Nov 01 2017 . 19 min read
Finding Issue with Art
Finding Issue with Art
It’s not surprising that artist Izaac Zevalking, who succinctly drills down complex societal issues into a solitary image could also, in a single sentence, tackle the meaning of life. “Like life, you are envisioning the endpoint but it’s the journey that is the significant thing,” he notes, adding, “art really embodies that. We acknowledge that there isn’t any endpoint but we still embrace the journey.”
Zevalking, 30, has used his own journey to create a divergant path. A graphic designer, he moved to Las Vegas five years ago from England to be near his sister. His move proved serendipitous in that it led him to start Recycled Propaganda a year after arriving, which he uses as a springboard for confronting and discussing everything from religion to obseity.
Of Recycled Propaganda’s origins, Zevalking says, “In essence that is what I try and do with all my work, whatever energy there is, feed off the energy of the people around me and recycle it, hence the name, and spit it out as something that is more useful to society.”
elevate sat down with Zevalking to talk about his art (which has found its way into several local dispensaries and cultivations), Trump, cannabis, the illogicality of logic, and acceptance of failure.
What was the impetus for starting Recycled Propaganda in 2013?
I moved here and needed an outlet to say the things I was saying without saying them. I just started making images and branded that as Recycled Propaganda. I never had an intention of being an artist until I moved here. It was the way I would sort of cope with the social differences and injustice being more apparent. When you are removed from where you grew up, whether that be domestically or internationally, you have to adjust. England and America are similar enough that you can relate, not so alien that they don’t sort of overlap. England in a lot of ways does follow in the wake in America, a lot of the world does these days. So, a lot of core issues play out here and are much more polarized and apparent here, like genetically modified food and religion, they are all so much more polarized here than in the UK. Here, you have the really fit and aware people and the not-fit and not-aware people, and in England it’s more like gray than so black and white.
You have a background in graphic design. Did you think you would eventually turn toward fine art?
It wouldn’t have surprised me. I was in a national exhibition [for art] when I was 14 in England. In school I achieved a lot artistically but it wasn’t an art school. My mom and dad are quite rebellious spirits so I don’t think it would have surprised me. My mom is an artist and my sister in England is an artist, my degrees are art and designed based. I have a degree in sports technology, designing sports equipment, and a Master’s degree in 2-D and 3-D visualization. I did graphics and design work as a freelancer. I think if you look at social and political art, it is mostly British people, Banksy being the most famous of them. Maybe it’s the satirical way we are brought up in that country. I never had a plan to do that. All of the big moments in your life don’t happen all of a sudden, they happen as iterations day by day, hour by hour. It wasn’t like all of sudden I was this well-known artist, it’s taken four years to get to that point.
You drill a complex issue down into a single graphic. What skills do you rely on for that?
The hardest part of what I do is the initial conceptualization of the pieces and there’s no real magic ingredient to it. I just jot down ideas and notions I have and when I am illustrating them I just try different variations and it works or it doesn’t work. The longer you do that sort of thing, the easier it becomes to see what does and doesn’t work visually. So, I rely on a heavy amount of intuition, and I am naturally a creative thinker probably because of the way I was brought up. The other skills I rely on are basically refined through practice. With spray painting or stencil making, you just have to try it and constantly iterate it and try different things to improve it and that’s the key to trying to master art. I think you never will master it but that’s the good thing about it. I like that, that doesn’t put me off. I like that there’s always a direction to it, there is no wrong and right answer so there can’t be any finish to it. It’s like life -- you are envisioning the endpoint but it’s the journey that is the significant thing. Art really embodies that. We acknowledge that there isn’t any endpoint but we still embrace the journey. People often underwrite creative minds as those people are just born creative. But, no, you have to practice, you have to paint a painting every day. I do a design or painting every day and that’s important to keep your skillset sharp. You can’t just expect to be a creative genius, it just appears that way I guess.
As society becomes increasingly polarized, have you seen interest pique in your work?
Yes, especially since Trump came into the mix and started running for president. He brings a lot of issues to a point, either by doing something or saying something and not necessarily in a bad way either. That has definitely animated the left. I am glad I started the art I was doing prior to that because it’s given me a point of reference to be like, ‘Wow, I did this design in 2014,’ and so this issue has always been there. It’s just people are more aware of it because it’s thrust upon them. It’s fascinating to me, but it’s also been inspirational to see that when more liberal, open-minded people are angry they are more drawn toward art. You are just drawn toward something that isn’t further perpetuating the problem. The point of art is there isn’t a singularity to it, you can observe it in many different ways.
Because your art is so ambiguious it leaves room for varied interpretation.
