Noah Becker in Conversation with Canadian Painter Zoë Pawlak

Painter Zoë Pawlak, photo by Greg Swales, styling: Andrew Ly

By NOAH BECKER November, 2019

I got a chance to talk with Zoë Pawlak, the great Vancouver based painter about her interesting abstract paintings and her life in Canada.

Noah Becker: Hi Zoë , I wanted to ask you about your history as a visual artist?

Zoë  Pawlak: Well, I am a Canadian, born in White Rock B.C. which is a suburb of Vancouver. White Rock Beach is famous for a 1,500 ft. long pier, a 2.5km long beach promenade and the large white rock which weighs in at 486 tons and is a glacial deposit from the coastal range.

Noah Becker: Wow, I've often wondered about that rock. Growing up I went to White Rock, mostly because I grew up on Vancouver Island. So now you're based in Vancouver?

Pawlak: Yes, I currently live and work in Vancouver.

Becker: But you were on the eastcoast of Canada living in Montreal for a period of time?

Pawlak: Yes, we were in Montreal for four years, and have been back in Vancouver now for a year now.

Becker: Did you ever study in Montreal? I love Montreal but it’s too cold in the winter.

Pawlak: Yes, I did my first two years of University at Concordia in Montreal. Then I transferred to NSCAD in Nova Scotia, which is where I graduated from in 2005. I did an exchange at that time in Puebla, Mexico. I also did an exhibition down there, and painted, lived and worked in Spanish. Then, I came home, and we had our first child in 2006, and have been painting full time since then.

Becker: So, you have two children?

Pawlak: Yeah, our daughter's 13 and our son is 11.

Becker: How do you feel your time in Mexico influenced your work?

Pawlak: I love the light there, so I think that the light in that exhibition was different from the rest of my work.

Zoë Pawlak, Water Pitcher, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 20” x 24”

Becker: What kind of work were you doing?

Pawlak: I was doing fairly high-realism portraiture of some people down there. So, the experience of having to learn how to photograph my own subjects, and do it in a different language and in a different cultural context was both interesting and challenging. I was obviously still fairly young, and it was a great experience. I love the people and the culture and speak Spanish, so I felt like it was a formative experience in terms of having to step out into new content and be brave.

Becker: Do you still show in Mexico?

Pawlak: Nope, not currently.

Becker: Do you go back there?

Pawlak: Oh yeah. Mexico occupies a big place in my heart. I love that place so much and the people and the food, for sure. I'm really hoping to get to Zona Maco this year.

Becker: I would love to visit Zona Maco, I’ve published about it. So, you were making realism, and now your work is more abstract?

Pawlak: Yeah. I was formally trained in realism and spent a lot of time studying the figure.

Zoë Pawlak, Incomparable Insides Unwavering Place, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 30” x 36”

Becker: So you only painted the figure?

Pawlak: Yes, before painting landscapes, I only painted the figure. I was rigorously studying the nude, and attending life drawing two or three times a week.

Becker: Then how did you move to abstraction?

Pawlak: My work is more abstract now because I felt the freedom to create my own visual language after really learning the basics well - I believe in that.

Becker: Is that a permanent shift to abstraction, or do you kind of go back and forth between realism and abstraction?

Pawlak: My practice has been very informed by painters that incorporated realism and abstraction; initially by Klimpt and Schiele and then later by Jenny Saville and Alice Neel. I have always been taken by the colours and use of light in Diebenkorn and Rothko, which most people can see in my landscape work. I looked at that stuff a lot more early on. Essentially, I was well-trained and then had to find that edge where I trust myself to let go. It's also a metaphor for what I need to learn here in this lifetime. Everything I learn in the studio is teaching me all the time. That's why they call it a 'practice'. (laughs)

Zoë Pawlak, Imagined Vessel, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 24” x 30” (In the private collection of Fernando Mastrangelo).

Becker: Right. Your work seems very honest to me and very original. Your work doesn't seem overwhelmed by the influence of a historical artist or something of that sort. It's very you, and I was wondering, is that something that you've kind of strived for?

Pawlak: I don't look at too much art in terms of what's trendy. I've always been very concious that this is a long game.

Becker: So you don’t think about fame the way I do?

Pawlak, This is not a career I have been trying to get famous in early on. I am very aware that the more an artist builds on thier own way of making lines and colours and continues to trust that, the more rewarding each day will be.

Becker: I’m aware of the long and short game concept but how do you think about it?

Pawlak: There's a long and short game and you have to be aware of both and in all of that, keep a close adherence to your values and true mark making.

Zoë Pawlak, Photo by Greg Swales, Styling: Andrew Ly

Becker: I see. On a different topic, You have predominently sold your own work for about a dozen years now, so does having that autonomy help keep the work more honest?

Pawlak: I've mostly sold my own work, I've had a lot of autonomy and freedom. So, no one expects me to paint a certain way. So, it's possible I've been able to be more sincere over a long period of time. I can come to the work with my own sensibilities and my own agenda. That said, in order to make a living, I have made a lot of commissioned work, which has been a mainstay over my practice.

Becker: How many commissions would you say?

Pawlak: Over 12 years, I've done over 400 custom pieces, so I have made a lot of custom work influenced by what my patrons or clients want. I always appreciate those sales though because I think of them as wonderful practice and the cashflow has helped me grow my studio practice.

Becker: Right.

Pawlak: I'm really committed to being honest in my life, and so that translates into my work. My hope is that the work includes the viewer, that there's not this snobbery to the work, and that there's this openness to it where people are invited in.

Becker: Yes, I see that. Do you ever make sculpture? Because they almost kind of hint at sculptural pieces in a certain way.

Pawlak: Yeah, more recently, the vessels. Is that what you're referring to?

Becker: Yeah, the vessels really have a sculptural quality.

Pawlak: My work is a hybrid between art and design because I hadn't followed a traditional fine art route. Because I work with a a lot of interior designers and private clients, I've shown up in a lot of design-oriented spaces. I've shown in places like ICFF, The AD Show and various design-forward shows. I was spending a lot of time in New York over the last four years, and I was looking at a lot of three-dimensional, sculptural vessels that my colleagues were making.

Becker: Yes, New York makes you see things after a while. Some good some bad but visions nonetheless.

Pawlak: A lot of artists were making vessels and were getting a lot of acclaim and notoriety for this work - some of which I didn't think were all that noteworthy. I came home to my Montreal studio unable to manifest 3D work very quickly, or with any excellence. So, I decided to paint some vessels of my own.

Zoë Pawlak, Never Now Always Later, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 16” x 20”

Becker: What was on your mind?

Pawlak: I was thinking about how I could approach this subject matter in my mother tounge which is painting. "What's the way that I could sort of say what I'm thinking about without having to use a whole number of materials, and have this take a long time?" I wanted to look at the vessel as a body and asking questions around how we can actualize our fullest potential while still maintaining our peace. I have been treating them like portraiture in terms of composition and reverence, or tenderness. They are centred, the same way I would center a seated subject that I care very much about.

Becker: Interesting. What are your future plans for shows coming up? Do you have something coming up?

Pawlak: My team and I are currently courting different galleries. I'm looking at a couple galleries in LA. My priority to be exhibiting more on the West Coast since I moved back to Vancouver. I want to show more in California. I've been doing a lot of private residential commissions in LA and San Diego. We are currently installing a big commission for a lobby in San Francisco right now. I am looking to be represented in both of those places sooner than later and currently enjoying the studio practice and trying to get better at playing basketball. WM


Noah Becker

Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023. 


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