ZAI DIVECHA || Where Canvas Becomes Art

ZAI DIVECHA || Where Canvas Becomes Art

The world of art is evolving, with artists venturing into interesting new mediums through their work; be it 3D printed furniture, art installations made with real food, or like Zai Divecha’s work - where she turns the material usually used as a canvas into an art piece.

We chat with paper sculptor Zai Divecha to gain insight into how a family trip and a book on pop-up cards helped her discover her passion for paper art.

P: Pendulum Magazine

Z: Zai Divecha

P: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Z: I’m a paper sculpture artist based in San Francisco. These days, I’m making monochromatic white paper sculptures and installations with a lot of geometric, repeating elements. My work is quiet and meditative, both in appearance and process.

As for my life outside of work... I’m highly extroverted, unlike most artists I know: I feel most energized, focused, and inspired when I’m around others. I’m mixed-race -- white and Indian -- and I grew up in a bicultural household. I’m also a Bay Area native, which seems increasingly rare around here. I’m an avid road cyclist, and I spend as much time as I can on my bike.

P: You have attended school and had a career in a different field prior to becoming an independent artist - was paper art a hobby you’ve developed over the years? what first inspired you to start working with paper?

Z: I’ve had a lot of different professional interests over the years -- I worked in public health throughout college and graduate school, and then in tech for a few years before finally starting my art business. And even then, I was working with metal, not paper. I learned how to weld in high school, and making furniture and home goods was a hobby on the side for much of my life.

About a year and a half ago, I started experimenting with paper while on a family trip to visit my grandmother, who was in the hospital at the time. I wanted something to do to pass the time while we were keeping her company, so I picked up a book on how to make pop-up cards. I fell in love immediately! I found it much easier to create the kinds of geometric, faceted forms I was trying to make out of metal. And because paper is cheaper, lighter, and more malleable than metal, I was able to experiment and iterate much faster. This fundamentally changed my creative process. I suddenly felt so much more engaged and excited by the process, and I was able to keep my momentum up from beginning to end.

The other thing that drove my switch from metal to paper was that I realized I didn’t want to surround myself with my metal pieces. My New Year’s resolution for 2018 was to start making work that I loved enough to want to hang in my own home. That drove a lot of my design decisions that year, and it contributed to the changes I’ve made to my aesthetic Now I’m much more excited about the work that I’m making, and as a result, my home is finally filled with my own artwork. And that shift has resonated with others, too -- I’m making more sales and connecting with customers in a way that I didn’t before.

P: What made you take the leap into pursuing your creative passion full time?

Z: When I was working my tech job, I felt like I had other unique skills and talents that weren’t getting utilized in that role. I wanted to create something out of nothing, and I wanted to use more of my creative skills. I also wanted to be in “flow” for at least a little bit of time each week. Toggling every couple minutes between email, PowerPoint, and Salesforce was exhausting, and I never had a chance to just get in the zone.

I knew I needed to find (or create) a job where I could get into a calm, focused headspace for at least a few hours each week.

P: In 2018, you transitioned from metalworking to paper art. Do you think that techniques you acquired from metalwork gives you an advantage in creating paper sculptures?

Z: Definitely. I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make welded, faceted vessels out of sheet metal, and that process has translated directly to designing many paper forms. I use a lot of the same 3D modeling and vector drawing techniques for both metal and paper. And a lot of the motifs in my work -- geometric designs, low-poly shapes, and repeating elements -- are still present.

P: Can you describe your creative process for each piece?

Z: I often start with the smallest repeating unit of a piece, whether that’s a specific pleat pattern, a strip of paper folded in a certain way, or a little cone “party hat.” I’ll make a bunch of them in different sizes, and try clustering or arranging them in various layouts to see how it looks. Once I figure out the scale and proportions, I’ll go into “robot mode” and do all the repetitive, tedious assembly or folding steps. At this point, I’ll usually put on an audiobook or podcast (or, um, Game of Thrones) to keep my brain engaged while I’m doing repetitive tasks.

I like to think of my pieces as having varying levels of orderliness and randomness. The smallest repeating unit might be highly geometric and identical to one another, but then these units might be clustered in a more organic fashion -- perhaps they resemble islands in a delta, or waves in the ocean. This process allows me to prioritize both the tedious, repetitive work (my opportunity to get into flow!), and also the ability to make design decisions throughout the process. I’ve enjoyed balancing order and chaos in my work.

P: Where do you draw inspiration from when creating new artwork?

Z: I love textures and gradients in nature: I’m obsessed with the dense fog I bike through on my early-morning bike rides, the puffy sea foam that sometimes washes up on the beach, desert rock formations, driftwood, light, and shadows. I’m always on the hunt for interesting patterns, so bathroom floor tiles, Islamic art, or even the occasional storm drain grate can catch my eye. And of course, I get a lot of inspiration from other makers, especially folks whose work involves repeating elements, or that is highly textural. Windy Chien, Julian Watts, Meghan Shimek, Heather Knight, Olivia Walker, Taekyeom Lee, Brendan Monroe, and Matthew Shlian come to mind.

P: What advice would you give to someone who is hesitant to take the leap but has a desire to build a career as an artist?

Z: Make, share, repeat. Make as much art as you can, and share it as widely as you can. Set up a basic website to showcase your portfolio, create a separate Instagram account for your artwork, and tell everyone you meet about it. People love seeing what goes on behind the scenes, so share your creative process on social media. The more people feel invested in your story and your process, the better. It’ll open doors to new opportunities, and will hopefully translate to sales.

If you’re considering going full-time, figure out what your financial runway is. How long can you go without a salary? How much money do you need to be making at different points in time? This is a career path without a lot of financial stability, so make sure you’re in a position where you can take that risk. It’s not the right path for everyone.

P: Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions you’d like to share?

Z: I currently have a solo exhibition at Marrow Gallery in San Francisco that runs through May 25th. It’s called “White Noise,” and explores themes of sound, quiet, pattern, and shadow. I’m very sensitive to noise, so this body of work is influenced by the ways in which I’ve attempted to limit sensory input to just the things that make me feel calm and centered.

I also just finished up a really fun daily challenge called the 36 Days of Type. It’s an annual, global design challenge in which designers and illustrators create one letter of the alphabet -- and then all of the numerical digits -- each day for 36 days, and share them on Instagram. I created a small, white, three-dimensional paper sculpture for each letter and digit, using techniques like quilling, folding, pleating, rolling, tearing, poking holes, and even making little spitballs. 36 Days of Type forced me to innovate and develop a lot of new techniques. Several of these techniques ended up being the starting point for much larger pieces, so it’s already paying off. This project can be seen on my Instagram, @zaidivecha. The entire alphabet is also on display at Marrow Gallery, if you’d like to go see it in person.

Zai Divecha surrounded by her work.