Painter

artist, Indiana, Painter

Sabrina Zhou

You went to art school in China…

Two art schools in China and one in Canada. All different majors. The first one was Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. I was majoring in watercolor. Then I met my husband and moved to the art school that he was in. That was in Sichuan, the southwest of China. This is where pandas come from. So first I did fine arts [watercolor] and then interior design. Then went to Canada and there I did fine arts…

What made you come to America?

I knew I was going to leave Calgary, it’s just too cold there. It’s like half a year in winter. We have to walk in tunnels and all of that. I didn’t think I would come to America until I visited a friend here. [We went to school together in Canada.] He was a New York street artist [at the time.]
…He was good and he inspired me. I just followed his steps…

So you started off on the east coast in Connecticut…

For seven years. Long time.…There was an old storage place they turned into artist lofts and rented them only to artists. So the rent was much cheaper than the market. You got to live with all sorts of artists; painters, singers, poets, writers, etc.  And then parties and talks... It was fun.
…I had a booth at the mall in Connecticut for Christmas and I was doing about 10 portraits a day… I came here to Indiana and had a booth at the mall for one year, in 2013.  I was playing video games on the computer the day before Christmas. People were not interested…

I focused solely on portraits for years and eventually hated it. Mostly I worked from photographs. People had all kinds of photographs. [laughter] Some of them where really hard to work with! And they asked funny questions; you can do this? You can do that? Can you put this head on that body? All sorts of questions…

When you do still lives. Do you set them all up and draw from life?

Yes…That’s part of the fun.

Setting everything up?

Yes. I rarely did oil in college because it’s so different than watercolor. With oils, you can mix all the colors together. You can be a pastel artist and oil painter, but watercolor and oil are so different. Different procedures.

[Pastels are] a smaller medium but once you get the hang of it, it’s so much fun. I could just sit here for hours doing my little feathering. It’s very controllable and the colors are so vivid. It is the pure pigment here. Paints can change color over time, but pastels stay there. …  [Pastels do fade in the sun a little bit,] especially the cheap ones. But that’s it. It can be very expensive. This tiny little stick cost $3 and you need so many different colors. Since you are working with the straight color you can’t blend it like you do with paint to get the color you need.
At this stage I don’t blend the pastels but the first few stages I do.

How do you blend pastels?

My finger. Someone told me you can rub the oil in your hand into the painting. So far I haven’t seen any problems with that. I use paper towels for the background because it is a big area. It is very different than when you rub with your finger. You can get a much smoother result with your finger.

When I do landscapes. People keep asking me where is this…where is that? It’s here, [points to head and laughs] it’s not real.

 

This landscape is all made up from your head?

Well this one I got the inspiration from Cool Creek Park. We walk over there with our dog. There is an area of birch trees. I added this mountain behind it. For the color variation. Indianapolis is so flat! I like that deep blue-purple color in the back and the trees against it. I like the effect. I can also show a little bit of pink, reddish color here and there. To compliment the green. So that part is coming out of my mind wherever I feel it’s necessary.
...
A good thing to do when you finish a painting is to put it aside for a few months. When you come back to it you find a lot of problems you want to fix. When you are just staring at it you are like, “[groans] Okay. I think it’s done.”
...
All those things that we learned in China, I don’t know any different until after years of being here. We learned the Russian system of art, called social realism. It’s more realistic. That’s why I was going so tight. All these details! I was considered to have a bad sense of color when I was in school. And I grew with that because when you get really into details you forget the fresh thing you had when you first looked at those still lives. You get into shape and volumes more than colors. So I thought, “Ok, I can’t see colors, I am so bad.” It’s a good thing I switched to oil because I work faster with a wider brush…I want to be John Singer Sargent. And I like that style better. I start to say “Oh, now I see more colors!” You can really relax and get loose. I see more colors and I like that. So when I go back to my pastel, I feel I work the color better. Even when I am doing detailed work like this, I see more colors. I benefit from that.  

John Singer Sargent, he’s a great portrait artist. I saw a painting of his with two ladies sitting in a garden with a table. The lady’s hand was painted really thick but loose brush work.  When you get close it’s just piles of paint up there, but when you step back, it’s a perfectly done hand. He is that awesome…
If you take the time and get into details, I can make it. But he was madly good, his strokes look so impatient, [whoosh of air and wide hand gesture] but everything is already there. So good.

It's interesting that you would admire Sargent, a more impressionistic painter, because your pastel work is very tight. You can get really up close to them and really appreciate them. But, your oil paintings are looser, more impressionistic.

Right. I’m trying to hide my tiny little brushes away from myself. So I just grab the bigger ones. All the tiny ones are there where I can’t reach them. So I am trying to use this bigger brush to get into the little detail and it’s become more vivid that way. It’s not as tight. With pastels I can’t [get bigger], they are already this shape.

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Last year, I was in a show in Columbus, Ohio. I sold a painting that was not done. It was still wet! I didn’t have enough paintings to fill out the booth. This guy came in and said, “I just love that.”
I said, “You can order that. Once I am done with it I can ship it to you.”
He said, “No. I want it just like that.”

