This week we had the opportunity to visit Zach Stahl in his shared studio space. He is currently an undergraduate student in Virginia Commonwealth University's Painting & Printmaking department.
MG - How has it been working in a collective space this semester?
ZS - It was really great for this semester of studio practice because I didn’t really know what I was into in the beginning of the semester, but I just knew that I wanted to have a switch in my work. So I pretty much have been growing plants as a studio practice, like a studio garden almost. I didn’t know where that would take me at the beginning but now it has grown into something else, whereas in the beginning, it was very individualized and I was trying to see what I could do myself, kind of for fun I guess. Halfway through the semester I thought it was necessary that I finally take a step out, use what I’ve learned, and get other people to do it with me so it's more of a community thing. That was always the crutch of my work- I was always calling it community oriented even though I was doing things on an individual level, but then I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to do this performance lecture at Gallery 5.
MG - Can you tell us a little about what you did there?
ZS - Well I was pretty nervous to be apart of the group, because the entire night was focused around performances. I don’t do any kind of performances, so I prepared this lecture and a slide show, to kind of format it like an artist talk. I was just nervous that it might be out of place. The performances were much more conceptual and theatrical, because they were like happenings that were right there in the gallery. Though my portion went over really well, and I used the opportunity to start this new project that is kind of consuming all of my time now-The Urban Tomato Farm Coalition. I did the lecture, and then at the end of it I talked about my individual practice and the political things I was thinking about, and I mentioned how I wanted to expand into the community. So I gave everyone that wanted to participate a tomato seed and a bag of soil for them to take home and try to grow a tomato plant over the winter season. If they took a tomato seed, I had them place a dot on this piece of paper that I had on the wall with a map projected onto it, marking where they were taking the tomato seed. So by the end of the night we had a map of the tomato farm.
MG - What was the first plant based project you did? We have the screen print that you did on display now, were you doing plant based work during that time you were making prints, or was there a transition during that time?
ZS - It was about a year and a half ago that I started to grow avocado plants from pits of the avocados that I had eaten. I never thought of them as an art project, I thought of it as something that I was fluidly doing as an accompany to my domestic lifestyle. It wasn’t until 8 months after i started growing them that I decided to use them in a sculpture project, though it was kind of a humongous disaster. I had first given a presentation about the avocado seeds that I had and my class was pretty into it and they were excited to see the project. However, the project ended up being this super aestheticized setup, almost like a window display or something that’s just meant to be fancy. The performance of me growing them, and also having knowledge about avocados in a political way really interested them because they thought that was the real art piece, if you can say that. It ended up being me trying to make an installation where I brought in all these visual cues and interrupted that moment and left it in a really shallow space.
MG - It is hard to make a performance piece and to find a truthful way to present it to people- it should be able to just exist in that time.
ZS - Yea, that has been my problem since that project- and that was probably nine months ago. Since then I knew that that there was something that I loved about growing the plants, and I’ve been working to try to filter out all the unnecessary aspects of looking at the plants as an art project , such as aestheticizing an installation. Also I was trying to master the communication aspect of art projects, like the sharing of information, because thats really what I am interested in, in terms of my art mission. Education is kind of a loaded term, but getting to that point with my work. To answer your question- it was weird, that in my screen printing class that I made that print, Of Some Clarity, Moment, because it was the only nonpolitical screen print I made. All the other screen prints were about food production and being vegetarian. It’s funny that I took a break to make that piece which really referenced my photo work that I was making before I made it to art school. So it’s weird that I haven't gotten back into that because photography is what I came to VCU for. Although, I had that same problem that I was having with the plants with photography, with trying to communicate an idea without being too concerned about making a pretty photograph.
MG - How do you think about the way you photograph your plants?
ZS - Documentation has been my biggest thing this year because I really haven't wanted to take the plants out of their raw stages and make an installation that goes against their true energy. So I’ve been keeping them here in the studio and trying to represent them through other means which is pretty much only documentation. Recently I’ve been coming up with other ways to document, and that was actually through scanning. This has been very recent, but I have taken some of the tomato plants that haven’t made it and putting them on the scanner before they get too withered. It’s crazy the way the scanner takes an image of them- you would think it’s such an elementary thing to do. But it’s been amazing, if you leave the scanner open, that everything behind the image is completely dark. What’s very unique about the scanner is that it takes the image in terms of a plane, instead of how our eyes and cameras capture the image in a cone. So the way the objects look after being scanned is extremely unique because I don’t think we can even see things that flatly.
MG - How do you choose what kind of plants you’re going to grow, or even what they’re going to grow in?
ZS-I try to keep all of that pretty intuitive but also very secondhand, even the plants or the containers. I love to figure out how I can grow a plant out of food that I’ve already eaten, so the avocados were perfect for that. In that sense they grow into symbols themselves, and that’s how I find the connection between the food industry and my studio practice. Otherwise, through experience as well, I’ll choose what kind of plants I grow. My Taro plant is probably my most exotic plant, and the inspiration for that came from my trip to Hawaii this past summer. I had this amazing opportunity to visit a very traditional Taro Farm, one of the last two on the island actually. It was beautiful, but it had kind of sadness to it. Being that they were so traditional, they were actually more for education than they are about production. I thought that traditionally being the obstacle for Hawaii’s Taro plant production was a shame. So I wanted to somehow include the Taro plant in my life repertoire for experimenting with urban agriculture and new ways of growing things.
MG - That’s exciting, it’s definitely flourishing. So where do you get your soil?
Z- That has been its own problem- I haven’t wanted to use miracle grow, because I’ve been trying to keep away from any sort of corporate involvement in my work. I really hate going to Lowes, so I eventually found this farm that’s about an hour up the road in Charlottesville that sells coconut husk. So that was an exciting thing.
MG - Do you think of your work as more of performance?
ZS-Personally, yes. I think my work has been an attempt to blur those lines between life and art making, whereas I didn’t have to separate my lifestyle from my art practice. So I could learn about both things by doing the same thing, which has been growing plants recently. I heard a lecture from Nato Thompson, who's a pretty big figure in the socially engaged art movement, and he talks a lot about lifestyle being a performance. Which I think is a really cool idea, and I would love to get closer to myself through my art practices, rather than me living my life, and then coming to the studio and doing other things.
MG - So I think your choice to avoid corporate involvement in your work, adds an additional layer of politics to the pieces. Do you think that is something you feel like the viewer needs to know, or is it more of a personal decision?
ZS - I think that it’s a personal choice, but I also think it’s present in my work. I’ve never thought of actively communicating that to my viewers, which may be something I should consider, though I do think that is the energy of my work. Even this tomato farm is very anti corporate and anti-capitalist in its own right. Since we’re growing plants in spaces that already have a function, we aren't about space, and therefore we aren’t about money. With traditional farms you always have to rent a space, and money is always involved in inhabiting a space. From there you’re forced to be about production, so the luckiest part about all these participants growing plants in their living rooms is that it isn’t about money anymore because we don’t have that space element. So it is very anti-capitalist, and I don't think that is the most important part but i do think it’s an awesome thumbs up to the project. Though, I’ve never considered whether other people think of it that way too.