Interview with Sofia Zu’bi by Rebecca Brantley
R.B.: Where and when were born? Briefly describe your personal journey to New York.
S.Z.: I was born in Newport Beach, California in 1993 to a Spanish mother and Jordanian father. As the only child, I lived in California until I began my teenage years and left to Bahrain, a tiny island off Saudi Arabia to follow my father who decided to move for work and to be near my grandfather. The culture was shockingly different and I learned to adjust myself to a new world of people and lifestyle, which at the time I disliked but now can appreciate what the experience brought to my growth as a young woman. At the time, I looked up to Fafinette, a female graffiti artist from Paris, and Audrey Kawasaki, a painter from LA. I love their expression as women in the art world and the way they would portray female stereotypes we see in today’s world. Later on I left to boarding school where I finished my high school education in Los Olivos, California. It was always a goal of mine to pursue the arts and live in New York. There was something about the energy there when I would visit as a child that was nothing like I knew before. Everything was alive, the art was everywhere, and people seemed to be free to express themselves in any way they wanted.
R.B.: Where do you work? Describe your studio practice.
S.Z.: After graduating from Pratt Institute a year ago, I decided to move to a studio in New Jersey where I could have more space to create. It was difficult to leave the social world that I built for five years in the city but I believed that the seclusion would bring about a change in my world I was eager to see. I lived the past eight months alone in New Jersey, an hour from the city. At first the free time was more challenging than I imagined it would be; I started getting easily distracted by my own thoughts. It seemed that the deadlines and pressure in New York was something I worked well with so I needed to create that again for myself. I started a habit of making a schedule daily from nine to five in my studio where I would just create, like a standard job. I started to see my work more so as a means of mediation, I wanted my painting to be a way to expel my thoughts instead of bring them about. I began thinking about the things in my life that bring my happiness, the first being animals and nature. This new series I’m working on is me creating my own world filled with elements of nature that I’m fascinated by and bring me peace.
R.B.: How did your experience at Pratt shape your artistic career?
S.Z.: The best thing about being a part of an institution like Pratt is experiencing a sense of community with people you share a common interest with. The journey from when I started in 2012 to 2017 was a long timeline of changes for myself as I began to find my mark as an artist. The hardest part was finding exactly the style that came from me organically, and it occurred at the moment I let go of trying. The process of working from my imagination set me free and I began creating endless the world that lives inside my head, which was my version of the world I was experiencing. From 2014 to now, my work serves as a timeline of my experiences, dreams, and lessons from the years that have passed. Pratt gave me the freedom to express myself—my professors who are actively practicing in the field saw each one of us and guided us both silently and directly. Sometimes during critiques my classmates would bring up something in my painting I’d never see before. These conversations allows you to view your work objectively, which is the most important thing you can do while looking at your work.
R.B.: Your work evokes Matisse, Picasso’s rose and blue periods as well as his synthetic cubist works, Franz Marc, and early Kandinsky. All of these artists were drawn to the notion of the so-called “primitive.” Marc, in particular, was drawn to the notion of animals as purer than humans. Can you discuss any of these ideas as they apply to your work?
S.Z.: I appreciate all these artists you mentioned because of their primitive and expressive freedom in their work. These artist don’t paint the world as it looks rather the world as it feels. What does the horse feel like when its running across the meadow? What does the woman feel like when she looks back at you? Every mark is exaggerated: the nose may be bigger, the hands smaller, it’s all a means of twisting the physical reality and making the world a little more exciting. The recent works I’m doing evoking nature more prominently have to do with my enjoyment of these aspects around me in my personal life. I want to go back to the world when all of this before us didn’t exist—I’ll never know what it’s like but I can recreate it as I imagined it to be. Animals and nature (and of course women) have been the most frequently painted subjects in art. Why? Perhaps, because as I believe, they’re the most beautiful things in life.
R.B.: You cite reading and writing poetry as influential to you from an early age. Are there particular poets or styles of poetry that appeal to you? Can you discuss the similarities between composing poetry and making a painting?
S.Z.: Words are very powerful to me. Not only in their meanings, but lack of; their form and their sound. When I was a child I always said I wanted to be a poet. I remember being drawn to the book, [Shel Silverstein’s] Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974), and rereading the lines over and over. The words were witty and always had a small illustration beside them. As I got older I would journal almost naturally, I have journals from when I was a nine-year-old girl expressing my crush on my male teacher. I write because I fear I’ll forget something and also I can make more sense of it when its outside of my head. These last few years unbidden words and lines would pop into my mind and I would immediately want to write it down, so I always carry a paper journal with me. A lot of these lines that I write down become titles of my paintings or turn into short stories. A painting is always a story just another way of reading, its telling a story through the symbols and elements you’re presented.
R.B.: Following up on the previous questions, can you discuss how narrative informs your work? Often it seems there is an implicit story. I know you prefer viewers to intuit or feel as opposed to giving them a concrete story, but I’m curious about the kinds of narratives that you might imagine as you create your works.
S.Z.: A lot of the time I am painting the stories in my life that I want to make more sense of. If it has to do with the complications of love—I paint what’s going on in order to visually sort things out. In 2014 when I started showing my work at Linda Matney Gallery, I showed my “love” series of calligraphy drawings. At the time when I was making these works I hadn’t a clue that the entire body of work was a connection between the journey of love I was experiencing. I fell in love and fell out of love; experiencing deceit, confusion, and swaying between all kinds of emotions. The entire love series was a linear answer to all the questions I had at the time—the Princess had to escape in order to love herself, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing.