A successful art career requires two crucial skills: the ability to think up new things and the drive to make them real. It’s not about creativity; lots of people have that. It’s more about owning the capacity to see ideas through to the end — to produce fresh objects, over and over again, and then to present them to the public.
That stamina sustains Jonathan Saiz and keeps him in the top-tier of Denver artists. He’s an art adventurer who stays in the spotlight by constantly surprising. One day, he’s presenting miniature paintings at the Denver Art Museum, the next he’s applying an oversized mural to a bare concrete wall downtown. He’s been known to paint giant waves or intimate portraits or antique furniture. He’s illustrated a best-selling tarot deck and is now working on a children’s book.
It’s part showmanship, part substance and fully experimental — things don’t always work out. But, as a critic, he’s one of those creatives I always watch to see what arrives next. I recently came across a social media post with photos of a large-scale, and very complicated, mural that he painted on the ceiling of his own living room.
It looked impossible, and so I asked him some questions.
Q. I have a lot of questions about your work, but I have to start with the ceiling mural because it is a wonder — delicate and monumental at the same time and, no doubt, very difficult to pull off. Can we begin by getting some specs so people know just how grand it is?
A. The mural is 350 square feet in a two-story atrium of a condo, located 14 stories up in the Uptown neighborhood. It’s painted with regular house latex on thick paperboard panels, nailed to the ceiling with hand-cut balsa wood trimming. It’s not my biggest mural to date, but it is my first ceiling creation!
Q. And how did you manage to create a piece so high off the ground? Sounds a little dangerous, to be honest.
A. It was a scary, stressful ordeal to install. I mostly created the panels on the ground to minimize the dangerous install periods up on the 25-foot-tall scaffolding. My trick to avoid focusing on my fear of heights was to hum and sing made-up songs to my dog Oscar while I worked.
Q. It’s a very orderly mural, full of symmetry and strict geometry. But within that there is quite a bit of free, artistic expression, a mix of styles and historical references and probably some personal moves.
A. The inspiration started with a rose motif from the Bahia Palace in Morocco, but quickly evolved into a mashup of my personal loves of Art Deco, Native American textiles and sacred geometry. Without a client to please besides myself, I was able to experiment — even adding rose oil, rose petals, love notes and other secret magical ingredients into the paint and behind the panels to give it some extra ritualistic energy. I wanted it to become the calm, glowing heart of our home.
Q. I wonder how you view it? Is it decorative to you or is it a painting, a work of art?
A. Decorative art sets the tone for a shared space — design calibrates our energy. This mural is decorative and so much more.
Q. OK, last question about the piece: What is it like to live with it, to have it over your head all day? We think of artists as making objects to sell, but this one is for you, no?
A. It’s wonderful to see it every day and night, to share it with my partner, Dean Prina, and to finally have something for myself that can’t be sold or removed. Living with it also reminds me that it’s possible to create whatever we imagine we can, (that) we could still build epic temples if we wanted to.
Q. I was looking back at your work over the past few years, and I think the piece you are best known for might be the tower of 10,000 tiny, 2-inch square paintings that you created for the Denver Art Museum in 2019. And you have done many, many of these small pieces in various configurations.
A. Working in multitudes of small pieces to create a larger whole is liberating for me. The pieces can evolve in unexpected ways, and I get to use a much higher diversity of materials. I love working with multiple elements that interact with each other to create a multifaceted whole.
Q. I just saw this new piece you did, taking an old, ornate, antique cabinet, painting it and filling it with mysterious objects. What is that?
A. I found this 19th-century cabinet, dusty and forgotten, in an antique store and I felt I could connect with its history like a time machine. I wanted to preserve it by collaborating with it, creating new clay and gemstone objects within it to activate its theatrical personality and to fill it with 21st-century curiosities. I plan on collaborating with more found historical objects and artisans like that soon.
Q. Another avenue you’ve explored: the tarot deck. Can you tell us about your deck of cards?
A. The Fountain Tarot deck is made up of 79 of my paintings to create a larger interactive world, and its history is deeply connected to our global metaphysical past (a lot like the mosaics and cabinets). It’s a dream to have created something that is now used in multiple languages around the world and was just added to the library at the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica this month. It’s part of the history of tarot now. It was a random passion project that changed my life.
Q. We’ve seen you create big things and small things, portraits, tarot cards, and I hear you are now illustrating a children’s book for the Clyfford Still Museum. That leads to the existential question: What are you? Most artists describe themselves as painters or sculptors or photographers.
A. I’m a creator who likes to stay busy to keep the existential demons at bay. I’m the type of artist who will dive fully into any type of project or medium if it sparks my curiosity or presents a worthy challenge.
Q. So many artists want to work at it full-time but few manage. Many other talented artists have a hard time making a living from their work. Why are you able to do it?
A. A wide diversity of projects keeps me afloat. And it also helps for me to look at the commerce of being an artist as a game. Some free projects really do pay something more valuable than money, and some projects are worth taking just to survive.
Q. One last big question: You recently pledged to reduce using materials in your art that might be harmful to the environment. Is that a personal choice? Or do you think that as an artist you have unique social responsibilities?
A. I think 21st-century artists can be powerful agitators for important social causes or they can bury their heads in the sand like past generations. I’m having fun finding creative ways to inspire solutions and making resolutions that create a more sustainable planet. I believe artists must honor that responsibility in order to access the higher creative muses.
Q. Bonus question: What is your dream project?
A. To create an artwork that can be lived in. The merging of my unique skills and visions in art, design, architecture and landscaping, all merging into a creation that uses art and nature as a way for us to be reminded of forgotten utopian ways of living. I want to become an artist who creates evolving environments instead of static objects, and I think this dream project might actually be in the works soon!
Follow Jonathan Saiz on Instagram: @jonathan.saiz. Or see his work at his gallery, K Contemporary, 1412 Wazee St., Denver.
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