Briefly describe the work you do.
My studio practice revolves around confronting issues of safety, vulnerability, and perceptions of danger and anxiety. I make mixed media drawings that reflect the unease of contemporary existence and my own state of mind. In these drawings, I depict figures who are dressed in protective clothing in an environment that contains no discernable hazard. Lately I have been incorporating abstract floral shapes derived from my research into plants that are toxic to humans, some of which were often used in Victorian art to symbolize impending doom or a threating situation.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I come from a very loving family who were also prone to worry and often overcautious and guarded as a general way of life. I grew up believing that there was danger lurking around every corner. This upbringing, combined with what I believe is a biological “nervous disposition” in myself, has turned me into a pathologically anxious individual. I have come to realize that this way of seeing the world is more common that I once thought. I believe that this constant state of fear is the way that we as a society have come to conceptualize our own existence.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My studio practice consists of research, which can be conducted anywhere from my couch to simply walking down the street and observing. However, I value every moment I can spend within the walls of my studio; it has become a place where I can retreat, think and mostly importantly focus.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I never thought I would run a gallery. In 2011, Rachel Quirk and I rented a space that we intended to be a studio. We started to have open studio events and eventually renovated half of it into a formal exhibition space. We now show local and national artists.
I didn’t picture myself teaching because I have always considered myself somewhat of an introvert. When I’m in the classroom, however, I become extremely extroverted. I love working out ideas with students and helping them realize their goals.
Co-directing a gallery and teaching have made me grow and flourish as an artist. All three of these things inform and strengthen one another and I feel very lucky to be able to do them all.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I used to make art whenever my crazy schedule would allow. Recently, I have decided that it is important to me to set aside specific times and days just for studio work.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
This work started out by me passing time while waiting for some painting surfaces I had prepared to dry. I used to paint with oils and was very particular about my surfaces, so I would devote entire days to just getting things ready. I had some photos and started playing around by drawing from them, using inks and watercolors that were laying around in the studio. Painting has fallen by the wayside, and my practice is entirely mixed media. I also feel that I have gotten mixed- media to work better conceptually than I ever could with painting. I am now incorporating cut-out elements into the work, which is something I experimented with early on, but could not get to function the way I wanted to. It is my experience that my work evolves when it is ready, and I think it seems ready for this.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
The work of the writer Samuel Beckett has had a direct influence on the work. I started drawing on gray paper specifically because of reading Endgame. There is a part where one of the characters looks out of a telescope and reports all that he sees is gray. “Light black. From pole to pole.”
The Existential philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard’s themes of dread, anxiety, alienation, individuality and subjectivity has also had an impact on my life and work.
I’m always drawn to people that see the absurdity of the human condition.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I have many interests such as philosophy, literature, psychology and science, but I see them as a way of informing my artistic practice. Early on, I thought I wanted to be an experimental psychologist, then a criminal profiler (brought on by watching too much X-files in the 90s), then a photojournalist. But art was always something that I kept coming back to and I decided to commit to it.
Zina Mussmann received a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2002 and an MFA from Northern Illinois University in 2008. She has exhibited her work regionally and nationally. Her work has been featured in the Manifest International Painting Annual, The Alchemy Magazine of Literature and Art and Lunch Ticket Magazine. Zina is the co-founder of Greymatter, an artist-run space dedicated to showing conceptually driven and challenging work by local and national artists; and the curator of 365 Artists 365 Days. She is also a faculty member at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design where she teaches in the Foundations Department.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.