Zaria Forman has an impressive ability to create ultra-realistic images using her hands. What on first glance look like photographs of pristine, icy waters are actually pastel drawings by the talented artist. Inspired by a lifetime of travels and solidified by her formal training, Zaria’s work is as breathtaking as the geography that influences it. We had the opportunity to chat with the artist about her process, her travels, and trying her hand at set design.

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Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

I grew up in Piermont, NY, about 30 min north of NYC. I went to Green Meadow Waldorf school from 6th grade through high school – a very small school with an alternative approach to education, in which art is greatly infused. After my formal art training at Skidmore college I now exhibit extensively in galleries and venues throughout the United States and overseas.

In addition to exhibitions, recent projects include a series of drawings that served as the set design for the classic ballet Giselle, which premiered in October 2012 at the Grand Theatre of Geneva, Switzerland (see the drawings and performance photos on the Giselle page) Ten of my drawings were also used in the set design for House of Cards, a Netflix TV series directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey.

In August 2012 I led Chasing the Light, an art expedition sailing up the northwest coast of Greenland, retracing the 1869 journey of American painter William Bradford and artistically documenting the rapidly changing arctic landscape. Continuing to address climate change in my work, I spent September 2013 in the Maldives, the lowest-lying country in the world, and arguably the most vulnerable to rising sea levels.

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What was it like traveling the world growing up, and how did it shape your artwork?

The inspiration for my drawings began in my early childhood when I traveled with my family throughout several of the worlds most remote landscapes, which became the subject of my mother’s fine art photography. I developed an appreciation for the beauty and vastness of the ever-changing sky and sea. I loved watching a far-off storm on the western desert plains; the monsoon rains of southern India; and the cold arctic light illuminating Greenland’s waters. In my work I explore moments of transition, turbulence and tranquility in the landscape and their impact on the viewer. In this process I am reminded of how small we are when confronted with the powerful forces of nature. The act of drawing can be a meditation for me, and my hope is that the viewer can share this experience of tranquil escape when engaging the work.

What else inspires you?

I have been practicing yoga for about 13 years now, and teaching it for nine. The movements and meditation is fuel for my art work, and vice versa.

What time of day is your best work created? Are you a morning person or a night owl?

I am definitely not a morning person, but when I am working hard in the winter days (which tends to be the time of year that I create the most) I try my best to take advantage of the limited daylight hours, starting around 9am. The colors in my studio often look very different in the daylight than they do with my studio lights on, so it can get confusing! When I need to though, I don’t stop when the sun sets, and sometimes I continue (with many breaks throughout the day) until midnight, but usually not later.

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Can you tell us about your process? How do you create such beautifully realistic work?

When I travel, I take thousands of photographs and make small sketches. Once I am back in the studio, I draw from my memory of the experience, as well as the photographs to create large scale compositions. I add layers of color onto the paper, smudging everything with my fingers and hand.

Can you tell us about your set design work? How does this type of project differ from work you create for gallery exhibitions?

Creating the Giselle series was a far more collaborative experience than I had ever done. I worked very closely with the choreographer to choose images and settle on the composition before I would move forward to draw it. This was challenging on the one hand, but also forced me explore textures and surfaces that I never would have previously attempted. The Giselle drawings are completely different from my landscapes and therefore required a completely different technique which was refreshing. Returning to my landscapes, I had more confidence to push my own boundaries farther.

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What draws you to water and such pristine, icy landscapes?

Wherever we live, we need water to survive. Not only is the human body sixty percent water, but water is also essential for producing the things we need like food, clothing, and computers; moving our waste stream; and keeping us and the environment healthy.

The seas are never still; from one moment to the next the composition changes entirely. I attempt to evoke this movement in my drawings. I think of water as a metaphor for life – constantly transforming, both fearsomely and beautifully.

With my Greenland and Svalbard series, I attempt to capture the ephemeral properties of arctic light. I am interested in the element of water and how it absorbs and reflects the light in its various forms. The forms that we easily recognize are ice, water, cloud, and fog; these are essential elements that inspire my compositions. I am also interested in the transition between these states and enjoy the challenge of translating such sublime experiences into my work. The different forms of illuminated water give rise to the dreamy, atmospheric scenes that I hope will transport the viewer to this remote region of the earth. I am grateful to have the opportunity to visit such places and enjoy the challenge of conveying their beauty. Perhaps if people can experience these sublime landscapes, they will be inspired to protect and preserve them.


What are you currently listening to, ready, or watching that sticking with you?

I am constantly finding new and old music to enjoy. My favorite album at the moment would probably be alt-J’s “An Awesome Wave” (and not just because of the album title!). I listen to books on tape while I draw- often educational books such as High Tide on Main Street by John Englender (whom I actually met in Greenland when he was doing research for the book!). I just finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon and absolutely loved it. Radiolab is an extremely inspiring podcast. I saw the Magritte show at MoMA last week which I found wonderful.

How do you spend a day off?

At the moment I am not taking any days off! My next big show is in June and I am worried I won’t have enough drawings for the huge space, so I am working day and night and barely leaving my apartment (except to see the Magritte show!). In the summer, I like to take time off and go to the beach, or do anything outside… hiking and camping with friends, making delicious food, and just generally being social. Since I work alone, it can get very lonely, so I surround myself with my wonderful friends whenever I can.

What do you hope others take away from your work?

I hope they are inspired by it. That could mean a myriad of things. Perhaps they might just find it beautiful to look at. I hope the viewer can feel transported to that place and time that I have depicted, allowing them to experience a landscape they might never have the chance to see. And finally I hope my work will inspire people to protect and preserve these landscapes in whatever way they can, whether that be donating money to organizations like, or opening a window instead of turning the AC on when it’s 60′s outside.


What are you working on now? Any upcoming exhibitions or projects you can tell us about?

At the moment I am entirely focused on my solo show that opens June 10th in Seattle, at Winston Wachter Fine Art. It will feature the Greenland and Maldives work, and make a connection to the melting ice, rising seas, and drowning island nations. Two other artists that came to Greenland and the Maldives with me, Lisa Lebofsky and Drew Denny, and I are also working as a collective called “Ice to Islands”. We are working towards exhibitions that will include our work as well as other artists focusing on the same subjects. I very much want to visit Antarctica next, but nothing is set in stone!


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