Friday 23 February 2018

In the eye of the beholder

Shortlisted for the Hennessy Portrait Prize last year, Zane Sutra's works depict strong, powerful women, a reflection of the artist herself, who endured the tragic loss of her youngest daughter

Zane Sutra stands beside her portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland as part of the Hennessy Portrait competition. Photo: Leon Farrell
Zane Sutra stands beside her portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland as part of the Hennessy Portrait competition. Photo: Leon Farrell
Zane and her beautiful daughters - Gabriela, far left, with (from the left) Teodora, mum Zane and other sisters Karlina and Margarita
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

It's hard to go any way into telling artist Zane Sutra's story without talking about her youngest daughter Gabriela. Several years ago, the intense years of mothering very young children beginning to pass, Zane began to look into studying art again, to reconnect with what had been a passion of hers since a young age.

Forty-five at the time, she says: "My children were growing up, and I had the idea of, in a way, creating my own, private happiness. When you have children it's all about them, which is wonderful, and that's go, go, go, and then they are gone, and that direction is gone, and lost, and you are…" she shrugs, alluding to the empty-nest syndrome so many women experience.

As well as Gabriela, or Gabby as her family called her (who herself had already shown signs of being a talented artist, although she had expressed an interest in a career in acting, and often performed plays with her young friend recorded on her iPad for the family to watch) Zane has four children - Teodora (Teo), who is one of Ireland's most successful models, Robert, Margarita and Karlina.

Friends suggested she return to college, and in 2013 she applied to study for a BA degree in Visual Arts from Carlow Institute of Technology, Wexford School of Art and Design. The course was due to begin in September.

Zane and her beautiful daughters - Gabriela, far left, with (from the left) Teodora, mum Zane and other sisters Karlina and Margarita
Zane and her beautiful daughters - Gabriela, far left, with (from the left) Teodora, mum Zane and other sisters Karlina and Margarita

That month, before she started her studies, an unspeakable tragedy befell Zane and her family. Her daughter Gabriela was killed in a house fire, at the home of family friend Philomena O'Rourke in Clohass, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, who was babysitting her at the time, and also perished in the fire. Gabriela was just nine years old.

"The moment was...aah it's impossible to describe anyhow. That element of hell, it's still there," Zane explains, her shoulders slightly hunched over her chest as she sits looking into her coffee, as if still recoiling from the blow.

It's obviously still very difficult for her to talk about that time - sentences drift off midway through as she shakes her head and gazes off, a look of pain on her face. Her art is full of strong, powerful looking women, but physically Zane herself gives the impression of extreme fragility.

Teodora and her mother are hugely close, and it was her daughter who persuaded her to carry on with her planned studies in the wake of the tragedy.

"Teodora, she took me by the hand and took me to the director, to the staff room, and they grabbed me, and said 'whatever you like'. All of them were so understanding and supportive. Spoon-feeding all of us, like children. Such lovely people."

Within three weeks of her daughter's death she began the course. "I don't remember that time. I was on autopilot or something. I was just going through those days like a raw piece of meat. Every cell of you doesn't exist any more. How did I manage? I don't know," she ponders aloud. "Every morning I would get out of the bed and pray 'God please come into this empty shell. Do something'."

Formerly married to a Lutheran pastor - "so my children are reverend's daughters", she says with a smile - she had God in her life before Gabriela died. "I don't like institutional organisation of life. I would feel much better if I see myself as a free spirit, a free bird. That's my way of seeing, well, it used to be my way of seeing purpose and meaning of life," she notes, "I really believe in the afterlife, and biblical values. In a way Gabriela proved (these values and views). Why would such a thing happen to somebody? I don't know. I'm not looking for answers. There are so many questions in our lives, so we don't need answers."

In a small way, painting began to provide a form of mindfulness, the odd tiny sliver of escape, of disappearing into the moment, briefly forgetting her reality. "The art has helped very much (in the last few years)," she reflects. "I really like that moment when you're painting, when sometimes you forget about the time, about food. Obviously when you start a painting, there is a teacher, and all the people in your room. And then they're leaving one by one as you begin to paint, and that's a good place, where there is nobody. And there is one moment where you are leaving yourself, and there is just it, the work. Nothing matters."

"My mum has been an artist since she was very young, but having children got in the way of it, somehow," says Teodora. "Now that we are all grown up, she thankfully got back into it, and what a great thing that is. It makes her happy, it's like therapy. She can spend hours everyday painting. And also at night."

Zane credits art with helping her discover her core self. "I went every day to classes. I was like a robot. And that was good. Because the painting and art, it's really important. It used to be important for me, and now it's back. And that moment was pfff," she says, making a gentle explosive noise to indicate the life-shattering nature of that time in her life.

"Sometimes you need explosions like this to find yourself. To find the core of you. Which is never comfortable. Which is never easy. You have to shut up. To shut up, close your eyes, and go and find yourself."

