Interview with Zena Zipporah (’70)

“As an artist of this Kali Yuga age, balancing on this earth which teeters on the last leg of the table of creation, I am an archivist, a collector of old objects, texts, and images, vanishing languages, customs and religions of all places, celebrating creations, disasters, prayers, religious texts, myths, gods and goddesses, swamis, pandits, religious leaders, shamans, holy men and women, knowers of lost knowledge. My art is copying, inventing, trying to understand what went before me and what is coming after me. I draw, paint, embroider, copy mystical and holy texts in miniature and write my autobiography on eggs, collage ancient icons [and] images on baby and doll dresses, bonnets, socks, on books that are made and found, on stone balls, handmade paper, and eggs of all species. I am trying to make sense of who I am, trying to learn the secrets before they are lost.”
1.       You were a writer and poet before you became a visual artist. How did the shift in emphasis come about? You often include language, quotations, words as part of your artwork. Are they more important as design elements or actual text?  I was an English major both at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and for my Master’s at Case Western Reserve University (where my favorite course was Contemporary Poetry with Robert Wallace).  I never gave a thought to anything but writing and perhaps teaching.  Not long after my degree, I took some evening courses at the Cleveland Institute of Art and ended up in Gwen Cooper’s Papermaking course.  The first assignment was to make a book, and somehow art and writing became all mixed up and I started making hybrids, putting a poem on handmade paper with rubber-stamp letters I made.

 I wrote a lot after 1975 when I got divorced the first time.  I think I published a little bit and taught at a few schools for the Ohio Arts Council Arts- in -Education program.  I think I wrote until Bob Fox at the Arts council fired me from the Writing Program because I got a fellowship from the OAC in Visual Art.  It was a few decades before I really started writing again, though I incorporated aspects of language into my art.  For instance, “My Autobiography on Eggs” in which I wrote out twenty-five or thirty chapters on as many chicken eggs that were blown out.  Turns out, they weren’t blown out enough because critters were inside there and they had to go in a vacuum  chamber for a few months before they could be displayed at the Akron Museum. “The Dress of Vanishing Languages” actually has text from hundreds of dead and dying languages and took me two years to complete.

 In the art world, although many artists employ text, sometimes very artfully, I don’t think many viewers take the time to read and absorb it.  But I am excited by and attached to language and can’t help using it. I think language serves both purposes. It fills the space and conceptually it means something. Although as I said, many viewers and curators only address the former.

2.       How is your work influenced by your gender? I’m thinking of the range of materials which seem to suggest/foreground the female—eggs, hair, dresses, doll houses, doll parts, girdle sample book.

My work is all about spirituality and gender.  It has to come out of who I am.  I am fascinated by the vocabulary of materials you mentioned. And my work always begins with a phrase or the actual object.

3.      If you were to give a series of brief titles or labels to the periods of your work, what would the list of labels be?

College and After- first poems

The Craft Period- weaving/ crochet /and paper

New Forms- hybrid books, collage/ painting/ and assemblage

More Conceptual Pieces -about language, creation and destruction

New Poetry and Art- more surreal  and mature

 4.      Can you talk a little bit about Junkstock and how you came to be involved in it?

 Junkstock evolved  from a poetry reading that was held one year at my ex-husband’s Auto Wrecking Junkyard.  It was conceived by Daniel Thompson about the year 1980. The first was supposed to be a kind of funeral for poetry.  I dressed in a vintage formal dress with a fresh flower tiara and Daniel and my ex- husband rented white tuxes and top hats.  We read from the back of an open truck and someone played harp  for background music.  We had a medieval musical group in costume come out from the mass of junk cars.  It got some publicity in the PD.  

 Daniel always came up with novel ideas for poetry readings and ways to publicize them. The reading evolved from year to year. One year it was “Garlic and Anti-Nukes.”  Another year it was a Performance and Video Festival.  Junkstock was one of the later ones.  We had convicts serving the food. It lasted 24 hours and they ended by dancing to “Jailhouse Rock.”  By now there was music and visual art which I participated in.  One year I wrote pithy sayings in yellow paint on dozens of junk cars.  I loved using language and immortalizing it in this way (for the day).  Another year  I made a few dozen fake breasts on a Buick Electra. Once there was a mock wedding with Daniel as the Bride and the memorable artist Robert Ritchie as the groom.  One year we had a dog show and Daniel got bitten. There was always a big build-up, lots of planning, and then we had our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be 104 degrees or rain.  

 5.      Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make your work possible?

Of course, my work could not exist without the authors I read at SUNY at Buffalo and Case.  And I was much impressed by the bevy of writers I met at Buffalo, then the Berkeley of the East, and then people like Robert Wallace at Case.