Zach Valent | Issue Nine Interview


Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work

A couple of hours south of Chicago where the Illinois River widens to a measured two and a half miles lies the quaint river city of Peoria, Illinois. This is where I grew up. While I enjoyed all the benefits of growing up in a city, I also found myself escaping to the nearby wilderness every chance I could get. I love nature and wildlife which ultimately became a great inspiration for my work. Having grown up by simple means, my earliest artworks were created with household and recycled items. My father was a roofing contractor, so I had plenty of access to scrap construction materials and just enough tools to make things happen. To my recollection, on countless occasions, my parents would find that I had transformed entire rooms into sprawling maze-like installations with nothing more than a large ball of string, or find the back yard littered with large structures constructed from scrap wood, rope, and whatever else I could find. As a teenager, I drifted away from my passion for creating art for a few years. After high school I waited tables and worked as a laborer for a contractor remodeling homes and I was making great money. However, I eventually grew bored and I wanted more out of life, so I decided to go back to school at the local community college where I reconnected with my love for art.

In 2014 after completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at Southern Illinois University Carbondale located in the Shawnee National Forest, I took a leap for adventure and moved to the Sonoran Desert to pursue a Master of Fine Arts Degree at Arizona State University. Since relocating to Tempe, Arizona, my artistic practice has shifted and developed beyond my imagination. In the summer of 2016, I returned from a six-week digital stone-carving residency in Italy with a new-found interest in digital technologies. Since then I have been exploring the possibilities of blending my very traditional skillset in sculptural processes with the hand of technology. While I will always make room for artistic play as I did when I was a kid, the pursuit of academic success, as well as a professional career as an artist, has driven my studio practice to become much more serious.

What potential do you feel artists have to help bring about change?

I think the degree of change varies depending upon the artist, the type of work they make and their intent. An artistic object that sits in a gallery and highlights concepts of overconsumption and creates a dialog about ecological preservation may express change, but it rarely reaches the broader community to help achieve change. I’m not saying this is anyway bad or of lesser value, but this work is not as likely to reach the general population being that it is in a gallery setting. Artists who identify as social practitioners and activists project their thoughts and ideas into a communal sphere have a stronger ability to provoke change. I’m picking from the top here but artist such as Ai Weiwei and Suzanne Lacy have used their voice, skills, resources, self-image, and artwork to highlight a variety of sociopolitical issues in the public sphere. Through writing, video work, community-engaged projects, and in some cases social media, they have targeted a larger population of people who want to see the same changes. In many cases, their work has prompted responses from members of political parties and garnered much support from the broader community. They have used their voices as an artist for the greater good of society.

Tell us about the themes you pursue in your work

“Time” is the overarching concept of my interests and artwork. I am fascinated with being alive and how time and space correlate to the existence of life. Why here and why now? How quickly the present becomes the past and the future becomes the present. But what about a much grander scale of time, what does that feel like? I often find myself up late at night zoning out into the distance wondering about concepts of time travel. Again, what would that feel like? So, through my artwork I try to experience time the way I imagine it… In the past present and the future all at once.

I use motifs of geological formations to highlight concepts of growth and change. From the perspective of the viewer, I believe there is a harsh representation of post-apocalyptic content. While I won’t say that isn’t so, it is not what I am after nor is it the energy that I put into my work. I aim to depict the beauty of transformation and the magnificence that comes from evolution and time. I also just like to make fun and thought-provoking work and I feel that the mystery and wonders of time are something that everyone can relate to.

What art do you most identify with?

I’m a fan of all art and artforms. I often joke that I eat, breath, and sleep art. Sure there are artworks that don’t interest me as much as others, but it is hard to pinpoint one style, genre or type of art that I like most. I love music. I can find something good in almost any category and there is rarely a day that I don’t wake up with a song already in my head. However, I can’t sing worth a damn so if I am to relate this question to my artistic practice and what I make, then I would have to say that I mostly identify with representational sculpture. Not necessarily the figurative works of the great masters or their predecessors but representational works that challenge tradition and seek an artistic and progressive interpretation of recognizable imagery. I also get enthused by technique and skilled craftsmanship. I am passionate about well-made artworks and find that I am closest to other artists who feel the same way. When I look at a work of art and want to investigate how it was made or I am curious about the processes and tools that were used I become elated.

Is there something you couldn't live without in your studio? what is your most essential tool?

Space! I could say various tools like an angle grinder, drills, table saw, or my vibrating casting table which are probably my most used tools, but the reality is I couldn’t have any of it without the space that I have. People don’t often think of space as a tool but, without it, there is no studio. I once worked out of a 5 ft by 5ft closet-like room. Sure, I just scaled down the art I was making and made it work for me, but the truth is I wasn’t very inspired. I had big ideas and nowhere to develop them.

What place do you think artists have in the political sphere?

We have a voice; we should use it. Beyond making artwork that has political content that may or may not incite controversy and/or change, I feel that we as artists have a skillset and mental capability that would truly help our political climate. I’m talking about artists becoming politicians and civil servants here and not just creating artwork that promotes a political dialog. Most of us are patient, well-practiced in solving unique problems and in some cases, we are great with people. From a personal perspective, I am equally as passionate about education as I am making artwork. It is my long-term goal to work my way through education into administration and on into education politics. I have no intention to quit making art, but I feel I can truly make a positive contribution to a flawed system and I have the skills and knowledge to do so.

What do you feel the role of artists and photographers is in society?

Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best.

“the great cities of Europe are remembered because of the great art they have fostered. When you go to Florence, you don't go there to drink the water. Art has value to us culturally. You could make a country with no art - but is that a country you want to live in? You can create a country without art. But who would live there? Not I!” Artists and photographers highlight the greatest things that we have as a society. When you think of culture you think of food, clothes, paintings, sculptures, music, etc. The experience of life is made that much better with art. Photography is a unique art form in that it can be the art itself, but it can also document the art and the culture. I’ve never been to Paris before, but I know very well what the Eiffel Tower looks like and I have photography to thank for that. The big project in my life at the moment is a permanent public artwork that was commissioned by the city of Tempe, Arizona. It will be a 188-foot modular relief sculpture that contours an irregular shaped retaining wall along the city lake. It is scheduled to be completed in 2020. I am also working on a new body of work but will hold back on revealing any details. It’s going to be good.

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