Taking the Leap: A Conversation with Patricia Zarate

Today I’m posting a conversation with my friend, Patricia Zarate. Patricia is an artist and curator in New York, NY and we live down the street from one another in Sunnyside, Queens. Other than her being an awesome neighbor, she is a thoughtful artist and overall lovely human.

In addition to showing her work nationally and internationally, she runs Key Projects Art Space out of her apartment with her partner, Lynn Truncale. Key Projects is devoted to creating dialogue and community with other artists through group exhibitions.

I visited Patricia at her home/studio/project space to talk about her journey as an artist and how she balances the demands of a full time job, art, and a steady curatorial practice.

Detail,  Four Color Squares,  2006, origami paper on white paper, 11” x 11” each, series of 24. Image courtesy of Patricia Zarate.

Detail, Four Color Squares, 2006, origami paper on white paper, 11” x 11” each, series of 24. Image courtesy of Patricia Zarate.

Sarah: Patricia, can you start by talking a little bit about your background and your early beginnings as an artist?

Patricia: I was born in Colombia, South America and my family immigrated here in the late 60’s when I was 5 years old. I did all of my formal schooling here in New York City, and after I graduated from High School I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. At the time, I thought that it would probably be a good idea to study business, so I went to Baruch College - part of the CUNY system here in New York City - and got a Bachelor's in Business Administration with a focus in Computer Programming and a minor in Art.

SF: Was art something you were interested in throughout school as a child and into early adulthood?

 PZ: Art was always around- my father was trained as a carpenter and woodworker and that's what he did for a living. My mother was a seamstress and homemaker. They both worked a lot with their hands. I also had a couple of siblings that went to High School of Art and Design here in New York City, so art was always around. But I don’t really recall sitting down all the time and drawing - I was doodling sometimes - but I wasn’t really focused on art. I was kind of a late starter.

Fizz I,  2010, color aid paper, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Patricia Zarate.

Fizz I, 2010, color aid paper, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Patricia Zarate.

SF: I think it’s actually interesting that you went to school for business administration. I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews with other artists and it's funny how so many artists say they wish they had a business class or were taught more about business fundamentals in school. You probably have the foundation most artists wish they had, even if the path may feel reversed a bit. I’m curious to know though how art began to show up in your life as something you wanted to focus on?

 PZ: As I mentioned, I did a minor in art. I was really interested in photography and I took some art history courses, but it really wasn’t my focus at the time. Then I graduated and began working for about five years in the for-profit world and was pretty unhappy with just being a worker and following some kind of career path, which never really felt right. So I decided to go to the Art Students League here in New York. I started taking classes in drawing and printmaking - I had really good instructors in printmaking there, Roberto de Lamonica and Michael Ponce de Leon.

After taking classes for a while, I developed a good portfolio and the next thing I wanted to do was go to art school - it was important for me and it became a big goal. At the time, I wasn't sure where to apply, but I went to an open house at Pratt Institute and I liked the idea of going to a school that had a campus because I went to undergrad in Manhattan and never really had that feeling of being on a campus. So I applied at Pratt and I got in, and it was really good for me to be there. At first I was doing a printmaking major, but then I got involved with drawing and my whole thesis ended up being drawings.

 After I graduated with my MFA, though, I didn’t know what to do. There were no professional practice courses or any discussion about what next steps to take.

SF: What was the advice that was being dispensed to you at the time?

PZ: I realized that there were two different groups: one was the group of students who were getting their MFA so they could teach, and then there were others like myself that got their MFA and just wanted to make art.

SF: Did you have a picture in your mind at that time of what living the life of an artist would look like for you?

Lines #5,  2003-2004, graphite on formica mounted on masonite, 11” x 11”. Image courtesy of Patricia Zarate.

Lines #5, 2003-2004, graphite on formica mounted on masonite, 11” x 11”. Image courtesy of Patricia Zarate.

PZ: Well, I knew I didn't want to teach. I never really wanted to and that wasn't the reason I was getting an MFA. Going back to school after 10 years, for me it was more about the work - about working as an artist and getting that kind of validation, in a way. I didn’t know what to do work-wise. Part of me didn't want to go back to doing for-profit businesses administration. I wanted to do something more creative, but it was difficult trying to figure that out.

SF: Especially if you already have an established skillset. If you get to a point where you want to pivot, it can feel like you have to start over from the bottom, even when you have all of this work and life experience.

PZ: Right. And I was very aware that I had six months before I had to start paying my student loans. Luckily I had some property from a previous relationship, and selling that helped me pay most of my loans, but that was several years later. After graduating from Pratt I ended up going back to work. I had multiple part-time jobs, doing the same kind of business administration work that I did before, mainly because it paid better. Around the same time, about a year after graduate school, I decided to try to get a studio space. I got one that I shared with another artist, and it was great. I had that studio for about ten years, and in those ten years I was working part-time and was really able to focus and develop my work.

