Zaria Forman’s art has to be seen in person to be believed. She creates enormous, photorealistic depictions of icebergs and frozen landscapes with just some pastels and her own two hands. It’s just astounding the level of detail she can conjure up. No stranger to either of the planet’s poles, Antarctica, her most recent body of work, was inspired by a four-week residency aboard the National Geographic Explorer.
What’s the first thing you put on paper with one of your massive pieces?
It all begins with my travels, actually. I take thousands of photographs. I often make a few small sketches on-site to get a feel for the landscape. Once I return to the studio, I draw from my memory of the experience, as well as from the photographs, to create large-scale compositions. Occasionally I will re-invent the water or sky, alter the shape of the ice, or mix and match a few different images to create a balanced composition, but 90% of the time I depict the exact scene that I witnessed, because I want to stay true to the landscape that existed at that point in time. I always begin with a very simple pencil sketch so I have a few major lines to follow, and then I add layers of pigment onto the paper, smudging everything with my palms and fingers and breaking the pastel into sharp shards to render finer details.
On your first day of a massive piece are you daunted by the size of the canvas?
Beginning a large piece for me is more a feeling of excitement and anticipation than anything else. It gives me the opportunity to truly sit with a landscape, to shape it and reexperience it in a way that wasn’t possible before, even in the moments I was actually there. It takes me months to make a large piece, but in real life, I’m only with those landscapes for minutes at a time, maybe an hour if I’m lucky. So drawing a large-scale landscape for me is a way of familiarizing myself with the place I want to protect. It’s a way of coming home.
You travelled a lot throughout your childhood – do you think it’s important that children see as much of the world as possible?
Travel is necessary for my art and life experiences – one cannot exist without the other, and I believe the same is true for most people, whether they’re aware of it or not. My whole family traveled together every year for four to six weeks. I have very fond memories of the trips and consider them a vital part of my upbringing and education. I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to see so much of the world, and to learn first-hand about cultures so vastly different from our own. To travel is to live and every child should be exposed to the spontaneity and life-changing perspectives that you find when you’re exploring the world.
Can you remember seeing your first iceberg? How did it affect you?
I saw my first icebergs in Greenland, in 2007. I’ll never forget walking out on the Arctic tundra, and seeing massive ice cathedrals the size of several city blocks looming in the distant ice fjord. The closer I got to them, the more humbling the experience felt. I was in total awe of their scale, beauty, and powerful presence.
Working with pastels is almost like working with dust – you must totally trust your framer when they take them away? Do you get nervous that things could go horribly wrong when they’re being framed?
You have no idea! My drawings are so delicate and there is only one framer I trust with them. He’s designed a special strainer system to give them extra support and we take every possible precaution, even custom-built travel frames for the larger ones, to protect them from damage in transit. It’s probably the biggest challenge with my work, but the fragility of the drawings is eerily similar to the state of the icy landscapes they depict, so it seems fitting, in a way, to take such extra special care with them.
Your work was hung in the White House that featured in House of Cards but I’m guessing you’ve not had a call to hang any pieces by the current residents..? Where other unusual places have you found your work has gone to?
No calls from the current administration, no no. I had the pleasure of visiting one of my drawings at the American Embassy in Switzerland a few years ago! Another was at the American Embassy in Finland for a few years. I had two large drawings at Harvard’s Center for the Environment for the school year of 2016/17, but I guess that’s not particularly unusual. A giant print of one of my drawings covers the largest wall in one of the tiniest airports, at the top of the world (Ilulissat, Greenland).
Where can we see more of your work?
I actually have a solo show opening this Saturday, September 9th at Winston Wachter Fine Art in Seattle. It runs through November 4th. There are ten drawings and an immersive video and sound installation. I hope the exhibit transports viewers to the icy landscapes of Antarctica.
Interview: Josh Jones