practice, I think, was a reaction against the careful delineation method of drawing. My work was impulsive and paintings were often accomplished in one sitting. Interestingly, the large pen-and-ink drawings involve working both impulsively and spontaneously and also with precision and patience. Progressive architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid influence my artwork regarding the development of new forms and structure of the compositions. Many works use a rotating and broken grid framework that characterizes the finished pieces, imparting a dynamism and energy to the work.

TB:As you said earlier, architecture is such a deliberate practice. I’m interested in what is the process for creating one of your works? Is there a balance between calculated and spontaneous mark making?TZ:The thought before beginning one of the large ink paintings is to consider the piece as a puzzle, where line by line, the image begins to emerge, but with no forethought as to how the finished piece should look. The intention is to work spontaneously yet abide by certain rules, such as drawing within a lightly delineated broken grid or a rigid rectilinear grid. When approximately 95% of the marks are made, I’ll continue in a slower deliberative mode to complete the composition. Levels of lightness and density are decided while working and forms emerge unplanned.TB:A high level of detail is clearly a focus in your most recent work. What revelations come from working so intently on one piece?

Beginning of Time 42”x 42” pen and ink on fabric panel

TZ:By the simple act of making marks in a largely unpremeditated way, this free act of drawing is conducive to freely associating new forms, textures, and creating surprising adjacencies of the same. It kind of feels like creating a little corner of the universe. Essentially, I believe I am creating something new, where each successive work is the development of a new voice, a new expression. It is most exciting to see the work unfold, starting with the first square inch of marks applied to the blank panel and watching the work expand hour by hour, day by day. In fact, I’ll often start in the center and work outward, not unlike the primordial expansion of the universe.TB: Inspiration from the natural world does seem to be at the heart of your work. Is this a reaction in any way to some of the environmental, specifically coastal issues present in our nation?

TZ: A recent work, Dance of the Galaxies, has a certain ominous nature about it as the swirling pinwheels suggest an onslaught of hurricanes, known all too well to east and gulf coast communities. The issue of man and nature is one of dominance. Some people suggest that man has dominion over all living things. Sadly, this view has taken hold among many people, but really, the reverse is true. Without understanding and loving what has been given to us to enjoy, to respect and use wisely, it’s impossible to live a happy and healthy life.

Primordial Matter, india ink on fabric on panel, 42” x 42”

Having recently moved to the Piedmont area of Virginia, my work here will reflect my perceptions of life in this part of the country and I will join with the many Tidewater artists who find inspiration and satisfaction from living in this unique region. Artists are, after all, creative creatures and the creative spirit should be a highly valued part of society.TB: What excites you right now about your work? What excites you about the art world in general?

TZ: It is the absolute richness of the visual world that propels me toward making art, and how one can express this visual world in a unique way. The earlier black and white drawings are meant to have the viewer focus on the rich textural interplay of density and lightness. Color and mixed media are the most recent introductions into these ink works, where I intend to explore the interplay of these added dimensions.

The current art world seems to be in a state of wild, enthusiastic abandon. The revolution of the media age has brought with it extraordinary extrasensory developments in the art world. There is an explosion of approaches to the making of art, with new materials, methods and techniques being presented all over the world. Truly interesting times.

TB: Can you elaborate a little more about the effect of living in a hyper-visual culture? How does it shape your work?

TZ:Most people living in this country and in other technologically developed countries are unavoidably involved with an electronically augmented visual culture. Television has been super-sized, cell phones are not just audio devices anymore, movie theaters offer unprecedented digitally enhanced visual experiences, and buildings and cities are glowing and shimmering by day and night. I tend to accept the richness of this culture’s visual smorgasbord, yet seek a quiet and meditative way to assimilate and express what is presented before me each day.

Dissolution, pen and ink on fabric on panel, 42” x 42”

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