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Interview with Artist Zach Johnsen

It is with great honor and pleasure that we are able to present you an interview with yet another incredibly artist Zach Johnsen.

JackDirt:Can you start by giving us some background information on yourself?

Zach Johnsen: I was born and raised in northern NH state in the United States in 1978. My upbringing was bare bones.. my parents never had much, but what they had, they carved out for themselves through blood, sweat and tears.. i wore hand me downs almost exclusively until i was 12. As a youngster, me and my 2 brothers would be doing one of 2 things: sewing life size dummies out of old clothes then shooting arrows at them, or drawing. All I drew was gory fight scenes, with monsters and body parts, cyborgs, and kangaroos with shot guns. I guess comic books and mad magazine really had an effect on me back then.

JD: Do you have any formal art education?

ZJ: Yes, i attended the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston for 4 years. I graduated in 2001 with a BFA in Communication Arts.

JD: What is the first thing you ever created?

ZJ: Hmm.. that’s hard to pin down.. The first thing i ever remember creating was a series of drawings on white paper w/ pencil of a “good team” of characters.. and then a “bad” team.

JD: Your work has a very multi-tiered appearance, I feel like if I look at any of your pieces too long I will just get lost in it. Can you explain a little about your approach, and artistic process that helps you get that depth?

ZJ: My work is usually pretty layered.. That’s the reason, i love using watercolor.. it has such a luminous and transparent quality that gets even more vivid as you lay down more color. Sometimes, i’ll start out w/ a wash or splatter on paper.. then go in and start a sketch i have in mind or have reference for.. then switch over and start adding select colors and washes here and there.. then work into it w/ pen or ink some more, building out the composition, then back to layering color.. etc.. until it has the desired depth, energy, and color.

JD: In your pieces you have a few reoccurring elements, chains, black ink monsters, and creatures with large sets of teeth. Can you explain what these elements represent?

ZJ: Chains are great visual elements.. they represent just that.. chains. I feel like a lot of the world around us is pretty bound, pretty chained to norms of society.. The characters i create are always an extension of the people surrounding them.. so they carry chains for all of us. The black monsters are shadow creatures.. the ones that follow in your tracks but rarely catch a glimpse of. They are everywhere, so they tend to show up in my work a lot.. The teeth thing is probably from watching too many horror flicks.. gnashed and glinting teeth have always been sinister to me, so when i want something to look cute and seemingly harmless, but in reality is really evil, i’ll put teeth on them.

JD: Your work has appeared in numerous publications and even in video on MTV. What’s it like working for such high profile companies? Do you enjoy seeing your work in the main stream?

ZJ: It’s nice to get recognition for what you do i suppose, so i appreciate getting approached by these publications and companies to do what i do, but for them. My feelings for doing work in the “main stream” is two-fold.. on the one hand, it gets to many more people than if you did it alone (and you usually get paid for it) which is good… but at the same time, i probably wouldn’t lend my style to many others if it wasn’t necessary to pay for stuff.

JD: What did it feel like the first time you had one of your illustrations placed on a shoe or skate board deck?

ZJ: Well i grew up skateboarding, snowboarding.. all that! So when i first saw my artwork on a deck, my initial reaction was, “I made it!” haha.. seriously, that had been my dream for so many years of my adolescent life – to design graphics for skate decks, or snowboards, or work for one of the skate/snow magazines.. now that i have worked in that industry and have done exactly what my dream used to be, I’m not sure what my dream is anymore.

JD: What are your spiritual or religious beliefs and do they effect your work?

ZJ: My religious beliefs are that religion ruins everything.. I was never raised in a religious household, nor do i have a favorable impression of faiths in general. But i am “spiritual” is guess. Ii am more a proponent of the Gaia theory.. more like the earth and nature and everything which supplies and sustains us is my god.. a living being which should be treated w/ reverence and respect. i’ll give reverence to a tree, or a mountaintop, or a river before i would give reverence to a deity that has never personally nourished or touched me.

