We had the good fortune of connecting with JenMarie Zeleznak and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi JenMarie, what are you inspired by?
I am inspired by the ‘condition of being’. The existence of life and the social relationships and experiences that develop and unravel, and the psychological response to the condition of being are of great interest. An introverted empath, I find myself observant of others and relate other’s experiences to my own. I am motivated by my own social [relationship] issues [struggles], but it is through the animal as my subject matter in my artwork, that I am able to work through or understand my own complex emotions. I am greatly inspired by complex emotions relating to loss and [personal] tragedy, desire and fear, along with intimacy and connection in both body and mind – all concerning both the presence of and absence of. I tend to gravitate towards ‘nuisance’ animals as my subject matter because I identify and relate to how they are perceived. I am most fond of observing these types of wildlife and watching their personalities, behaviors, and social relationships or interactions. I hope viewers of my art think inward to their own experiences and relationships and relate to the animal in a psychological and emotionally way – to see – at once – both themselves and the animal. Though my work concerns the animal and its autonomy, my work is equally self-referential – a representation of its own pathos, a portrait of its own gesture. According to Derrida, “We are not ourselves without representations that mediate us, and it is through those representations that emotions get felt.” For me, this is the innermost space between thinking and being. The animal, with a projected consciousness in the drawing, begins to speak to us in our own language while the image of the self/other also remains intact. This duality is important to me and my work.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
In my art, I work on large format watercolor paper. I work with watercolor pencils in a manner both sensitive and crude, using my saliva and sweat, hands and fingers to manipulate the material onto paper. I do not use water or a brush. This personal and direct connection, much like caressing or grooming an animal, gives me the intimacy I need in the work as I bring the animal into being. In that regard, it is necessary that the references I work from be true to the animal’s form. I am interested in maintaining their gestures and experiences so as to honor the authenticity of the animal’s condition of being. The unaltered ‘natural’ gesture I am searching for points towards actual animal emotions and experiences that I relate to my own human emotions and experiences. The angular line drawings that accompany the animal subjects in my art, I refer to as star maps. I connect stars from NASA imagery in both an arbitrary and intuitive manner. The star maps serve as a visual for the invisible energy that is felt, but not seen, by the animal subject. As a viewer, we are onlookers of someone else experiencing something deeply or going through an emotional moment. After I received my MFA at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia in 2011, I moved back to Cleveland, Ohio [where I spent the majority of my life] to be closer to family and friends as I was trying to figure out what my next move was. In 2013, it was as if the Universe aligned, and my work was selected to be a part of an exhibition in Cleveland called “Animatopoeia: A Most Peculiar (Post-Modern) Bestiary”. This was notable for me as their artist roster was full of inspiring artists both national and international – I felt so honored to be a part of the selection of exhibiting artists. This exhibition was extremely significant for me because some short time after the exhibition, I received a random call from an unknown number in Wyoming. This phone call was the true start of my career, little did I know. Mariam Diehl, owner of Diehl Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, discovered my work by way of this exhibition, and was interested in and wanted to represent my work. Though I had shown my work locally for many years prior, this was my first real gallery representation and at the time, I did not know how greatly it would affect my career moving forward. My representation at Diehl Gallery opened so many doors for me and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of Mariam Diehl. I am most proud of my work being acquired by the National Museum of Wildlife Art in 2015 thanks to my gallery representation by Diehl Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I am also proud of my semi-recent juried membership to the Society of Animal Artists. I feel honored and grateful to be a part of that [historical] community of practice and the opportunities and exposure that comes with being a member. Despite having significant opportunities in my art career, sustaining my studio practice has been tough financially. The cost of framing work for exhibition opportunities as well as for providing my gallery with consistent inventory has been a major obstacle over the last 6-8 years. This is not a struggle I have yet overcome. In 2019, I finally landed a full-time teaching position after 8 years of teaching 4-6 classes between 3-4 colleges at one time. However, I am so grateful to have a full-time position and teach at one single college, where I can feel valued, grow in my career and have more financial stability. It’s still hard to feel like I can invest in my art career paycheck-to-paycheck, but with more predictability and consistency, I am hopeful this will remedy itself soon and I will be able to start setting funds aside for my art career.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Being “new” to Sierra Vista, Arizona – I, myself, and still learning about where I live. Coming from Cleveland, Ohio – I’ve been exposed to an entirely new ecosystem and way of life. I have found great inspiration in walking in nature, and even making it up to the peak of the Coronado National Monument. I would want to show a stranger the beauty of the desert landscape. The early morning pre-sunrise, the mid-day blazing rays of sunshine, the awe-inspiring sunsets, the quietness of dusk, and the illuminated sky at night. I would also love to take them to the Tucson, to the Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park, for more sights and sounds of the desert – and hoping to see some wildlife along the way in the vast emptiness in the space between where I live and Tucson. I would surely want to take them the back way, to drive through the mountainous terrain with guaranteed extraordinary views.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Kindness, empathy, and compassion matters. I would like to thank Periklis Pagratis, my grad school Professor and Mentor at SCAD. Periklis affected my life in ways I can never fully thank him for and if it wasn’t for him, I would have not ‘found’ drawing in the way that I did. Periklis had a way of ‘reaching me’ as a student, that I hadn’t experienced prior. He cultivated my sensitivity and visual awareness and helped facilitate my confidence where there was none. He understood my vulnerability and taught me to not be ashamed of being authentic and real, to own my strengths and weaknesses, and to see challenges as an opportunity to grow. So, I want to thank Periklis for always believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. I try and teach my students with the same kindness, empathy, and compassion that Periklis embodies.