WAYNE ZEBZDA'S ART
"Like Andy Warhol, Wayne Zebzda presents something familiar, transforms it through the eye of the artist, and asks us to see it differently. However, where Warhol was dour, Zebzda has a twinkle in his eye and is hell-bent on delighting the viewer,” Paul Janes-Brown in his review of the exhibit at The Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Maui Weekly, August 6th, 2009
From the Contemporary Museum Catalogue by Marcia Morris:
Born 1956 in Hartford, Connecticut; lives and works in Koloa, Kaua`i
Being “on the street” conjures up an image of social marginality, life that is as
unforgiving as concrete, while being “on the road” invokes America’s great romance with the
endless highway. Wayne Zebzda, who began his career in the district south of Market Street in
San Francisco before its recent gentrification, works at the intersection of those two conceptual
trajectories. As both a coastal and a trans-Pacific transplant, he moved initially from Connecticut
to San Francisco in 1976 to enter the San Francisco Art Institute, from which he earned his BFA
in 1979. He first came to the islands in 1987 at the invitation of Doug Britt, fellow student at the
Art Institute and an artist then already living and working on Kaua`i. Zebzda subsequently also
settled on that island.
Zebzda recalls that he was a shy child, one who loved to draw and for whom art was his
voice. He also found early on that pre-emptive humor could also serve to deflect attention from
what was otherwise a reticence to engage socially. It was not until he had to make presentations
for his public art works that he developed what now seems a naturally assured presence, and
humor, honed early, has continued to serve as an integral part of his creative style.
Zebzda entered San Francisco Art Institute on full scholarship as a painting major. With
day jobs in construction, he also developed a facility with tools of a different trade, and
eventually shifted to producing sculptural and installation works that ultimately proved the most
fertile ground for his emerging vision. Zebzda’s work, then as now, is centered on three key
themes or conceptual strategies. First, there is always a strand of social commentary, which may
also include environmental or ecological concerns; second, the element of material of conceptual
play serves both to convey serious or difficult ideas in a more accessible, even seductive way, and also often communicates a deep sense of delight in the face of the absurdities of life. Finally,
Zebzda understands the essential nature of communication in creating order, a common ground
in the human community—and what can happen if there is slippage in that process, as with the
mixed messages often conveyed by the titles of his work.
By the time he had completed his work at the Art Institute in 1979, Zebzda had already
begun taking his work—quite literally—to the streets. Early public site projects in San Francisco
included Road Signs (at the Embarcadero and Marin Headlands), Stenciled Czechs (a crosswalk
installation) and billboards overlooking Taylor and Ellis Streets. While some of the artist’s
projects might be considered casual aesthetic interventions, Zebzda was also able to cultivate
formal support for a number of them. One such project was the Z-National Forest, created in
1982, which received both the approval of the San Francisco Department of Public Works and
the support of the San Francisco Arts Commission. Working in a triangular traffic island in the
city, Zebzda transformed the site into a miniature park, complete with a forest ranger (a plywood
cutout of “Ranger Lou”) and a pamphlet that explained (with tongue firmly in cheek) the history,
geology and special features of the site. This microcosmic juxtaposition of the urban and the
pastoral provided early evidence of the artist’s ability to distill a number of complex ideas with
an economy of means. In this case, Z-National Forest spoke about the ways in which urban
growth takes over the rural environment, the wilderness which is so much part of the American
mythos; the function of the national park system in both preserving but also encapsulating that
wilderness; the romanticism that still pertains to visiting such sites; and the sheer surreality of
this unexpected (and ephemeral) juxtaposition. This work, as with much of the artist’s other
work, also had a strongly interactive dimension.
Though Zebzda continued to live and work in San Francisco, he also produced important
early work for Sculpture Chicago, an annual festival of outdoor sculpture. In 1984, Public
Speaking was fabricated and installed in an open-air plaza. It consisted of a half-dome shell,
from which protruded a large conical amplifying device, much like the early gramophone—and
there was even a dog listening to “his master’s voice.” Zebzda intended that members of the
public would use the apparatus to speak their minds—and they did. The artist returned three
years later to create A Very Public Shower, a fully functional facility attached to a fire hydrant.
Though he has commented that “Making public art is an awkward dance of aesthetics and
liability, continually stepping on each others’ toes…,” Zebzda has continued to find very creative
ways to choreograph that encounter.
While there was certainly an undeniable whimsy to this nod to personal hygiene, it also
revealed another focus in Zebzda’s work—a concern for the growing population of homeless
persons, for whom the public/private demarcations of space and function often collapsed. That
theme was also touched on in Three Square Meals, an installation at the Co-op Market in Palo
Alto in 1988 and the creation of Wino Village at the Show ‘N’ Tell Gallery in San Francisco in
1993. A corollary of this social concern for individuals marginalized by urban life was the
increasingly dedicated use of materials marginalized, cast off by a culture of consumption.
Zebzda, for whom “ART” is really an acronym for “aesthetic recycling of trash,” helped
create and participated for several years in The Toy Factory, housed in the San Francisco
Artspace. Here, artists created new toys from old discarded ones, and from other odds and ends.
The new creations, transformed from toy to art were sold and proceeds donated back to charities.
That capacity to see the potential for renewal in the most unlikely fragments of stuff, was an
essential part of Zebzda’s sensibility by the time he moved to the islands.
Some might remember his 1997 entry in the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ annual
exhibition—a suitcase with a small outrigger attached; others might recall One Candle Power,
his 2005 installation at Timespace Gallery in Hanapepe—a resurrected street lamp casting light
each evening with a solitary candle. Most recently, Zebzda has worked on his Accidental
Sculpture series, which he describes as “Highway art made by second-hand collaboration with
the general public.” As an island state, the increasing pressure on our transportation
infrastructure is painfully evident. It also seems to be a fact of island life that somewhere there is
always roadwork going on. Zebzda has for the last several years been on the lookout for the
artifacts of that process, documenting as needed, collecting where possible (and often with the
approval of the Department of Transportation.) Since so much of this has to do with elements of
regulation—everything from the center lines on roadways to the markers along their edges—he
has, still playful in his perspective, become something of an expert in a different kind of “sign
language.” We are familiar with the silhouette figure telling us there is a crossing ahead; Zebzda
invests him with an incendiary quality in a carbon smoke drawing. We obey instinctively the
command to “STOP,” but what are we to make of the Stopped Sign whose flight appears to have
been arrested by a gallery wall? We are on the lookout for directives that guide our way,
positioned at eye-level along the road; who reads the ones posted many feet above out heads?
Zebzda continues to produce an evolving body of work that provides both way-markers and
warning signs on the ultimate Road Trip of life.
Photo of Wayne Zebzda by Kirk LeClaire 2016