Thursday, May 12, 2016

Head in the Clouds; Hands in the Earth

Nadir (In Memory of David Shirmohammad), EarthPaint on canvas
Laura Z 
2016. This memorial painting is embedded with a small glass bottle containing a dear friend's ashes.
I've always been a bit of an oddball. I've created art in one form or another since I was a kid: directing my little sisters in plays I wrote (and starred in, of course); singing at the top of my lungs, perched in the highest branches of a sprawling ficus tree; brutal, larger-than-life teenage dramas that could qualify as performance art.

The Weather in September, Laura Z 2004
I was always illustrating my imaginary worlds through art. How else could I begin to explain whatever cloud my head was in? My strange, contradictory nature confounds even me: I am excitable and easily distracted, yet capable of unnatural feats of concentration and focus - as a child it often took a great deal of shouting to rouse me from my dream world and force me to participate in "Real Life," whatever that is. A gifted student with an aptitude for almost anything, I bounced from one passion to another with a fickle intensity, declaring each new interest What I'm Going To Be, before moving blithely on to the next: preacher, teacher, missionary, doctor, biologist, psychiatrist, writer, actress, artist....

I never wanted to be a ballerina. - my clumsiness is legendary. I was oblivious to anything as ordinary as the spatial relationship between hard, stationary objects and easily bruised shins, knees, elbows, toes.....

Color Spiral, Laura Z 2004
It wasn't until 1999, as I was graduating from Western Carolina University with an English degree, that I stumbled (quite literally) on to what has become my life's overriding passion.

I found inspiration right under my feet, on a mountainside bisected with veins of colorful earth. I began collecting the various earthen hues, determined to figure out a way to paint with them.

This part of western North Carolina is dotted with gem mines - ruby, sapphire, amethyst, garnet, olivine, and glittery mica that pervades everything and makes dirty floors sparkle.

The local abundance and variety of gems and minerals is world-renowned, so even back then I was able to collect a basic palette that would be hard to find anywhere else in the world: Crimson-red clay, red and yellow ocher, a bluish gray, green, chalky off-white, and a powdery mica that glitters like gold dust.

Sixteen years later, I've collected a full palette of mineral colors, dozens of techniques and tricks, and an assortment of crazy improvised tools, made mostly from a random collection of odd metal bits, plastic and cardboard packaging scraps, and re-purposed household items I call The Weirdo Toolbox.

I am still so in love, totally enthralled by this challenging medium that builds my understanding (as well as curiosity and wonder) with each painting.

It's the closest I'll ever come to being grounded - I'm still an absent-minded klutz - but there's something about the physicality of crushing rocks that somehow bridges the divide between my imagination and this awkward alien world where I crash into things and have to pretend I understand what's going on.

left: making blue pigment from lapis lazuli
It's given me an awareness of and appreciation for the natural world I wouldn't otherwise have, and the labor-intensive process is very cathartic, stilling my turbulent emotional nature so I can make art in relative tranquility. It is the calm eye of my storm, the peace after I have endured it.

Solace, Laura Z 2014


  1. You can write too! I had no idea your college degree was in English. Very nice post. I'll be subscribing.

  2. Thank you, Katie! I'm actually a very prolific writer: this blog is the culmination of many years of recording my little experiments in a painting journal.

    That, and the realization that so many of my daily activities are ridiculously odd. I have to share them so I'm not the only one laughing about how weird I am.


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