Zane has lived in Wexford now for almost 20 years, moving there from her native Riga in Latvia. Before coming to Ireland she worked for a printing house, illustrating magazines and books. The children's granny lived in the countryside, and they would spend time there, at "their little paradise", she recalls.

Growing up, much of her time was spent in the Opera House in Riga. "My mother and father were young and busy with their careers. I was partly raised by my grand auntie Anna, who worked in the Opera House. She was born in 1899, so you can imagine the education and upbringing she was coming from. I remember being intrigued and inspired by her manners, charm and lifestyle."

She credits Anna and the time spent in the Opera House as founding stones of inspiration.

"She let me watch the rehearsals of all the ballet and opera performances. This is probably why classical music is my ultimate inspiration. I love guys like Max Richter, Brian Eno and Arvo Part too, but the sound of opera for my work is the best. Gabriela loved it too. When we were driving we would listen to famous pieces, and sing along as loud as we possibly could."

Zane's mother had spotted her artistic leanings when she herself was just 11, and moved her to a school where she could specialise in this area. "My mum put me in a beautiful school where we did art subjects every day, plus the rest of them". And then there was the Art Academy of Latvia. "I didn't graduate because of my family situation; I was having ideas about children. I was just tired. I think there's a moment in life where you have to have a break, do something else maybe."

Zane's paintings - oils usually on large canvases in a muted palette - are often figurative, peopled by strong women, as well as dome ceilings, smoke, and water, codes belonging to her personal history, she says. Her daughter Teodora, often features in her work. "She's an inspiration but it's not about her," Zane explains of Teo featuring in the work, which she recently exhibited in the SolArt gallery. "My canvases are more like the stage of a theatre. I am not the director. I would say my viewer becomes somebody who decides what it is about. The meaning of the painting depends on the experiences of the viewer.

"It's not about the visible layer. At the beginning you see the visible things in life, as you know, but when you get a feeling, one by one it becomes like a multi-layered book or something."

The paintings should serve to help the viewer discover something about themselves. Zane is adamant she wants us to interpret the work.

"I want the viewer to find their inner core. And obviously the painting is not about a portrait: I want the viewer to figure out themselves if there is something that relates to them, connects to them," says Zane, who last year was shortlisted for the Hennessy Portrait Prize in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Her work is currently part of the exhibition there which is open until February 25. Zane has also exhibited in the Ranelagh Arts Centre, the Signal Arts Centre in Bray, InSpire Gallery, GOMA Contemporary in Waterford, Wexford Arts Centre and Green Acres in Wexford.

"The core is what's in you, and you have to find it. This world really does not encourage you doing such a thing because everything is about 'like me, buy me, get me, I'm yours', just don't think about reality.

"The other reality, it's not somewhere out there, it's very deep inside in you. And that is what I call the core. You need weeding, or to do a little gardening with yourself."

Photography is often a starting point, sometimes shoots Teo has modelled in. "I'm projecting those images on my canvas, one after one. And I'm making things up. That's what artists should do, I think. The world is so chaotic. In a good way. So as artists, if we can manage to connect those dots. I'm going a bit abstract," she laughs.

Knowing when a work is finished is always tricky; "you have to finish before it's finished. That makes it fresh". Skin tones are beautifully rendered but these are not paintings about women as objects of attraction.

"My mother's paintings used to have a lot more colour," says Teodora. "They had a slightly more 'pretty' look about them, but always had just a slight dark edge. Her paintings used to be based around flowers and landscape.

"Since my little sister passed away, her paintings have become darker, more moody and deep. Her mood is reflected hugely in her art now. I love it - they show real emotion. She paints from her heart and not just for the sake of putting some oil paint on canvas to sell.

"The women in her most recent pieces, they're not sexy or pretty, they're strong women, real women. If you look into the eyes of the women she paints you can see a lot of emotion in them. You can see that life isn't always easy, some have sadness, stress, some love, just real emotions showing reality."

Zane and Teo are just back from a weekend in London, where she exhibited at the Art Rooms show, and sold several works. Showing her work to others was something she found daunting, and this hasn't become any easier, says Zane, who has had several solo exhibitions.

"Because it's so intimate. It's very personal. It shouldn't be, because contemporary art tends to be more about social issues. But I think the personal attitude is more important than globalisation. My work is very intimate. OK, next question," she says with a laugh.

Zane herself is a mixture of fragility and strength; physically she has an almost bird-like delicacy, a great beauty, she and Teo share the same enviable cheekbones. But in the face of the worst happening, this tiny, gentle woman, so softly spoken you have to strain sometimes to catch her words, has evinced the strongest of natures.

"There is always before Gabriela and after Gabriela, that is what I call it," she explains. "That moment, closing everything to the past and you are kind of rebuilding after those moments."

For further information, visit zanesutra.com

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