Julia Zanes and Donald Saaf:
It's easy to recognize their house in the village. A bike on the porch. Onions drying and forming skin. One of the kids is shooting crab apples at the wall through a handmade blowgun. A painted wooden harlequin on wheels sits there too, arms upturned, his four pairs of eyes on his four faces looking all directions at once. His name is NorthSouthEastWest Man. I remember seeing a snapshot of a younger Julia and Donald in the pine forest of Cape Breton Island, where the family spends time in the summer. The sculpture is in the foreground. I think to myself, "This mannikin is like a compass on a ship."
Julia and Donald have been painting together since before college days. They met in the charmed, eclectic halls and walled garden of the Gardiner Museum in Boston, where they worked before Art School. These days they are seasoned artists, interweaving their two careers and the family high-wire act, cultivating the skills of jugglers. I have counted at least three studio spaces in their house during my visits there, and where either of them is going to be working is unpredictable. This time Julia is working in the downstairs studio. They divide their work and family time pretty evenly and organically. It's a democratic process.
Like many North Americans from recent generations, they've moved around, adventuring and absorbing seemingly disparate cultures. They have lived and worked in Mexico, New Orleans, and recently in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Now the family is settling in for the children's school years in Saxtons River, Vermont.
J: Here, in a village, it feels like where I grew up in New Hampshire. We lucked out with this place. Cape Breton was really, really remote. It felt like people were staring at us in disbelief. In Nova Scotia people were astounded, actually appalled, that we could bring our paintings down south and sell them.
D: I liked it there. I played music there. I like remote.
I think about Don's subject matter: of people in boats, chopping wood, working gardens, seemingly simple, homey scenes.
S: I often hear the question, "Where is this artist from? Are they from Vermont?" In the perspective of your work, do you see yourself as coming from a place? Or a time?
D: I think that living in these places -- the connecting threads of traditions in folk art and carving in these places -- have definitely worked on me a lot. The wood-carvers of Oaxaca, for instance, were a strong influence on my work, and the folk painters of New Orleans, the painters and carvers of Canada. There is a lot of great art up there.
J: No, I don't really feel influenced by those places at all.
D: What about American Folk Art?
J: I like the early American tradition, but no more than Hindu embroidery, or Persian miniatures. I'm definitely not a folk artist.
Julia's paintings are often prismed and complex, suffused with patterns from Indian crewel embroidery. The settings certainly have the feeling of the stage, or formal space, in Persian Miniatures. Mythical beasts and oversized birds are rampant. So is a kind of mysterious, magical writing. When I ask Julia about the reason for the writing, she only replies: "Oh."
J: We went to the Shelburne Museum recently, and the carved "toys" really amazed and excited us, especially the Edgar Clark Circus Dioramas. He spent fifty years working on it after hours and on weekends. He even carved the thousands of people in the audience! There is a bicycle on the high wire! The children were his Admiring Public. It is refreshing to see something arising from almost nothing, simple materials, the simple things of life . . . especially coming from America.
S: You transpose your mother's photos onto your paintings. There are images of castles, old orchards, roofless cathedrals, standing stones: mythic places.
J: The images are from all over the place. Some are from France, some are from around here. I choose them solely for the visual experience, for the purpose of the painting. Also growing up, my mother had a nice collection of antique dresses that filled the barn loft. Since she is a photographer and I was the only girl in the family, I would get to dress up in the dresses, and my mother would photograph the tableaux. Some of the dresses were really beautiful.
S: You were queen!
J: Yes, I guess so! Now I incorporate photos of these dresses into my work, and since the cloth is now deteriorating, they are immortalized in my work. Paper doll play has also influenced my work. These come into play in my paintings a lot.
S: When several of your paintings hang next to each other, it doesn't seem to matter what sequence they are in, but they always make a kind of tapestry that is a story. Do you have a narrative or story in mind when you make the paintings?
J: I always have a specific plot in mind, but then I want to hide that somewhat. I often ask Donald, Is that too obvious? And he usually replies that no one will ever, ever guess the original story. Whew!
I am sitting here in the kitchen. The cabinets are decorated with designs and pictures, there are masks and paintings on the wall, carvings in the corner. Children are playing or floating in the paintings, and boys on the living room floor are playing blocks. As if Life is looking at the painting and the painting is looking back.
S: Donald, do you usually work with a story?
D: I paint my family. The emotional dynamic in my family. I pretty much think of these as abstract paintings. But inside of these abstracted figures is the story or the subject matter.
J: Don's paintings are much more directly personal. For that reason, they are sometimes hard for us to part with.
D: I usually work on a number of paintings at once, and it will be sort of a snapshot of a certain basic plot. This series for the show coming up here is based loosely on images of Saints.
J: Donald belongs to the Stumpy Brush School of painting, and I belong to the Persian One-Haired Brush School.
D: Yeah, painting is a direct, physical act for me. I really beat the brushes up. I would paint with the top of my head as a paintbrush if I could.
I notice in this grouping of paintings in process a simple, arresting image of a child/person sitting in an enclosure or cave, reading a manuscript. A similar figure, reading a book inside a protected little house, resides in Julia's painting in the living room. This child is part of a larger, more complex system. It seems to be protected by an elegantly clothed King and Queen, while three other children sail away in little red boats.
D: This painting of Julia's is really good. This one will be hard to let go of.
J: Come see our puppet theatre. We have been working on this a lot lately. It started with these lovely old red velvet curtains. Later there will be marionettes.
An entire room is devoted to the construction of the magical gilded stage, which is in the process of being collaged. I am struck by how similar it is to the golden, labyrinthine houses in a recent series of Julia's paintings. I am reminded of the upcoming Puppet Festival and of their friend Finn, the puppeteer. Julia tells me that they plan to have the theatre at the school. It's a great community to live in, she says.
J: Want some tomatoes from our garden?
"Art refers to all the activities of our life -- it is not an occupation: it is our whole being." -- Dharma Art, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche
Julia Zanes and Donald Saaf will present their latest show, "Allegorical Paintings," from October 3 through November 4 at Gallery in the Woods, 143 Main Street, Brattleboro, Vt. Reception: Friday, October 3 from 5 to 8:30 pm. Visit the show at www.GalleryintheWoods.com.
Copyright 2003, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont