The Trove: Alex Zealand

Alex Zealand with a detail of “What Was” at the Beautiful Minds exhibit at the opening of the lovely Yards Park in DC, September 2010.

Alexandra Radocchia Zealand speaks quickly, the words come as fluidly as her agile mind thinks them.  A graduate of “an incredibly intellectual high school,” she continued her studies at Oberlin College (BA, Theatre Design.)  Relocating to New York City,  she did “the New York Theater thing for three years,” but after one too many give-it-your-all gigs, she was left feeling “burnt out,” and wanting to “work on my own stuff again.” She shifted focus and applied for grad school at Pratt.

Neighbors on the same street immortalized in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Alex and I met in turn-of-the-21st-century Brooklyn through our wonderful, sociable dogs, Buster and Mocha. When I attended her graduate exhibition (MFA, Sculpture), I was taken with her In Flight, a meditative suspension of illuminated dried clementine peels hovering gracefully over a reflection pool.

I recall the day in 2004, when I bounced the infant Leon on my hip as Alex and her hubby Christopher packed the moving van that would take them to a new life in Michigan.

In Flight, 2000, clementine peels, 36″ light box

The family has now settled in Northern Virginia, where I recently had the pleasure of visiting with them while I was in town for the Thanksgiving holiday. Over a delicious bowl of homemade turkey soup and a delightful acknowledgment of the bright, full moon from Kindergartner Leon (“look, the moon is following me,”) Alex and I caught up on life, books — “I love The Road.  Short, spare; you read it all in one gulp then you go into your sleeping kid’s room and sigh/exhale.”– and her personal spheres of influence.   The work of Giacometti resonates, particularly The Palace at 4 AM, which she’d read about in the yearnings of the character Cletus Smith in William Maxwell’s novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow before actually seeing it.  She enjoys the subtlety and “gestures of humanity.”

Alberto Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m. 1932. Wood, glass, wire, and string, 25 x 28 1/4 x 15 3/4″ (63.5 x 71.8 x 40 cm)  In the collections of the Museum of Modern Art.

“Things I’ve liked have root similarities,” and become integral to her body of work. “The skeletal, the flight and the gesture,” are recurrent themes. Ultimately we are reminded of the ephemeral nature of existence, “I think a lot of what I do has to do with the fragility of life.”

Alexandra Zealand Absence of Flight 1, 2008. Grape stems, wax, epoxy, mummified bird,  26″ x26″x26.” This work was featured in Alex’s first solo show at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Center in January 2010 as well as the gallery’s advertisement in Art in America magazine.

Her blog is a wonderful look into the genesis of her work and how it evolves. I love its subhead: “Transforming the Mass Detritus of Everyday Life.”

I am inspired by the transformative process of massing, which causes ‘gross trash’ objects to become beautiful and inspiring sculpture when gathered together.

Through this transformation of ‘gross trash’, I also explore our eternal quest to stop – or at least slow down – the ephemeral, fundamental nature of the organic: to die. This can be seen in our earliest myths (the fountain of youth), modern food (twinkies, MREs), and most importantly, in our relationship with ourselves (botox being a particularly scary example).

Coffee Filter Pods from her Addiction series.  View recent installations on Flickr.

As warm as she is smart, Alex, thoughtful, compassionate artist and loving wife and mother, shared characteristically quickly, eloquently and with certainty, her favorites:

1. Mummies. “I am fascinated by them, particularly the Palermo mummies.” She gestures toward two of her prized books: Bob Brier’s comprehensive Encyclopedia of Mummies. (“The reason it’s so wonderful is that it’s an A to Z of every mummy ever found.”) and The Living Dead: the Catacombs of Palermo featuring photographer Mario Lanza’s hauntingly beautiful images of those entombed in the ancient Capuchin crypt of Sicily’s capital city.  “There’s a great article on them in National Geographic from early this year.”  Whilst showing shot after shot of the desiccated honored dead she says, “There is something about the layers of humanity” in mummies as opposed to skeletons, “which are so bare,” that touches her.  That humanity is expressed in a “fantastic Seamus Heaney poem,” of a woman discarded, tossed into the bog yet preserved for posterity in its acidic peat.

Denizens of the deep: By 1599 with a full cemetery and no place to bury their dead, Capuchin friars created catacombs below their monastery to place their departed brother, Silvestro of Gubbio. (left) Grief-stricken over the loss of two-year-old, Rosalia Lombardo to pneumonia, her father enlisted the services of renowned embalmer, Alfredo Salafia to preserve her beauty for all time. The last of the bodies interred in Catacombe dei Capuccini, the sweet-faced child passed away in 1920. The photo of her remains is current. (right)

2. Coffee No surprise here, given the breadth of her Addiction series of used coffee filters. Life inspires art. Her folks drank instant coffee–light and sweet–and as a child she’d follow behind them sipping from the copious half-filled milky, sugary cups they left about the house.  As an adult, her palate has swung far from diluted instant to fresh-brewed, rich and dark.

“It’s my only drug.  I can do without a lot, but not that.”  She averages 4 cups a day–“3 is a calm day.” She has her first cup at home, making enough to also fill her Thermos for later drinking.  Upon arrival at work she’ll have her second, a library brew. “There’s something about having a freshly made cup.  I feel much better about the world when I have a cup of coffee in my hands.”


