Lea Zalinskis: “Songs to a Faraway Home”

Lea Zalinskis: “Songs to a Faraway Home”

Lea Zalinskis is an Oakland based artist working primarily in hand-cut paper. Her exhibition “Growing Under” with Esther Samuels-Davis is on view at The Holland Project Gallery July 10-29, 2018. The reception will be held on Friday, July 20 from 6PM-8PM. Before then, we wanted to get to know Lea a little better and learn more about her latest series of work “Songs to a Faraway Home”

Alana Berglund: First, tell us a bit about yourself: where you’re from, where you live now, and what you like to do?

Lea Zalinskis: I grew up in Berkeley, California, and now I live and work in Oakland. I love making crazily detailed art (obviously), and I also love baking, cooking, trying new/weird/delicious foods, and making up cocktail recipes to varying degrees of success. When I get the chance to travel, my normal routine is to eat pastries all day and sample as many different bakeries as possible.

AB: Generally, what are some influences that drive your work?

LZ: I’ve always really loved animals, including tiny ones like bugs and shellfish. Each creature roams around and does its unique thing in its own little world. There’s a certain kindness and spirit that I find in nature in general, including trees and plants. When I’m making my cutouts or drawings, I try really hard to honor the character and spirit of whatever animal or plant I’m portraying. Even when I’m making plants or trees, I think of them as characters. A dear friend who saw some of my new work recently commented that I show a “tenderness toward natural realities”, which, to me, is the best compliment I could receive. It’s fairly uncommon for me to communicate my motivations for making something, so to know that some of it has shown through on its own feels like a huge success.

AB: Reno is so close to the Bay Area. Is there anything happening in the Oakland art scene that your excited for and that we should know about? Any favorite artists?

LZ: Being sort of a hermit, I’m not as informed as I should be about the art-related goings-on of the East Bay. I do work at a totally sweet shop called Resurrect, which carries local/U.S.-made/fair trade goods, and we put on an art show every two months featuring local artists exclusively. Right now we have Laura Ann Kay, who’s an incredible ceramic artist from Oakland. Coming up we’ll have Nancy Brown, a realist painter who will be showing oil paintings of hoodoo rock formations. Some of my favorite work of hers is the “Urban Blight” series, painted from her own photographs of really interesting scenes all over Oakland. It’s especially interesting to look at it now, since a lot of those places don’t exist anymore or have completely changed with gentrification.

Another favorite artist of mine is Joe Kowalczyk. We went to California College of the Arts at the same time and I’ve always been delighted and awestruck by his ceramic sculpture. It’s a delicate combination of the dark and the playful, mind-blowingly executed.

AB: How long have you been honing your paper cutting skills? Your work is so impossibly detailed and delicate!

LZ: Paper cutting is something I experimented with briefly 7 or 8 years ago, after a friend of mine wanted to try Polish paper cutouts– all really brightly colored, usually symmetrical, super fun folk art. I really enjoyed it, but then stopped doing art for a couple of years. About five years ago the cutouts came to my mind again and I decided on the spot that I should try making an illustration using similar techniques. From there I just took off. I can’t really help being crazy detailed about everything– it’s like a weird and very satisfying compulsion/meditation. Having cut so much paper over five years, I have a good idea what it does and doesn’t want to do, which has opened the door for more and more insane detail-oriented experimentation.This project for Holland Project Gallery is the first time I’ve attempted 3D paper work and it’s some of the most detailed so far. It’s been a good challenge.

AB: What are some of the themes we will see running through your exhibition at Holland?

LZ: The main themes running through my exhibition at Holland is the feeling of familiarity/belonging in a place in which one did not grow up, and the idea of inherited memory. My grandparents on my dad’s side fled Latvia during WWII and actually met in a refugee camp. My dad (and most of his siblings) were born in one of the many camps they lived in before coming to the U.S. Since my grandmother died in the early nineties right as the Soviet Union dissolved, she was never able to return home. All of this has somehow seeped in and affected me in a palpable way, to the point where I was absolutely determined to visit once I became an adult. The first visit and every visit since, I’ve felt a deep sense of home that cuts straight to my core, like the land is trying to pull me in. It’s an inexplicable experience that other “non-Latvian Latvians” I know have corroborated. At the same time there’s the reality that I don’t know the language fluently and that I grew up in America in a completely different culture. None of it makes logical sense. Sometimes it feels like I’ve inherited the memories of all of my ancestors, which I really love the idea of. This exhibition is the very beginning of exploring all those points and weaving them together.

AB: Last one: I’m curious about this new body of work and how you view its relation to previous work. The work focusing on animal characters is very playful, with a wide ranging fantastical palette. The new work is more still, quiet, and deeply personal. Do you often get to make this departure? Do you even see it as a departure? I’m enjoying seeing examples of how you can reside in both places, playful and almost otherworldly vs. reflective and grounded in reality/memory.

LZ: I see it as a departure in terms of the sculptural quality and also in terms of the subject matter– it’s highly unusual for me to do work that’s almost devoid of animals and go instead for still lifes and landscapes. But while the new work is reflective and partially driven by reality/memory, it’s also about accessing this emotional space of what feels like inherited memory, which for me fits into the “otherworldly” category of my usual work.

Regardless of mood, I think my work (when successful) is a distillation of the subject matter into some sort of core quality. A kind of peeling away at the superficial layers to reveal something just the way it is (or how I feel it to be), without trying to poke and prod and overanalyze. The main difference is that, in my new work, I’ve tried to do it with memories and feelings as a way to make sense of my own experience. So the focus is on something intensely personal and totally nebulous that requires different imagery.

In some of my first paper work, I actually hid some very personal stuff within these whimsical scenes that appeared quite playful– not sure how many people picked up on it, and I probably didn’t really want them to, haha. Anyway, before I started working with paper, I would focus my art on very heavy subject matter for a good length of time before coming up for air to do something humorous and off the wall. I like the rhythm of that a lot– if I don’t change things up I feel like I’m holding my breath. So finally changing the mood of my paper work for this project feels more natural than doing the same thing as before. The opportunity to show at Holland has opened up the option to make something more serious, since the venue is completely different from doing one-off illustrations that are more oriented toward print/graphic design. This project has been brewing inside of me for a long time and was just waiting for a chance to come out (thank you for that!).

Growing Under will be on view July 10-July 29, 2018 at the Holland Project. Gallery hours are Tu-Fr 3pm-6pm or by appt. Keep up with gallery happenings on our Instagram page: @hp_galleries. You can also browse + buy artwork from this exhibition and others through our online store starting July 10th.