After being forced to cancel her first solo show last November due to the pandemic, oil painter Zienna Brunsted Stewart is back with a new opening/body of nude works dubbed The Bedroom Pictures (5-8 pm Friday, Nov. 19. Free. KEEP Contemporary, 142 Lincoln Ave., (505) 557-9574). Stewart learned under painterly champions like Kristin Savage, Daniel Sprick and Marika Popovits, but ultimately devised her own style and practice; The Bedroom Pictures is based on smaller paper works she developed during the height of COVID-19, but taking the pieces into a larger milieu has proven both a challenge and a boon for the artist. We just thought they were gorgeous, so we caught up with Stewart to talk about her work, art in general and how/when inspiration comes.
Tell us about the new body of work. Does it represent anything in particular?
Not in particular, no. There are [seven new works], all nudes, and none of them show the face, so they’re kind of anonymous. For some background, when COVID hit and everything shut down, I was working at a café that ended up closing and I had no way of making money. So I started making these little nudes on paper. They were on this oil paper, and they were small, and I started selling them on Instagram (@zienna_zienna), and they ended up being super-successful. I actually ended up doing three or four runs, and that pretty much got me through the pandemic—it covered my food, rent and expenses. [KEEP Contemporary owner] Jared [Antonio-Justo Trujillo] collected a couple himself, and he said, ‘You should use those as studies and make full, finished paintings.’ That’s where they came from, and they don’t have any special meaning—they were just fun.
Do you believe it’s an artist’s responsibility to have a message?
It’s sort of yes and no. On one hand, if you’re just painting some still lifes or landscapes or whatever, they can be so beautiful, but at the end of the day, it’s a still life, a landscape, and unless you put something extra in it...Some pictures don’t say anything, which is fine, they’re decorative, but I think ultimately, that becomes pretty boring for the viewer and it can have no purpose. I think a painting should have some kind of meaning or something to say, but as far as I’m concerned, I have no idea what my paintings are saying. They’re saying a lot of things. Things I know. Things I don’t.
For me, painting about things that are traumatic or violent are not my boat. I prefer to focus on the things that are joyful or illuminating or of that realm, but that’s also who I am in my life. I think it was Daniel Sprick who was telling me to self-censor. If radios or TVs are doing things that are making you depressed, block that shit out. Same goes with painting. You don’t always want to look at a painting of someone being tortured. I do think it’s important to have those paintings, but, for me, it’s not within my ability. With painting, though, there has to be all of it. Same goes for meaningful and non-meaningful.
It often seems like the bad times spur inspiration like nothing else. Have the last nearly two years impacted your practice?
Subject-wise? No. Maybe in practice, with time, it is affected because I have more time or less time. But that’s sort of tricky. I don’t know if you saw [painter] Michael Bergt about six months ago, had a show at Nüart Gallery that was based off everything that’s going on with COVID. All of a sudden he was so inspired and thinking of the transformation of the caterpillar to the butterfly and the changing of the world and he was on fire with everything going on around him seeming to affect his work and inspiration. For me, it’s so hard to say. I don’t really even know where my inspiration comes from. It just comes. It’s not so much in a subject as it is in an image. I would say, with COVID? No. It didn’t affect me as strongly as others, though. I don’t know anyone who died. I did lose my job, but I was fine and it didn’t feel detrimental to me. Maybe it would have affected me differently if that had been the case.
I know a writer who’ll sit down from 8 til 3 every day and write whether they’re in the mood or not. For me, though, I definitely have to be in the mood to paint, otherwise I’m going to fuck it up. I’ll have to go back and fix it if I try otherwise. But when I’m in the mood, it’s not as extremely passionate like, ‘OHMYGOD! THE INSPIRATION HAS STRUCK!’ and there’s paint splashing everywhere and the wind is blowing. It’s somewhere in between.