The Artist’s Dilemma: Vincent Zager

It wasn’t that long ago that we lived without our every moment tethered to some newfangled gadget that provided us a false sense of security and fabricated connectedness­­–when our knee-jerk reaction to deal with the quiet moments of solitude wasn’t to pick up our smart phones and computers to fill our minds with a distracting noise. So often we stave off those moments just so we don’t feel completely alone, but what we forget is that it’s in those times of solitude that we begin to feel at ease with who we are; those moments of quiet can foster some truly satisfying pursuits. It’s through some form of abandonment and/or resisting of the nagging technological worlds (and the social worlds which have developed as part of them), that artist Vincent Zager finds the time and motivation to explore the many mediums in which he works.

Vinny doesn’t own a television. And when his computer broke, he chose not to fix it. Though making art and trolling the internet are not mutually exclusive, Vinny found that the less time he spent tied to the virtual world, the more time he spent creating his own tangible one. Spending the last seven years working long hours, traveling often to strange, sleepy towns and painstakingly restoring other people’s art (Vinny restores and makes stained glass), forces him to use his off hours pursuing his own art.

Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Vinny moved to Milwaukee to study fine art drawing, illustration and printmaking at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. After college while apprenticing at a tattoo shop, a friend mailed him a job-listing cut out from the paper that seemed right up his alley. One month later he was on a plane to Vietnam to set up an artist residency for two men he’d never met. He stayed in Vietnam for seven months setting up Campus Hanoi, first fleshing out the empty four-story villa to accommodate the studios and gallery spaces needed. Next, seeking artists to participate in the residency. The first artist Vinny secured was an 80-something-year-old Japanese man with whom Vinny spent weeks traversing Hanoi with, all the while neither speaking the other’s language. Finding a place in that strange, distant city–connecting with, and making things happen for other artists came quite naturally for him.  But Vinny spends more time these days on his own, creating for himself or daydreaming plans to build his own home (a geodesic dome naturally) in which he would someday live up in northern Wisconsin on a little lake. He’d have plenty to keep him busy—painting, building boats, piecing together glass puzzles that are the beautiful terrariums in which he creates, making pinhole cameras and further delving into solargraphy and photography, illustrating poster and album art, and likely finding numerous other passions to fill his quiet nights.

Have you always known you wanted to be an artist?
Not really but I always knew that I liked to make stuff. When I was a kid I used to take shit apart all the time just to see how it worked. So I guess becoming an engineer would have worked also. I like to see how things are fabricated. That’s why I think I liked printmaking so much, its very process oriented; same with the terrariums too. The process has always interested me more than the final outcome. Though now I’m starting to try to pay more attention to what I’m doing instead of it just being based on a process–trying to actually work toward something.

So the goal is becoming more important too.
Yeah, as far as with painting and drawing, it’s always been process-orientated, technical and learning-based and just trying to figure it out. Now I’m trying to avoid that. I feel like I need to trust myself more and know what I’m doing so I can focus more on a concept or even just color and actually finish something. 
Let whatever happens direct what I do next instead of having this rigid process—just let it sort of flow…I get really anal about stuff and if it’s not looking right it’s not working and that’s hard for me to work through. And that’s what I need to do now is start working through everything and see it to completion, because you never know what it’s going to look like when it’s done.

Does it become more of an intuitive thing?
There’s still an end goal but I’ve been trying not to have a really set idea of what the end goal needs to be. And still keeping that in mind when I’m working on something, but at the same time letting the painting or drawing direct me– but still keeping it in the same wavelength where it will end up somewhere I want it to, and not just going off a complete tangent to somewhere else–which does happen and that’s okay and it’s good for that to happen because sometimes it turns into something I would have never thought of.

Is there an example of that playing out recently?
There’s a painting that I’m working on right now for Moon Curse’s second LP, and they want a gatefold with a landscape and architectural stuff. I’m a figurative artist so going into this doing landscape with architecture is just terrifying. I decided I wanted to paint it and I also decided to paint it larger so that when I reduce it for the actual gatefold, I still have all the detail in there. So I did it two and a half times the size of the gatefold—it’s 3.5 by 4 feet. It’s massive.