Also during those ten years, my art changed significantly. In graduate school I was making all black and white monochrome drawings, and all of a sudden I really wanted to get back into color, and I did, slowly. It helped immensely to have a studio and time.

SF: It seems like you really had this concentrated period of time in your life where you were just making work and letting it evolve in the way that it needed to, which I think is really brave.

I think there's often an expectation coming out of art school that you're supposed to have all the answers or have this nicely packaged profile and self-brand as an artist ready to go. Were you ever self-conscious about moving at a slower and more considered pace?

Six,  2008, acrylic on wood, 48”x 72” x 1/2”, from the series  leaning (paintings).  Image courtesy of Patrica Zarate.

Six, 2008, acrylic on wood, 48”x 72” x 1/2”, from the series leaning (paintings). Image courtesy of Patrica Zarate.

PZ: Yeah see, that’s the thing. During grad school and after I graduated, I was making representational type of work. I showed at the Queens Museum, El Museo del Barrio and in other group shows. I continued making representational work, but I was starting to distill it down to specific elements. The piece at El Museo del Barrio I think was the last piece I made that had a representational aspect to it. About 4-5 years after grad school I started making more of the color work that led to what I am making today. I needed the time to get to that point and develop my work.

Around 2008, as I mentioned, I wasn't showing that much and I was also feeling like my partner and I needed to do something different or be somewhere else. So we moved to California and were there for two years.  It was during those two years that I realized that I wanted to still be in the art world- whatever that meant - and making work. I was making art when I was in California, mainly drawings and works on paper, but I didn't show much.

SF: You seem to have eventually found this tribe of great artists that have similar concerns in their work, and I know several of you show together and really support one another. I’m wondering how you found that community?

PZ: Well it was all very gradual. Nothing happens right away. There were always friends from graduate school, and I have stayed connected to them. When I was in California, I was living in San Diego, which is kind of a small community, so I would go to Los Angeles because that’s where things were happening.

I saw a show with the work of Mel Prest, Nancy White, and Brent Hallard and some other folks in a gallery in Downtown L.A. We went for a talk and met Mel, Nancy and Brent there. It was great and we are friends now and have stayed connected. In San Diego, I worked at the Mingei International Museum and that kept me connected to art and the art community there. It was nice to work there because I was surrounded by beautiful artwork and people that were interested in art.  

After being in California for two years, my partner and I decided to come back to New York. It was kind of hard to come back and it felt like we were starting all over again. Auspiciously, on our drive back to New York, a collector contacted me who was interested in my work. I saw that as a good sign.

Another thing that shifted in my life during the time in California and since I've been back in New York is that I’ve been working a full-time day job and my studio space is in my home. Studio space has gotten so expensive here, and luckily I have a nice size apartment and can get work done at home.

2 Color Squares,  2006, origami on paper, 11” x 11” each.

2 Color Squares, 2006, origami on paper, 11” x 11” each.

SF: What kind of work are you doing now to support yourself and your studio practice?

PZ:  Now I work for a non-profit in the healthcare sector. I am in the finance/accounting department. I tried a few years ago to switch the type of work that I was doing, but it didn’t work out.

SF: Was selling your work or trying to make a living off of your art ever a priority for you, or were you more interested in just building a consistent studio practice and were ok with supporting yourself with a day job like so many artists do?

PZ: You know, when I had my studio space right out of grad school, I really was hoping to get to a point where I could sell work and have a good portion of my income coming from my art, but when reality hits, it's completely different. I had to acknowledge that there were responsibilities that I had and still have. I also decided that for me, it was important to feel comfortable financially and not worry about money. I have to make time for my art and it’s a constant balance. So far it’s been working. It's hard, but it's worth it. I feel very fortunate that I can do both - art really gives me so much emotionally, and it's very satisfying. For me, art is about continuously developing and growing as a human being. I don't think that I would be where I am if I didn't have art in my life. Having an outlet for expression, whether it’s painting or drawing, it just helps me mentally settle into myself.

Tri-Modulation (968),  2017, installation view, Oppler, Transmitter Gallery. Image courtesy of Patricia Zarate.

Tri-Modulation (968), 2017, installation view, Oppler, Transmitter Gallery. Image courtesy of Patricia Zarate.

SF:  I know that in the last few years you've also jumped into curating and you host a project space here in your apartment. How did you decide to start Key Projects and make the jump into curating?

PZ: My partner and I were already in this apartment for about three years, and I just thought we had a good opportunity to do something with the space. The space has two continuous walls - it’s ideal for showing art. I was really nervous about doing something like this because it’s a lot of work.