That’s pretty incredible. Did you sell it to him?

Yes! He took it. It needed to be varnished, but it was still wet…  He is not interested in me finishing the painting. That’s nice sometimes, the work doesn’t have to be really completed as you want. Some of the looseness in the first few stages appeal to people.

artist, Columbus OH, Ohio, Painter

Mandi Caskey

12.29.2015 conversation

How long do you expect this mural to take?

I’m hoping until the end of January. But that’s if everything goes smoothly and if nothing else jumps on my plate. I’ve been up here since the day after Christmas, everyday. Only a few hours at a time. I’ve been taking my time. Playing nice music. Just enjoying it rather than, “Gotta get done!” Which is how I usually am. As I see it, [this mural] is going to be up here for 40 plus years. Might as well take my time on it.

How did you get this gig?

One of my really good friends’ mom works up here. I met his parents one day and his mom says, “There’s this opportunity, I don’t know if you want it.” Then she explained it to me. “Yea I want to do that! Are you joking?” Then there was this whole process. It took months to get to [the painting] point. We talked about it. [Went through] all the legalities. We’re finally here!

Is this the first mural that you’ve had to deal with legal issues?

Yes. Did you see the football players that I did? laughter My friend and I did really old school football players on [the Landgrant Brewing Co Building] in Franklinton. We hopped on that and just talked to the owner of the building. That’s usually how its been. For this, since it is a public space and in a government building, it took months to get approvals after approvals. [It had to be explained] why this was needed, etc. It was cool to learn how to go through those things. [To learn the difference between work that goes up] in a government building compared to abandoned spaces. 

Most of the stuff that you do is larger scale? Or do you work on smaller canvases too?

There’s a pretty drastic difference between my street art and the things I do at home. I find that smaller works that people can actually hold and really be intimate with it is more impactful in a gallery space. On the street, it [should be] something big and more eye-catching. The “wow how’d they do that?!” I guess is more impressive that way. I’m actually starting this new series, bringing my gallery work outside. I’ll be doing bricks, single bricks, all over the city… I’ve kind-of already started the series. I actually built my own brick walls.

Finished cabin and sky on the left. Underpainting on trees to the right.

"Blocking in" or "underpainting".

I saw those! I’ve wondered, “What’s going on with this?”

I’m really excited about it. A lot of people are stoked about it. Brioso, Landgrant. They both have said “We want a brick! Paint one of our bricks!” I want to do a location kind of thing. If you find one, you could do a hashtag, you know what I mean? Something like a hide-and-seek game. Where’s Waldo… I’m stoked about it. No one’s really doing that right now. No one is taking street art and doing it really small and delicate. Everything is in-your-face and large. I feel like it’s really important to bring it back down to earth. Have a conversation with it, rather than it engulfing you. 

A conversation instead of a statement.

Yea, I’m really excited about it. It gives me goosebumps every time I talk about it. To have 20 to 30 bricks and to see those in a series. And have people taking photos with them and interacting with them. I’m excited for all those moments people will have. They’ll look, then do a double take, and go up to it and say, “Whaat?!” You know what I mean? That’s so special. I live for those moments. 

Did you grow up making art?

Yes I did. There were two things I wanted to be when I grew up. It was either an archeologist or an artist. And here I am. I have a huge love for history. I base a lot of my work on the way the masters did it. Very traditional style. Very emotional. I watch a lot of documentaries while I work.


Your plants, like what you did for Brioso. And also your birds. I loved all of those. They’re very enlightenment and turn of the century text book style.

Yea that’s what I really love to do. Institutional. That look where you’ve been schooled. You know. I only went to college for two years. 

So you quit art school. Did you feel like it just wasn’t helping you?

I was in the fine arts program and I didn’t feel like it was really carrying me anywhere. I was spending 30 grand a year just learning the same stuff over and over again… I also just couldn’t afford it. I was paying for it myself and at some point you just have to say “I’m going to be more in debt than it’s even worth.” I feel that to be an artist you don’t need to go to school. If you have enough drive and are determined and obviously a little bit of talent thrown in there. You’re going to do something.

 

I was seeing all the other fine artists doing a lot of contemporary, abstract work. And then here’s me, really focusing on a very traditional look. It was really frustrating. Seeing other people get praised for something….I understand conceptually there’s something there. I respect it for it’s conceptual side. But do I value it as much as I do the master’s and more traditional work? No. I don’t. 

You have to have that strong foundation before you can jump into the more contemporary stuff.

Yes. And that was always my argument. With everything. At a point I got frustrated. The whole fine arts program is this when I’m trying to do this. I’m not going to try please a different crowd. I know what I’m supposed to do. That’s the little rebel in me I guess.

 

01.13.2017 Update

Are you excited to finally finish this mural?

Yes! It’s going to be bittersweet. I love coming up here, it’s relaxing. But I’m ready to be done with it, you know? I’ve got 6 ladybugs, some buckeyes, two bumble bees and these carnations to finish. I’m going to be done at 9 tonight. I’m ready to move on to other things.