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Paul Zapatka: Labor & Vision

Studio Still Life (After Diebenkorn), acrylic, by Paul Zapatka. Winner of The Art League Best in Show Award.

When is a still life more than a still life?

This assortment of hand tools has a lot to say, it turns out. Paul Zapatka’s Studio Still Life (After Diebenkorn) was selected by juror Rebecca Chaperon as best in show for this month’s exhibit, “Habits.” So, we dove into the painting with the artist as our guide:

What was your goal for Studio Still Life (After Diebenkorn)?
Paul Zapatka: My goal for this painting was to convey to the viewer a personal vision unlike anything I had painted before.

Secondly, I wanted to show through painting not just the bright modern, motivational colors (that I learned when studying Matisse in college at American University, and Diebenkorn while working as a museum guard at The Phillips Collection), but also the dedication and hard work that I put into painting all my paintings, whether they be still lifes or other themes or subjects.

By choosing the miter box, hammer, and saw, I show the art world that I will go the extra yard to practice my skill and craft, both framing and painting in oils or acrylics just as the craftsman does when taking the time and skill to make these tools.

Just as the painter Seurat painted over some of his frames in a pointillist style as an extension of some of his pointillist paintings, I too make my own frames.


Thirdly, I wanted to show the importance of the collaboration of old school, or traditional subjects, like the framing tools, juxtaposed and balanced by the abstract, modern, warm colors, and design in the background — and a little in the foreground of yellow, white, purple, gray, and blues — all inspired somewhat by some of the colors and design in some of Diebenkorn’s abstract paintings.

So this above idea along with the realistic tools are like a marriage of the best of two worlds: something concrete painted in an abstract-like, modern setting. For me this is the ultimate in which a painting can convey to an art audience. Like some of Matisse’s and Diebenkorn’s interiors, they show very boldly and powerfully something hardly any artists had done in the past: uniting the abstract or ideal with the real or physical.

Finally, I wanted to prove that labor is as much a part of the artistic process as vision is. This goes beyond what the artist Whistler once said: “An artist is not paid for his labor but his vision.” The difference of my vision and Diebenkorn’s or Matisse’s, though, was that their paintings were often painted in a emotional, expressive way with great brushwork for the above vision. My vision for Studio Still Life (After Diebenkorn) is more subtle and restrained, but a solid still life nonetheless.

Scissors and Lemon, oil on masonite, by Richard Diebenkorn. 1959.

What was the inspiration? Is there a specific Diebenkorn piece that sparked this one?
The inspiration for my still life painting was to show the importance of the tools I chose to paint both for me and the viewer.

Directly, the still life that Diebenkorn — who is sometimes referred to as the “Cezanne of California” — painted and that inspired my painting was his still life, Scissors and Lemon. This is what motivated me to paint the scissors and later the other tools.

The way he expressed the scissors open below the lemon (maybe about to cut the lemon in half) exhibits for me an artistic authority (along with his brushwork) or, as one of my painting professors at American University once said to us: “You are the authority.” This I proved well with Studio Still Life (after Diebenkorn).

Cherry Blossoms by Paul Zapatka, award winner in the May 2013 All-Media Exhibit.

Since the name of the show is “Habits,” what habits do you practice in the studio?
The habits I practice in my studio, other than framemaking, are as follows:

I pour my paint mediums into four cups: linseed oil, damar varnish, turpenoid, and japan drier. Then each time I start painting I put on my rubber gloves to protect my hands from paint stains. Next I put on my paint mask to avoid the smells of the paint and mediums. Then, I open the door to my studio for ventilation.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a still life painting of a red poinsettia plant on a red and green checkered and stripped tablecloth — modern and bright colors similar to the color and design in Studio Still Life (After Diebenkorn). This is a nighttime interior, and it will be shown at the Yellow Barn Gallery in Glen Echo, MD the first weekend of May 2017, in an exhibit titled, “Maryland, Washington, DC, and Virginia at Night.”

“Habits” is open through Sunday, February 5.

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