I have this quote on my shelf by Goethe that says, “Whatever you can do or think you can do, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” And so this helped give me a little push. I also have Lynn to help me, which is huge because I would never be able to do all of this by myself. So we just took a gamble, but it was somewhat a safe one in the sense that it doesn’t really cost us anything. It’s different than curating while having to scramble for a space, which is a whole other thing. We just started doing shows in our space and ended up calling it Key Projects. The first show we did was with friends because why not?! And that started our project space. We’ve been running the program since 2013, so almost six years now.

SF: And I know you've had other opportunities to curate shows in other places, so how has curating changed your studio practice - do the two things inform each other or do you see them as two separate practices?

Installation view of  Light Installation,  Key Projects, 2013. (l. to r.) Lynne Harlow, Douglas Witmer, Henriette van't Hoog, Mary Schiliro. Image courtesy of Key Projects.

Installation view of Light Installation, Key Projects, 2013. (l. to r.) Lynne Harlow, Douglas Witmer, Henriette van't Hoog, Mary Schiliro. Image courtesy of Key Projects.

PZ: They totally inform each other for sure. Curating really is another creative outlet for me. It’s also opened up a whole community. One of the things I really wanted to focus on when Lynn and I first talked about opening up a project space was about the idea of building a community of artists and other like-minded people that are interested in the arts, and I think we've done that. We have a lot of people that consistently come to the shows and a lot of new people too.

When I put together shows I usually have a theme or idea in mind and I do a lot of research. I have a focus on creating professional looking shows - I want to give people the opportunity to show in the space and I want the shows to be as high quality as possible given that it’s a project space that I run out of my apartment. Because it's my own space, it's also on my own timeline - I can do whatever I want. However, I do like to give myself deadlines and we take time to plan out the calendar during weeks when we know we can be home to host the shows. When shows are up, we’re open on weekends and then by appointment during the week.

When I first started Key Projects I wasn’t really sure how long the shows should run - I knew I didn't want to just do a pop-up, one night only kind of thing. It’s a lot of work and I wanted people to be able to come back and see the show, if they wanted to. At first we had the shows open for two weekends in a row, but it was not quite long enough, so we settled on three weekends in a row, which seems about right for us.

One of the added benefits of having a project space in our home is that we get to live with the art. We get a lot of natural light in the space and it’s amazing to have a show and live with the work and see how the light changes it throughout the day and over time.

Installation view of  Envisioning Natural Forces , Key Projects, April 14 - 29, 2018. (l. to r.) Jaanika Peerna & Jonathan Cowan. Image Courtesy of key projects.

Installation view of Envisioning Natural Forces, Key Projects, April 14 - 29, 2018.
(l. to r.) Jaanika Peerna & Jonathan Cowan. Image Courtesy of key projects.

SF: Do you have any big plans for Key Projects going forward or do you feel like you're in a good, steady place right now?

PZ: I’m not really sure- we’ve extended the space a bit into the alcove, so now we have three areas of the apartment to show work, and it’s been working out nicely. Otherwise, I really want to curate outside of our home, too. I've been doing some curatorial projects with Sculpture Space NYC - I’ve curated three or four shows there, and Lynn and I are currently working with two friends on curating a group show for the Krasdale galleries, which is part of the Krasdale food company. They’ve been doing this program for about 30 years and the person that was doing it before recently passed away, and now one of our friends is taking over the project. We're curating an exhibition together that will be up for three months in their Hunts Point distribution center and three months in their Corporate Offices in White Plains, NY. It's been great to work on because it's more of an educational offering for the people that work there. It’s nice to branch out a bit and I hope to do more of that.

SF: What kind of advice would you give to other artists that are just getting started in their career regarding how to build a life that is sustainable?

PZ: I think it's really important to do what you love, however you need to make that happen. There’s always going to be life and the struggles that come with that, and you don't know what those things are going to be. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do what makes you happy.

SF: I think that's really simple, in a beautiful way - it comes out of your own direct experience in recognizing that at a certain point, the business world 9-5 thing wasn’t working for you and you felt like something was missing. And instead of being resigned to it, you went out and found that thing that was important to you.

I respect how you have given yourself permission to do whatever you need to do to get to the next step, no matter how much time it takes. I’m also just impressed with how you just seem to know what you need to do and are able to block out the noise really well.

PZ: I try!

SF: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today and being so open about your journey.

PZ: Thanks for the conversation!


Save the Date for Key Project’s next show:

A Clearing: New Work by Sharon Brant and Debra Ramsay
May 11 - 26, 2019
Opening Reception: Saturday, May 11th, 3 - 5 pm

Information is available at http://keyprojectsartspace.com/


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Patricia Zarate lives and works in Queens, NY. You can follow her on her website or on Instagram @zarate_p. She runs Key Projects Art Space out of her home with her partner Lynn Truncale.