3. My Bike. “I bought my bike in 1997.  It fits me well and it’s really sturdy.  When I’m on it, I feel really strong and powerful.  It reminds me of living in New York, being young and cool and hip,” she says with a smile.  “I used it when I was a bike messenger.”   She recalls an incident whereby she was “brushed” twice by a blue Datsun, the driver oblivious to the frighteningly close collision.  “I have a bike prayer: God keep me awake and aware, alert and lucky. So far it’s worked.”

Her ’97 Jamis is an early hybrid.

4. Libraries. Working at the Arlington Public Library has served to reinforce her affinity for these bastions of free and public knowledge fostered at the Andover Memorial Library as a child. “I’ve totally given in, finally.  I love them– the organization of how you find things. The inherent socialism in [public] libraries makes everything available to everyone without judgment.” When asked if she has a favorite library Alex responds, “I am really fond of the one I work for, but I love them all,” including one she follows on Twitter, Bess the Book Bus, a mobile library servicing the underserved, low-income community of Tampa.

A “weeded” copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, altered by Alex to reflect its emotional core, became one of the entries in the compelling “Transformed Book Project,” an ongoing collaboration with the Arlington Public Library.

5. Star Wars. “It was the first movie I ever saw.  I wanted to be Han Solo…because he could do almost anything, and he not only piloted, but loved the Millennium Falcon, which is probably the coolest ship in space even if it’s constantly about to fall apart.  It reminds me of the ’66 Dodge Dart I had in college — a reliable old piece of machinery, if you knew how to take care of it.  Han Solo was also the guy who everyone underestimated, which I think I identified with.  And he had cool clothes.”

She has followed the entire series and now her young son shares her obsession. She finds the first two installments of the prequel trilogy “annoying, but storyline number three, when Anakin turns to Darth Vader, well to turn to the dark side when you think it is the only way to save the one you love, that’s pretty powerful stuff.”

Posted on her wall at work: Mace Windu and Padmé Amidala figurines.  “I have somehow come into possession of them.  They make me happy.”

6. Sun Flares and Solar Winds. Since middle school she’s been intrigued by Helios’ explosive displays of his magnetism. “Something about the sun sending out particles is amazing.”  She is awed by the paradoxes of its power, “the sun gives life, but is incredibly dangerous.”

Culled from her extensive cyber surfing, astonishing glimpses of the fierce phenomenon.

7. Wings (and attendant flight.) “We don’t have them, so I’m especially fascinated,” she says with ornithological zeal. “It’s really hard when you look at a bird skeleton to imagine flight.  It’s not the bones, it’s the tendons and muscles which create it.”  She sings the praises of the Smithsonian’s collection of bird skeletons mounted in flight.

Discovered on her parents’ property in what had once been an old milking shed, a mummified bird with a remarkably intact wingspan may well find itself in one of Alex’s works of art.

A skeleton from the National Museum of Natural History.

8. Twitter.  “I’ve become addicted, and I love the way it’s both a place to put all those random ‘the world is so weird/beautiful/interesting’ thoughts I have, and a place to have conversations with people from all over the world, who are interested in the same issues I am, but whom I’ve never met. This week I had a multi-day discussion with a librarian in Maine, about the new google eBooks and metadata.”

9. Zombie Lit.   When Pride and Predjudice and Zombies was published last year, a group of my zombie movie loving friends decided that we had to start a Zombie Book Club. We started out by reading PPZ (Thumbs down – not enough Austen nor zombies), did World War Z (thumbs up all around), detoured briefly into apocalypse lit with The Stand, then discovered The Walking Dead graphic novels (which we adore). We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the good quality that keeps coming out. You’d think my love of zombies would be connected to my love of mummies, but it’s really not – fascination with the zombie uprising is more about wondering how you would cope with the worst case scenario. Would you be the one to step up and see the threat, and take steps to protect yourself and your community? Would you have the psychological mettle to survive the world turning upside down? Could you survive and also remain compassionate, true to your ideals?

From book six of the Walking Dead series.

10. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Kane Chronicles books. My son is 6 and a half, and we love to listen to audio books together. We listen to them when we’re driving, or at home while I work and he builds Legos. Riordan’s books are great adventures, full of appealing characters we both enjoy. They explore the mythology I remember loving back in 7th grade when I first read Edith Hamilton, as if the characters of Greek gods were real people, and still lived among us. I love that the stories are something we both enjoy listening to (and of course, in Riordan’s second series the Kane Chronicles, it’s the Egyptian gods. And they’re connected back to mummies…), and that we have this shared adventure with them.

Chapter One of The Red Pyramid from The Kane Chronicles.

*Note that this post was first published December 6, 2009 and updated with a new photos and an additional 3 faves on December 9, 2010.


6 Responses

  1. You find the most amazing people!


  3. I love it!! Really inspiring!!

  4. Wow! Her work is beautiful…please let us know if/when she has an occasion to show any work in NYC.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Fantastic work… and artistic journey!

  6. i love this piece, great work !

    Montgomery Xx

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