Interview with Jeff Zygmunt and Kaitlin McSweeney

Featured artists at the upcoming Cloverdale Pop Up Exhibit – “Dance and Movement in ArtSculptor Jeffrey Zygmunt and painter Kaitlin McSweeney recently joined Todd Lejnieks for an online discussion about their art, process and making a difference in the world.

Who are you and what do you do?

Kaitlin McSweeney:  I have many roles and activities that I identify with: human, daughter, sister, lover, painter, musician, yoga instructor, Californian… But not one of these words alone describes who I am entirely and accurately. I sometimes struggle with wanting to belong to just one of these words, to be defined.

"Doll" by Kaitlin McSweeney

“Doll” by Kaitlin McSweeney

But that seems like standing on the shoreline looking way out to the horizon yearning for the cool water out there, not seeing the waves right at my feet coming from the same ocean. Now, I’m practicing being who and what I am moment to moment—when I am painting I practice being fully present with the work and I am a painter.  When I’m playing cello I practice being fully present with the instrument and I am a musician. When I am instructing a class I am there to help them with their yoga practice and do my best to let go of doubts or fear that might come between me and what I’ve chosen to be for that time.  So I suppose the most honest answer I can give is that I am a person contemplating who I am right now.

Jeffrey Zygmunt:  I’m originally from a small town in Minnesota and my parents raised me with the idea that I could do anything I want and to love what I do. But even so, when I told them I wanted to go to school on the west coast and pursue a career in art, they were surprised, to say the least. I graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and studied at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, with an emphasis on sculpture. While at each academy, I took every opportunity to fully explore the arts of drawing, painting and sculpture. My work is built on an understanding of perspective, anatomy and composition to create works that are authentic and empowering. I reside in Northern California, where I continue to create and teach.

How do you work and what inspires you?

KM: I dialogue with the paint, or whatever medium I’m using. I spent years learning how to conquer different mediums, how to elicit specific outcomes, which I think is very valuable knowledge. Now I’m exploring the space between holding on and letting go of control. For example, throwing paint wildly on the canvas, but in just the right places so a recognizable form emerges, or allowing wind, gravity or flowing water to have a say in how the paint is laid down. When I am attached to a specific effect, letting go of control like this can be immensely frustrating, but such moments are also an opportunity to step back and ask myself: What is more important, enjoying and being excited about what I’m creating, or getting what I want? Most of the time I benefit more from being open and curious about what is possible with the mediums than trying to make them do exactly what I think they should. This really applies to other areas of my life as well. Creating with centeredness and clarity is very important to me.  Practicing and teaching yoga and playing music helps to balance the relative isolation of painting. I listen to myself best when painting alone, so solitude is necessary. But I lose my inspiration if I am not in contact with nature or those I love for too long, so I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to take a break and go out into the world than to hammer away past the point of frustration.

JZ: I use what is important to me in my life as a basis for all my art. For instance, I am a Christian, and I express those values in my work. Once of the most impactful influences on my art was a Cirque du Soleil show I saw while visiting Las Vegas. I was so moved that as soon as I got back to San Francisco, looked up all the local dance companies and found Robert Dekkers, choreographer for “Post: Ballet”, who told me that he created dances to try and express ideas, emotions and inspiration. For this recent exhibit, I am showing the pieces I created in collaboration with Robert. I became fascinated with capturing emotions in the form of sculpture and he works with dancers to express human emotion through the non-verbal form of movement. The dancers each posed for me for up to three hours, holding their poses as I worked I work with live models whenever possible and it was illuminating to work with these dancers and see how much control they have over their bodies and how they use themselves to portray emotion and life. I was inspired to do the same with my clay and I ended up referring to my work as “carving emotions”.

What role does the artist have in society?

KM:  It’s hard to know exactly what “artist” means. I think an artist is someone who amplifies their experience of living—what they see, feel, want, fear, and spend a lot of time and energy learning skills that empower them to accurately and honestly express themselves. Not everyone in society has the privilege or inspiration to express themselves, but I think that the desire is there. Just look at the popularity of Instagram and Facebook. The artist is a catalyst for self-reflection, someone who through their own expression gives permission and inspiration to others to express themselves, whether by creating a painting, writing music or simply voicing an opinion. This role is both stabilizing and disruptive to society, providing a release of tension by facilitating the expression of others, but potentially causing tension as differing opinions and emotions are released. However, without artists I think there might be a lot more suppressed expression in general, which could eventually explosive.

JZ:  After the experience with Post: Ballet, where I was intrigued by capturing the emotions and ideas of others, I decided to go deeper within myself and attempt to depict my own inner emotional state.

"Falling in Love" by Jeffrey Zygmunt (relief study)

“Falling in Love” by Jeffrey Zygmunt (relief study)

I started on a piece titled, “Falling in Love”. I was so concerned with it, because it was so meaningful to me, that I really didn’t even know if it was good or not. It ended up selling right away and also being the inspiration for a commissioned work for another client and I knew I was onto something. Now, in whatever I do, speaking in front of groups, teaching, or sculpting, I know my most fundamental role is to be authentic and real with people, and inspire them to do the same. You never know who you might make a difference with, or be inspired by when you tell the truth about yourself in a vulnerable way, one human being to another. I try to show that in my art, and in my life.

Watch Jeffrey Zygmunt’s Tedx Talk

Both Zygmunt and McSweeney will be in attendance at their upcoming exhibit:

Cloverdale Pop Up Exhibit – “Dance and Movement in Art” (Click to RSVP)
Saturday, August 8, 5 PM to 9 PM and Sunday, August 9, 12 PM to 8 PM
821 North Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale, CA  95425
Host: Todd Lejnieks | 415-572-1077


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