I think the reason the country is so polarized is people don’t view life like that, they view life in such a linear and binary way. The more people value and emphasize art, the more they can learn to not judge stuff and see it from other people’s perspective and not be so polarized. The worst thing someone can say about my art is that they see it in a very specific way because it’s undermining what I am trying to achieve, which is you view it like that but someone else could view it in a totally different way. Isn’t that more important than the issue itself? How we respond to the issue? No matter what design I have created, people have pitched to me crazily different notions of what it means. I like that, the ambiguity is what I want, I want people to be able to view it from both sides of the aisle and still relate to it and still have something to say and reflect on society because of it. I just wish people were aware that phenomenon existed. Like the Trump piece of him spewing sewage, it was about his oil policy, that’s why I did it. But I have had multiple people come by and say, ‘Yeah, Trump is draining the swamp.’ And that’s the beauty of art. And that really evokes to somebody like me as opened-minded and being able to empathize with other people and still fully empathize with the conservative mindset in order to come up with that. That’s really the origin of most issues -- that we don’t fully understand why that person thinks the way they do.
Big consumer brands such as Pepsi, Campbell’s, Del Monte, Facebook, Dos Equis, Coke, and Chiquita factor heavily into your work. Why?
I think they have the most grip on people’s general frame of mind and consciousness more than any other influence. Advertising really is the true artform of America because it is so powerful and evocative. It captures your attention so equivocally that it does it without us even noticing it. That’s what blows my mind more than anything. I could that piece [logo driven pieces] anywhere in the world and people would understand it in any language. To me, the point that it underlines is how much of our attention they have captured and how subtlety they have done it. We aren’t even aware of it. The idea of flipping or turning that power against them, even if it’s a little bit, turns me on I guess. And it’s easy, if you want an image to resonate, use existing imagery that already resonates. People already know it, they have already been brainwashed. Use that brainwashing to try and expand their mind. Use that familiarity with those logos to capture their initial attention. I feel like we are increasingly living in a visually blind society because we are so overexposed to visual and auditory things. It takes more and more to grab our attention and that’s really worrying.
What topic/issue has surprised you the most about how much it resonates with people?
Specifically, with health and wellbeing, I found it quite ironic how unhealthy a lot of America is and how extremely healthy a lot of America is as well and how hyperaware people are of a lot of health stuff, more so than in England. That’s because when you are in the belly of the beast, it produces the flipside of that condition. You can’t drive down the street without seeing 10 fast-food joints. It’s so in our face we have to learn about it. If it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t. I think the awareness that this sort of stuff is so bad for us, yet we are still willing to consume it – there’s an irony in that. Yes, it’s bad for me but it feels good or tastes good. That surprised me how much that resonated with America because for somebody who didn’t grow up in America, it’s viewed as a highly unconcerned country about health. If you look at health policy, school lunches, obesity levels, cancer rates, it’s bad on paper so you don’t expect there to be that undercurrent here. But I think it’s really growing and people are really starting to realize on all fronts how they have been manipulated or taken advantage of just for money.
The ultimate example of that and saddest example of that is marijuana. You have a substance that is potentially miraculously curing of numerous diseases that has been so propagandized and demonized that people think the opposite of the truth. It’s just a really neat case study, let’s show how we can manipulate thought for a whole generation based on nothing. I think it truly began with schedule I drugs, which are all mind altering. I think the forces that be don’t want you to expand your mind because when you expand your mind enough you see the strings of control being pulled. Peyote is a schedule 1 drug, marijuana is a schedule 1 drug, LSD is a schedule 1 drug, cocaine is a schedule 1 drug. I have done all of those, and you always come to some sort of epiphany. I don’t think any of them, personally, are harmful, especially marijuana. I am not a super hardcore conspiracy theorist but when you zoom out and just learn about history, it’s not really a conspiracy theory, it’s just a string of events and people doing it to further their political career or whatever. Like Reagan’s War on Drugs, just because it resonated with people, it wasn’t necessarily because he believed in it. It’s just sad how evidence and truth don’t have as much of a place as they should. I think the medicine side of this country really illustrates that better than anything.
Your work is based on what’s happening all over the world, are you a news junkie?
I’m not a news junkie. A news channel is just generating news because it has to be on 24 hours. I like watching news shows and news segments. I try and do that every day just to see what is happening but I find there is a limited expanse of thought there and there is always such a heavy agenda. I watch Democracy Now and some of it is great and some of it I am like, ‘You are just looking for stuff to criticize Trump for.’ As long as you are aware of the biases, I don’t think there is anything wrong with watching any news. It’s not bad to watch the news if you can critique it and I do because I want to know what’s going on to inform my work and because that’s the kind of person I am. I also really like reading books and watching documentaries because they zoom out on a topic. I don’t get too into Facebook pages and memes because it always makes you feel unsatisfied. If you are trying to have a debate online, it doesn’t work. I talk to people about issues and debate all the time, as you can imagine, and it’s really fun but it’s not fun online because people don’t see you as a human being. The stuff people say to me online...I don’t get offended anymore because I’m used to it. I think, ‘If I saw you in person, you wouldn’t say that to me.’
Have there been issues you wanted to tackle that you weren’t able to make succinct enough to work?
