Alva Review-Courier -

How you'll know you're dead

• Ben Zawalich's painting series begins with death and continues on from there


March 31, 2019

Photo provided

Northwestern's Artist-in-Residence Ben Zawalich, shown with some of his most recent artwork behind him, will present an artist's talk and assembled drawing workshop on April 3 from 6-9 p.m. in Jesse Dunn Annex 324. An exhibit of the art he has created while on campus will be held April 5 from 3-5 p.m. in Jesse Dunn Annex 323. His small works of art will be on display in the Graceful Arts Center that same day from 6-8 p.m. for the First Friday Artwalk.

One of Ben Zawalich's earliest memories is standing in the Egyptian Room at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and looking at a mummy, a small mummy, in a display case (see photo, this page).

That image affected him so deeply that it became a part of his whole approach to art. It's very evident even in the paintings he's created in the past month at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, where he is the current artist-in-residence.

"I grew up in Boston and did my art school there," he said, "and the MFA has an Egyptian room. It's basically the only thing in my life that has not changed. That's the first experience I had with art – that feeling that other people made this a really long time ago" and it continued to exist throughout millennia, arriving at the MFA where he saw it as a child and where children in times to come will also see it.

"The art I look at a lot is Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian – ancient civilization type stuff, so the running theme through the work I make is always like I'm making (the artwork) of a civilization that never existed. That's the feel that I want."

As he talked about his art, Zawalich rearranged the seven canvases of his month-long NWOSU residency along the wall of a makeshift studio into the order he planned to present them.

While most narratives would tend to end at death, death is where Zawalich's narrative begins.

The first painting is of a man in a sarcophagus. Ensuing paintings depict, for example, a bird-headed figure reminiscent of the Egyptian god Horus, and a man sitting with a rifle balanced across his knees while locusts crawl up stalks of wheat beside him. The final painting is of a man in what might be a space suit throwing handfuls of tiny humans into his gaping mouth with one hand, while from his other hand more tiny humans fall toward a sea of flames from which many hands rise up.

Zawalich mentioned the Egyptian Book of the Dead. "There are instructions and rules, and you spend your life learning that when you see things in a certain context that's how you'll know that you're dead and you have to start" on a journey into the afterlife. "I like the idea that these (images) aren't made by one artist but by groups of people, and if you're seeing them, you're already dead," he said.

And, oh, the interesting experiences that then lie ahead on your journey after death.

But Zawalich isn't actually trying to tell anyone what's going to happen after they die. It's more that he presents a series of images with repeated elements, and then the viewer is the one who takes the journey – who can't help but try to make sense of the repetitions and cultural connotations without really being sure what the context is or if any meaning is really intended at all.

"What I'm interested in ... there really isn't a specific meaning to a lot of the things, but I like the way when people see art and don't have a lot of information ...." He paused, trying to make himself clear. "When you see hieroglyphics, for example, you don't know what any of that really means. But when you see a few things repeated, all of a sudden that has a certain significance and you realize nothing's random. So while most of them (the elements of the art) are mostly random, because it's repeated a few times" the viewer senses meaning in them. "You might not know exactly what it is," he said, but you feel sure meaning is there.

Local Environment and 'Outside Mistakes' Key to Zawalich's Creative Process

When he first knew he would be coming here, Zawalich said, the ideas he associated with this area were disasters of biblical proportions – like the dust bowl or tornadoes – that are often associated with a journey, even an exodus. For example, the Dust Bowl led to many people leaving the area, many going to California to find work as farmhands or fruit pickers. And part of our popular culture is the story of the Wizard of Oz, in which a tornado resulted in Dorothy taking a journey to an astounding place that, of course, never existed in reality. And then there's Route 66 – a journey through Oklahoma that also became part of American popular culture.

With the template of creating artwork for a nonexistent civilization already in place, Zawalich's process is to work on five or six canvases at a time "I get to a point on one and I get stuck, and I solve the problems on a different one."

As at an archeological dig, each newly completed canvas is a discovery to Zawalich.

"The form of discovery is the composition," he said. "The whole first part is putting stuff down and pulling stuff out. I don't specifically go out and look for things; I let it come in by itself. Here, what came in first was colors," he said – colors he saw in the landscape around northwest Oklahoma. "These are colors from here that I haven't used before. Also, horizons have showed up" in his artwork, he said. The flat horizons of this area are strikingly different from where he lives in Santiago, Chile, which is ringed by the Andes mountains.

Stripes are everywhere in this series of paintings, and that happened as a result of a mistake, he said.

"For example, all these stripes that came out were actually from when Kyle's (Kyle Larson, who runs the Artist in Residence Program) printer started to run out of ink, so I just photocopied those pages to get more of them and that ended up being one of the more prominent elements in the whole project," he said.

Some of the colors Zawalich used also entered his art due to a mistake – Larson lost his wallet so Zawalich drove him to Woodward to get a new driver's license, and on that long flat drive, the wide horizons and the striking color contrasts of the dirt bluffs made themselves felt on Zawalich.

"I never could have come up with these types of colors and things on my own. I need an outside mistake to make that and it ended up being really useful," he said. "I don't have a specific plan when I start (a project), so things have to just happen." And they do.

Zawalich Exhibits April 1; Talk and Free Workshop April 3

Ben Zwalich's collage-based painting of a man in a sarcophagus (top left) starts the series of paintings (bottom). The painting harks back to the work that first inspired Zawalich to be an artist: a second-century Egyptian mummy (middle left). At right is the last painting in the series, that depicts a man throwing handfuls of tiny humans into his mouth, while other tiny humans fall into a sea of flames, from which other hands reach up. At center is a detail from one of the paintings, showing one of the many locusts that appear in the series, apparently climbing up a plant.

The work Zawalich has created on campus for the past month will be exhibited Monday, April 1, from 3 to 5 p.m. in Jesse Dunn 323. His small works will be exhibited downtown at the Graceful Arts Center for the First Friday Art Walk from 6-8 p.m. and through the month.

Zawalich will present an artist talk and workshop Wednesday, April 3, at NWOSU in Jesse Dunn Annex, room 324, from 6 to 9 p.m. He plans to base his artist talk on how his residency projects have led up to his current work, followed by an Assembled Drawing Workshop. Both are free and open to the public.

All supplies will be provided for the Assembled Drawing Workshop where all experience levels of artists will create a drawing through embarking on a collaborative, non-linear drawing process that utilizes construction, deconstruction and assemblage as key elements in the creative pursuit.

Zawalich, originally from Boston, has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in printmaking from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, a Master of Fine Arts in painting from Boston University, a Master of Fine Arts from the Royal College of Art in London. He has been awarded residencies around the world, including in Ghana, France, Japan, China, Indonesia, Italy, Czech Republic, Ecuador, and Argentina. He lives in Santiago, Chile, with his wife, a physician. He is also the founder and director of the international artist-in-residence program The Molten Capital. To view Zawalich's past work visit


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