Here Today, Painted Tomorrow

Hopping off my bike on Grand Street (in Brooklyn, please; don’t be confused, there’s a Grand in Manhattan too), I feel out of place. I’m on my way to Mortise & Tenon, a brand-new “haus of creation and co-collaboration, incubation and inception for new shows, ideas, concepts and performance realities,” to catch the opening of Future Memory, the gallery’s first show. Its webpage also mentions a 'speakeasy' door – I have only the vaguest idea of what this means.


The Facebook event mentioned a sparkly doorbell I’m supposed to ring, but standing outside the unassuming apartment building, I didn’t detect a single sparkle. Is this Williamsburgish for something else? Sparkly like…new? Sparkles and speakeasies: it all sounds like it’s meant to be cute and charming, but I’m feeling alienated. At least I know I’m in the right place: through the building’s glass door, bright at the end of a dim hallway, I can see art on walls and beer bottles in hands. I sneak in after a probable resident of an upstairs apartment, prepared for the worst.

Que Sera, Sera

Once I’m in, though, the atmosphere’s considerably warmer: approachable, welcoming. Not too polished, not too sterile, the gallery’s makeshift-looking walls let Steph Ziemann’s work—primarily pencil sketches, photography, and scream-of-color paintings—speak for itself. The work is active and alive. Paintinglike photographs put me at the center of a flock of pigeons noisily flapping into flight in a park. Another photograph of Dalmatians on a city sidewalk leaves me guessing whether it’s in grayscale, or color with black-and-white subjects.

Artist Steph Ziemann with her versatile work. Photo: Laurie Gregg

Her subjects, whether drawn or photographed, are often living: musicians, birds, dogs—and her work revels in their breath and motion, capturing not only the current moment of her subject’s being, but where it’s headed, what’s next. Steph on creatures: “I have always had an inherent camaraderie with animals, and that bond never really resembled my relationship with people.  Humans insist and subsist on a constant barrage of verbiage.  I find it mind-numbing to be constantly explaining myself by making preordained sounds with my face.  Dogs always understood me wordlessly.”

Understanding Ziemann wordlessly: gallery cat Sarah with a painting created during the opening. Photo: Steph Ziemann

The pencil sketches are done in bold, continuous lines, a drawn equivalent of stream-of-consciousness writing. Steph on drawing: “I can draw anywhere.  My drawing hand is a direct line to my brain.  The mood is right when I’m amused, impulsive, drunk, delighted, curious, serious, overcome.” Similarly spontaneous, Steph’s paintings feel improvised like jazz, their colors like brassy instruments that refuse to blend into one another no matter how well they harmonize. Maybe it’s that Steph also paints and creates mixed media live, with music as a backdrop or collaborative presence.

“It was a strange experience for me the first few times, and it continues to be so,” Steph tells me, though her ease with brush and music belies the statement. “My process is cerebral and intimate. It flows, it gets stuck.  It changes directions. It gets weird. I walk to the other side of the room. Stand on one leg. Sit and stare. Turn it upside down. Put on music. Jump around. Put it away for a month. Take it out.  Add three brushstrokes, and it’s done. Five days later, I hate it. Live painting asks me to condense and adapt an introspective ordeal to a performance format, which challenges my very nature.”

From L to R: Musicians Johnny Pisano & Alex Alexander with Steph Ziemann. Photo: Laurie Gregg

At the opening, Steph treated us all to a live painting, accompanied by Johnny Pisano & Alex Alexander on what I hear is the one-and-only Electric Djembe. Alex is the reason Steph got into live painting in the first place: he asked her to join him in a benefit for the Lakota Youth Arts Center at Theater for the New City, and they’ve done a number of shows since. Now, the two pieces they’re birthing, an instrumental one created by the accumulation of sound on the musician’s looping recording and a visual one built by the accumulation of paint on Steph’s canvas, complement one another well; a dynamic construction of art-while-you-wait.

“In making pictures, we stop time, we evade it, rewrite it,” Steph says. “We debunk the illusion of time as a line. We deliver present moments as gifts to whatever future will exist.  And so, a picture, to me, is a portal in time.” Lulled by colors and sounds and the attentive, happy, open mood around me, I watch Steph open a portal, happy I didn’t follow my flight instinct at the door and make a mad dash for some vegan comfort food down the street. Williamsburg has a heart, no matter how many speakeasy doors you have to pass through to find it.

Article by Cory Tamler