Do you normally paint on a smaller scale?
Yeah, my portraits are usually small but I’ve done larger stuff before and it’s fun because you’re kind of working with your whole arm, your shoulders and your waist and using all these nice gestures, but that’s where I get stuck. Initially it works well, and the gesture is really nice, you get these really nice marks and you nail it but I have a problem where I go further really into it and render that I lose the initial feeling to it. It’s quick and intuitive and you’re not thinking, it ends up working—the weight’s right and the mass is right—but whenever I try to go in and refine things it turns into shit.

So this larger piece that I’m making is really out of my comfort zone. And I’m doing this forest from my head with no reference for light or anything. I hate it. But I have to work through it because I have to get it done. And that makes it even harder. ‘This is going to be an album cover and it will be out in the world. It’s scary but at the same time, but most of the time if I just stop thinking about it and let it go it always turns out great and I always get excited because I would have never thought to do that.

There’s a portrait in there [home studio] where I was hammered and had just gotten up from a nap and I was still drunk and I just started painting and it took about 30 minutes. It’s the wormy one, my eyes look weird. Like this little mark, and my nose, it just works. Or this portrait of my friend John which I did in 15 minutes. So I apparently need to not worry all the time or just get drunk to paint because it ends up a lot better that way. It’s so hard to do, to let your inhabitations go.

Do you have a favorite medium?
I like working with glass and I did those terrariums because it’s very tactile and immediate and that’s why I like working with wood because you cut a piece of wood and it’s done. I’ve built a couple boats. The way I look at it, painting, I love painting but it terrifies me because I know nothing about it. But I really like to sit and work with paint and work with color and figure it out, and think about color theory and research color theory but then I have all these other fucking ideas. If I would take all the time with everything that I do and invest it in painting, I would be so much further along in my painting ability. So it’s kind of frustrating because I like working on lots of different stuff. Try everything now and narrow it down to what you really enjoy, but I really enjoying doing a lot. I don’t own a TV so I have the time to do all this.

Learn more about Vinny’s work at http://vincentzager.com and find him on Instagram (@Vinzent_Zager)

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In process: A first attempt of a 3 x 4 foot painting of a record cover for Milwaukee band Moon Curse

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Self portraits and paintings of friends

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Left: Painting of friend; Right: Pinhole cameras and a color study of Pizza Man the Cat

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The living room is sectioned off by a handmade bookshelf and hanging window that filters light into the space

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A painting of a friend peaks out from behind the tan midcentury Westnofa-made leather chair

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Wooden boards were made by an art school colleague (200 were used to create a self-sustaining arc). Upon disassembly, Vinny grabbed several to repurpose as organic wall art and painting canvases

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Vinny playing the haunting soundtrack to “Beyond the Black Rainbow” on one of the few technological contraptions he owns

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A pentagonal hexecontahedron terrarium Vinny made from 60 pieces of glass soldered together & wrapped in copper foil

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Mini skateboards (from Sky High Skateboard Shop in Bay View) and Halloween masks

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Amethyst, quartz and citrine minerals both collected and gifted are placed alongside plants, with the theory that the rocks help the plants live longer and healthier

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An old Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta 6×6 rangefinder camera given to Vinny by his father

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Bedroom. Silk screened show posters by Eric von Munz and Vinny

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Vinny’s original drawings used for silkscreened show posters

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Light reading: “Geodesic Math and How to Use It”

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Left: ‘Optical’ illusion print from Minneapolis; Top right: Collage by Vinny; Bottom right: Popsicle print by Jeremy Pettis

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Small treasures. Naked woman letter open belonged to Vinny’s grandfather; Framed prehistoric shark tooth gifted by Vinny’s father; Railroad spike knife made by friend

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