In my work, i speak a lot about degradation of this natural system all around us and how it affects us and me and our relationship to other things.. Plus, i depict a lot of the creatures in nature bearing the brunt of the burden we are imposing on it. And if i want a main character to really feel some drag, i’ll put a cross around his neck.. w/ a big, fat heavy chain.

JD: Your piece welcome to the neighborhood is large as life. Despite the amazing shift in scale you still managed to keep that overlapping and shifting presence you have in illustrations. Can you describe what it was like to work on this larger scale as well as what the Neighborhood is?

ZJ: This piece came about as me and my girlfriend at the time were moving into a new neighborhood in brooklyn.. the neighborhood was pretty dodgy.. there was a guy down the street that dealt weed and pretty much held down the block (he was actually pretty friendly). There was a bonafied crack house almost directly across the street. A number of buildings were condemned or boarded up.. I rolled in right as the real estate agents and construction companies were.. Basically, me and my girl were “gentrifiers”. So this piece came out of the madness i was feeling as i plopped myself right into the middle of this strange new environment full of strange locals interacting w/ even stranger new developers.

It was really a welcome respite working on something of this scale.. and i had no problem at all adapting myself to it. It’s just at a bigger scale, but i went about the painting of it, in much the same way as a smaller watercolor.. building up washes of color.. it was really fresh and really fun.. In fact, i have more work of that nature in the works now..

JD: What was your favorite project to work on and why?

ZJ: Working in the animation and video field is some of my favorite freelance work to take on.. I have had the opportunity to work w/ some heavy hitters here in NY – Transistor Studios, Shilo, and Buck.. I love working in that environment, where you are surrounded by amazing animators, designers, and directors and working together to create something awesome – but that moves!
“See Videos Here”:

JD: Much of your work has an urban quality to it. Some of the pieces seem to represent the truth beneath a much more fake facade. Is this removing of the facade intentional or do you find that like the city your work is very busy and multilayered reflecting where you are?

ZJ: I grew up in the north woods of NH.. population of my town was a little over 2000 people.. I grew up having more trees surrounding my house than neighbors.. I like nature and played in nature.. I remember when I was little and would come to NYC (my parents and extended family all live on Long Island) i would be furious that the houses had little fenced yards.. or apartment buildings had nowhere at all to play.
Now i live in NYC.. and have lived in cities for the last 10 years. My work and subject matter comes out of being part of the city.. it’s in my blood like never before.. But at the same time i have a yearning to leave the city once again and seek solace in nature.. I think when i do leave, my work will indeed take on a different dimension. Not sure if i really answered your question..

JD: Do you skate board or ski yourself?

ZJ: Yes indeed! skating tho, not so much anymore.. but snowboarding for sure..

JD: If you could spend the day with any person living or dead who would it be and why?

ZJ: I’d say Che Guevera.. because he’s fresh on my mind, Argentinian born, and i’m leaving on a trip for Argentina in a week myself. but i’d like to experience his charisma and energy and ability to mobilize people.

JD: Do you have any advice or techniques you’d be willing to share with aspiring artists?

ZJ: I have never been a stickler for technique.. but start out by having something to say.. you need an idea before you can commit to anything subsequent.. put in work, research, then work some more… find out what you want to convey and how you can best say it.. no matter what the medium.

JD: Do you have any upcoming shows or products you would like to promote?

ZJ: I am creating a new belt buckle company w/ my partner at Tank Theory, Andrew Silverman.. I am designing the buckles and working w/ a 3D modeler and caster to create these amazing belt buckles in bronze that look more like pieces of art than buckles.. It is almost like working as a sculptor, altho i don’t actually get hands on w/ anything other than the design.. but it’s a fun process and even better result! keep an eye out for it.. Death Metal Buckles.
Other than that, i have a 3 person art show of all New Yorkers.. my friends Marion Bolognesi and Tony Phillipou.. we will be having a show at Thinkspace gallery in LA called “The Trinity” on Feb 8th.. keep posted!

For more of Zach visit his site ZENVIRONMENTS

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