Art New England Article January 2012
by Pam Bernard
Embedded in Donald Saaf’s work is an exploration of memory- how it is archived and retrieved, how its function guides every aspect of our existence. Saaf’s work is an interrogative journey into what it means to remember, to have memory as a thread that runs through our lives, binding us to our former selves and allowing us to make sense of who we are.
Each painting chronicles a collapsing of time through the compounding layers of experience. Ghosts remain evident, which amplify the artist’s intricate, expansive thought process. Memory is remixed, re-imagined, relived. The resulting, sometimes whimsical narratives convey their experience through the artist’s enactment on the canvas- an amalgam of that experience, through memory itself, and of the visceral process as memory is explored. Though translucent, overlain, and fractured, these works nevertheless achieve unity, as well as suggest the process we use to achieve that unity. They are comprehensible, accessible, limpid, and immensely satisfying and engaging.
It takes a flexible mind to imagine such things, to think them through, then bring them to a state of visual coherence. Saaf is up to the task. A painter, sculptor, composer and musician, Saaf is a complex of talents. Yet this central theme thrums beneath all his creative output, and it provides a rich source of material.
Among many philosophical strategies evident in contemporary artwork, Saaf’s is perhaps a twenty-first century transcendentalism. At the center of his process is a recognition of the ceaseless flow of our simply being. Emerson held that a fundalmental continuity exists between man, nature, and the divine. For Saaf, that radical correspondence is located firmly within us, as uniquely layered and richly textured as we are.
For Rilke, the world was a confounding mirror, yet he was able to grasp, in language, that conundrum. In his poem, “ Archaic Torso of Apollo,” for example, he says; there is no place that does not see you. For Saaf as well, the visible, knowable world is too narrow a realm to explain the vastness of experience; yet, it contains that vastness- in memory.
People and Places: The Art of Donald Saaf & Julia Zanes
August 5, 2005 - February 5, 2006
Husband and wife, artists Donald Saaf and Julia Zanes lived and painted in Mexico, New Orleans, and Nova Scotia before settling in Saxtons River, Vermont, to raise their family. Both artists create colorful narrative images using a technique of layering paint and collage elements. Saaf explores the world of family and town with a folk art flavor, while Zanes presents her characters in a dreamlike world rich with symbols. People and Places: The Art of Donald Saaf & Julia Zanes is curated by Susan Calabria
People and Places: The Art of Donald Saaf & Julia Zanes
by Susan Calabria
Donald Saaf and Julia Zanes met in Boston when they both worked as guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Then Donald stayed in Boston to
study art, and Julia went to art school in Chicago. After college, they lived and painted in Mexico, New Orleans, and Nova Scotia, and now are settled in Saxtons River, Vermont, with their two sons. (right: Donald Saaf, Saxon's River, 2003, oil on paper on board, 24 x 32 inches)
Brilliant color, a similar working method, and narrative content link the artists' work. Julia's paintings on board start out with collage and acrylic paint. She uses a variety of sources for collage materials: pieces of gum bichromate prints made by her mother, Hope Zanes, a photographer; her own digital photographs printed on rice paper or printmaking paper; and other decorative papers such as wall coverings, book pages, and wrapping paper. After adhering the collage pieces to the board with acrylic paint, Julia paints on top of the surface with translucent layers of acrylic colors to create the luminosity and details of the finished work. Finally, she adds thin layers of oil paint to make the colors richer and the surface glossy.
Donald's paintings in this exhibit are images that he has reworked for several years. He begins by fastening a piece of rag paper to board with gesso and then paints the image on this slightly pebbly surface. While Julia's layers are very thin, Donald likes to build up paint in thick layers. Obliterating or changing forms with white paint and dark lines, he then adds color. The painting Kitchen is an example of this technique: Donald first painted it as a scene of the Saaf/Zanes family in their kitchen at home, and then transformed it into a picture of the group aboard a boat.
The inspiration for Donald's paintings comes from his family and immediate surroundings -- at home or in his studio in the woods a few miles away. His work has an innocent look, reminiscent of folk art painting in which figures are simplified and may be seen in profile in a landscape or a town, as in his painting Saxtons River. Characters vary from tiny to oversize in the world that Donald creates. Birds and moths become mythical, and exotic animals cavort with children.
Julia's narrative paintings reveal an inner, reflective world in which her stories are influenced by her interests in Indian miniature paintings and other art
historical references, color, and decorative elements. The people in her paintings are often women-sometimes queens or winged humans -- and they catch the viewer's eye from a place that seems long ago and part dream. Both Julia's and Donald's paintings contain rivers, flowers and trees, boats and birds. While these things are commonplace where we live in Vermont, they are also symbols containing spiritual significance.
Saaf and Zanes are always working on a variety of artistic pursuits. Currently painting a new series of canvases influenced by the forest outside his studio, Donald has found rocks there to carve when he takes the family dog for a walk. Some of his carvings are exhibited here, as are the books he has illustrated over the past ten years. Donald also plays music with Julia's brother, Dan Zanes, and has created artwork for four of Dan's board book CDs. At her home studio, Julia has several paintings in progress-"good worlds, bad worlds" and others that contain magical people and places. She offers several classes and workshops on her painting techniques, and she has illustrated an edition of The Snow Child. (right: Julia Zanes, Red Boats, 2003, collage, acrylic & oil on board, 34 x 48 inches)
About the author
Susan Calabria is Curator at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.