Yes, I think almost every time I go to do an image. There’s a lot of ideas and a lot of them don’t work as visuals or I can’t wrap my head around it at that moment so I will just move on. Or I will initially want to do one topic but these images come up and it ends up being about something different. It’s not always tidy and linear. It’s almost as if I just allow myself to be a sponge and absorb information and listen to people make reasoned arguments and talk about stuff that’s going on then I sit down and I am doing stuff creatively and I draw upon those things. Sometimes the idea could totally pivot and be something different from my original idea. It depends on what kind of idea it is.
Have you felt like you failed to convey your message?
Failure is one of the most important parts about being an artist or doing any profession. Recognizing failure is not doing it as well as you wanted to do it, improving, and then doing it better. Without that reflection and critique of your work, I don’t think you can ever really move anywhere as an artist. People find failure very difficult to embrace. I don’t like to use the word failure because there is no such thing, especially in art, it’s just something that one person didn’t like or I didn’t like that you can iterate until you do. The important thing is that you learn from it and that fear doesn’t get involved because once fear gets involved it shuts down options from the universe. You need to just be open to change. I have a plan for this piece but once I get it out and work on it, it changes and you must embrace it, don’t resist it. Really try and feed off the energy of the people around you or the things going on in society. In essence that is what I try and do with all my work, whatever energy there is, feed off it and recycle it, hence the name, and spit it out as something that is more useful to society. Then it becomes cathartic, doing the artwork and venting it out. For instance, the (Route 91 Harvest Festival) shooting was like that. I was beside myself and then I just sat down and designed something and I did it. It was a really useful process just for me to feel better. We just need to use creativity and figure out how our skillsets can improve the situation. And they can, we just need to be creative about it. Or maybe we just need to be more aware or care more.
Has one piece been more popular with people than others?
I think typically the pieces that are most popular are the ones that draw on something where everybody knows the image. A lot of the logo ones are popular. Ones focusing on technology are quite popular with everybody that grew up in an analog world and has seen what has happened, and reflects and understands how mind-blowingly different the world is in such a short period of time. The technology ones resonate with people because they are so aware of it yet so involved with it. It’s sort of like an inner conflict. We hate and love technology so much.
Your pieces are very ambiguous. Do you feel like once you have created them and sent them on their way you are missing out on the best part of artwork – the conversation surrounding what it means?
Yes, I think that’s why I like doing events and art festivals because I can overhear or see people and how they react to them and what they think of them. I think that gives me more useful insight into people than anything else. The way somebody interprets a piece of art, there are whole schools of thought on this: art therapy and art psychology. You can extrapolate a lot about them. I think it has really aided my learning of being in this country by seeing reactions to my work. I would love to have a camera in each piece of my art to see what people think. It makes me happy that I am spiking some intellectual discussion.
And the worst part?
The worst thing is someone looking at a piece and having no opinion of it. That’s much worse to me. If someone looks at something and doesn’t get anything out of it, then I have failed. That’s how I look at it. If I do a piece and it doesn’t resonate with 95 percent of the people but it does resonate with the other five percent, that is still worthwhile. So I don’t beat myself up over it or second guess it too much. But I am always highly interested in which pieces people like and what people think they mean.
It didn’t take long for Recycled Propaganda to take off. Were you surprised by that?
I have been working fulltime on Recycled Propaganda for the last two years. I think once I figured out there’s a market for my work, and realized I really want to do this, and I like doing this, I just decided to do it rather than think it was a possibility. I am into those power of thought books and it’s totally true if your mind visualizes it than it becomes a reality. So, I just did that, I decided I wanted to do it and just kept working until it happened.
Maybe the reason it wasn’t a thought is I think we are taught that certain professions aren’t professions. And I think art is one of those. If you were to say when you were growing up that you wanted to be artist, I would imagine most families would say, ‘what the fuck are you talking about?’ I think that is a real issue, if we zoom out on the current reality, a lot of jobs aren’t going to exist really soon because of automation and robotics. The one thing that I think a robot or computer system is going to have a harder time catching up on is truly creative thought and bridging stuff which is what the mind is good for and that’s why humans are so successful. We have to adapt, and adapting is just creativity.
How important is the idea of art and creativity to society?
Moving forward in society and as a globe, art is probably one of the most important things and it’s still so underappreciated and underfunded and not even seen as a legitimate option. Not even art as in what I do, but creative thought in general is not very promoted that much in society. We are always just using one side of the brain to think in logical terms. That irony has to come to a point that education and everything we learn is so logic based and computers are so good at logic then why are we teaching kids logic? We need to teach them nonlogic or creative thinking. I have done some workshops with kids and kids are great because their creative mind hasn’t been squashed yet. So, generally, they are quite creative thinkers. I think there is a Picasso quote: “Everybody is an artist until they are taught not to be. I think that is very true.” I teach an art and wine class down at the Marriott two hours a week and to just see the general level of adults trying to create art is quite shocking to me. I say, ‘Yeah, you can paint it green or blue,’ and they have a nervous breakdown. I am like, ‘Whoa, it’s art, relax.’ Society thinks we have to have rules, steps and logic that we can’t just let loose. If we look at America, it’s successful because of innovation which is just creative thought. I think that sooner or later as a society we will recognize that.