Studio Visit with Brenda Zappitell: Dancing with colour and form

Brenda Zappitell is an abstract expressionist painter living in Delray Beach. Her vibrant colour palette reflects the tropical climate of South Florida and the looping arabesque marks that feature in many of her canvases can be read as her gestural fingerprint. Working intuitively to music in the studio, Brenda responds to the tactility of her materials in a kind of dance with colour, sound and from. In her artist statement she describes her work as a balance of counterintuitive ideas. “I am interested in beauty and imperfection, as well as the intersection of memory and being in the present moment.” For Brenda the act of painting is akin to meditation, allowing her unconscious to speak through pigment and gesture. In this sense her work is very personal, yet simultaneously leaves space for the viewer’s interpretation.

Brenda has exhibited widely and her work is included in both private and public collections.   In addition to her own practice she hosts regular workshops to teach others how to liberate their intuitive creativity through abstract expressionist painting. We were very happy to have a conversation with Brenda about her work, studio rituals and painting process.

AMM: As a mostly self-taught artist can you tell us a little about your personal journey of finding your creative voice and style?

BZ: I graduated from law school in 1990 and starting working as an attorney. Feeling a strong urge to try something creative lead me to take a painting class. Immediately, creative expression was intoxicating. To improve my observational skills, I took a life drawing class. Challenged with trying to hone in the skills of drawing the figure kept me in that class for several years. There seems to be a hint of my fascination with the figure in my work now.

AMM: Watching a video of you painting in your studio, your whole body is part of the mark-making gesture – like you’re dancing. How do you think your background as a dancer influences your work and way of working as a painter?  

BZ: As a kid, dancing was my passion. Being a very physical painter, when starting a painting I tend to make one continuous gesture that is created by moving up, down, back and forth to all parts of the substrate. Most of time I have music on and my movements relate to that music. This serves as a guide or a map to the work. This way of working probably did evolve from by background in dance.

Embracing Uncomfortable, 60 x 60, flashe and acrylic with cold wax on panel, 2016

AMM: You describe your work as “not only born out of intuition but also serendipitously influenced by nature and life experiences.” Does this suggest that in your practice the lines between art and life are blurred? Please tell us more about this.

BZ: By working intuitively, meaning without intentionally thinking about my process, what I see and feel in my life influences that process in an unexpected way. One example is that I travel frequently and when I return from a trip colours in my palette and sometimes my mark-making will echo the places I visited in some way. Another example is when my middle child was heading to college and my youngest was going to be the only one still at home out of my three kids. A painting that I made at that time resembled three figures attached. It seemed to be exploring my feelings about the changing family dynamic. Recognising these things happens after a painting is completed. My life outside the studio enters the studio with me each day on some level.

Three, 60 x 60, flashe and acrylic with cold wax on

AMM: Is this any significance in the interconnected loops that recur in your work?

BZ: The interconnected loops have just evolved over time, intuitively. They are my gestural fingerprint. Interconnection has been an idea that I think about a lot but is not an intentional theme in my work.

AMM: Please tell us about your move towards abstraction in your practice and what maintains your fascination with this style.

BZ: I went through different phases in developing the creative voice I have today, including figurative work as I mentioned. At some point there was an urge to follow my intuitive voice and express an interior image that was nonobjective. This was my path to abstraction. I am truly fascinated with abstraction because there are infinite possibilities.

AMM: What is your creative process? Do you work very organically and intuitively? What influences it and has it changed over time?

BZ: When I walk up to a substrate, either a panel or a piece of linen, I start without expectations and let the work evolve, almost like a story unfolding. Frequently using a spray bottle with water to deconstruct my gestures, I create the opportunity to react to the unexpected. My environment, meaning what I see each day has an influence on my palette. I lived in New Mexico for 6 years and my palette definitely shifted when I moved back to South Florida.

AMM: You work on both large and small canvases. For such a gestural painter, does working on different scales influence the process and outcome?

BZ: Scale does influence the outcome. For a long time I had a difficult time translating the work on a smaller scale. Larger works have always been much easier for me. However, I have focused on smaller works for several years in my Marking The Passage of Time series which are all 12 x 12. I started these works as an exercise to expand my gestural voice. Now I think the smaller works are starting to inform the larger works, instead of the other way around.

Remembering Thankful, flashe and acrylic with cold wax on panel, 40 x 60

AMM: Looking at your paintings it’s like there’s a dance taking place on the canvas between colour and form. What role does colour and medium play in your work? How do you build layers and know when a work is complete?

BZ: I appreciate that comment, I feel that way while making the work. Enamored with colour, I pretty much love them all, although I tend to be drawn to tropical colours most often. In 2015 I started working with Flashe and really enjoy this medium; it has a quality that reminds me of poster paint when I was a child but dries very matte and almost looks like pastels. I enjoy working with both this medium and colour. That may be what you are seeing, my joy in the process, medium and colour. I build layers a lot of the time in wet paint. As far as knowing when a painting is finished, I tend to just know. However, it usually takes me leaving it on the wall for a couple weeks to accept that knowing.

AMM: You host workshops about building an abstract series and liberating intuitive creativity. What are your studio/daily rituals to get your creative juices flowing?

BZ: Often times I start with meditation as a daily ritual before working. Also spending a little time getting busy work on the computer out of the way before I start working so I don’t feel distracted.

AMM: Do you have any advice that has had an impact on the way you make art that you would like to share with other artists?

BZ: One of my favorite quotes is by Chuck Close: “Amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and just get to work.” This is how I work, I really just get to work, I don’t sit around thinking about what am I going to do next. So my advice would be based on that: don’t sit around worrying about what you are going to do or for lightning to strike, just do the work.

AMM: Do you have any exhibitions or new projects coming up soon that we should know about?

BZ: My work is actually in an exhibition right now in Kansas City, Missouri at Weinberger Fine Art which runs through April 29. Also, I just finished my first group of monotypes with Manneken Press. I had never engaged in the printmaking process and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a very productive residency where I was able to create 27 monotypes in 5 days. So I am taking a little down time at the moment. There are a couple of exhibitions my work will be in the fall.

Find out more about the artist at: https://www.zappitellstudio.com/

Interview conducted by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.

Unity, 50 x 50, flashe and acrylic with cold wax on panel, 2017