“I hope my paintings evoke a strong emotional response from the viewer.” – A Conversation with painter, Zoya Taylor

This month we interview painting artist, Zoya Taylor. She was born in Vancouver, Canada to a Jamaican father and Canadian but spends much of her early childhood in Jamaica.  She currently lives in Norway but is a frequent visitor to Jamaica where she has exhibited many of her canvas paintings.

Are you Jamaican by descent or birth?
I am a Jamaican by descent. My father is Jamaican, my mother Canadian. 

Where did you spend most of your childhood?
I spent most of my childhood in Kingston.  We moved to Jamaica from Germany when I was 8. I first went to St. Cecilia Prep School but quickly transferred to Queen’s Junior and then on to Queen’s High School. I left for university in Canada when I was 18 but returned to Jamaica to work following both my first and 2nd degrees. I worked after my Bachelor with the Ministry of Youth and Community Development and then returned after my Masters in International Social Work to teach at UWI.

How was it growing up in 2 places?
Although I was born in Vancouver, Canada, we moved to Germany where my father had a job teaching Chemistry, when I was just one year old. I still remember arriving at the Kingston Harbour in Jamaica on a banana boat (they doubled as cruise ships) at the age of eight. The smells, the heat, the wonderful blackness of the night like a warm blanket and all the black people….finally I felt like I was home.

Where do you live now?
I fell in love with a Norwegian at university in Vancouver and after some years both in Canada and Jamaica “settled” here in Oslo, Norway. It’s pushing on to 20 years and I am still using italics for “settled”!

How is it being Jamaican in Oslo? What are some of the questions you get? Are you treated special?
It’s been a long time now and things have changed drastically over the years. When I first came to Norway it was not unusual for people to peek from behind their curtains or for traffic to come to a standstill! The immigration policy of Norway is still rather closed and what this results in is that most of the people who look visibly different are refugees or asylum seekers. This leads to a unnatural division between the “haves” and have-nots” which is unfortunately to a great extent based on ethnicity. With this said there is a great difference between how you are perceived as a big Muslim black man and a “brown” Jamaican woman. Resources, that is, education, language facility, social class play a big part in this equation as they do everywhere. I must admit being Jamaican for me has not been a hindrance but rather a blessing… as it should be!

How often do you travel to Jamaica?
Not often enough. However I had an exhibition at 128 Gallerie in Kingston last November. My plan is to return next year. My father still lives and works at UWI. 

Was this the career path you always thought you would have?
I guess in some way I knew I was always meant to paint. I have always drawn and painted however there have been years of being dedicated to community work and teaching community development and painting has been a sideline rather than my fulltime activity. It is only in the past 10 years that I have had the opportunity to paint fulltime.

Are you self-taught or did you got to school?
I am a self-taught painter. Although there were many hours spent in drawing classes at the National Library and the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston as a child!

Did you have the need to school to learn new techniques or did you learn from other painters?
I think as with any other profession you continually learn both by observation and by just the sheer process of trial and error. I have been lucky and travel extensively and in this way am constantly inspired by art in very diverse contexts.

How did you start painting?
The wish of being an artist was always there. I suppose everybody does something in their life that can be considered art. I have always made images and expressed myself visually, but it took me some time to develop the conscious intention of becoming a painter and to come to the recognition that I had to paint. I was scared to, because it requires total honesty, a loss of control to some degree, and a great deal of criticism both from within and without. I can’t remember ever not having a paint brush. I guess my earliest recollections of getting feedback on the art I produced, apart from my family, was at the Junior Centre in the National Library downtown  Kingston. I was about 10 years old.

Who is your biggest supporter?
My family

Describe your work?
There is a recurring cast of characters in my paintings, thin-skinned beings who are everyone and no-one. The way in which I portray my figures is disproportional and surreal – like. Perhaps this ultimately causes the viewer to question his or her own skin.
I hope my paintings evoke a strong emotional response from the viewer. I am not that interested in talking about what my paintings are “about” or to engage in any “meaningful” analysis of the symbolism which may or may not exist in my images. It is up to the viewer to interpret each in his or her own way. I feel that the viewer’s interpretation is just as relevant and valid. I think the old adage “Don’t meet the artist” is helpful one. I think in many cases meeting the artist can detract from the work.

 Your subjects seem to be about people is there a reason for that?
People are fascinating. We all have a cast of characters that define our lives. Personal demons or angels, spiritual or not. These characters draw on human themes of secrecy, pride and hurt, but also humour, hope and love. Perhaps through my paintings I strive to communicate these different facets of humanity.

What is your favorite piece?
That changes every time I paint. I usually have one new favorite piece out of every “series” of paintings I complete. I think probably a very large piece I did about ten years ago which now hangs in my living room and served as a kind of breakthrough for me, remains very close to me

Do you have a favorite artist?
Many!  Far too many to even attempt any kind of “hierarchy”. The first painting I fell well and truly in love with is Henri Rousseau’s “The Lion and the Gypsy”. Various prints of this painting stayed with me throughout my childhood and through my years as a university student.
I remember visiting the National Gallery of Jamaica almost weekly as a child and all the exhibitions at the Institute of Jamaica in downtown Kingston where I  would take the bus to meet my mother after school. Hours were spent poring over the works of Jamaican artists. It was particularly the so-called “intuitive” painters such as Milton George, Woody Joseph and Roy Bailey who fascinated me but the more traditional classic style of Barrington Watson also made a strong impression on me.
Mogdigliani, Giocommetti and the wonderful Jean Dubuffet continue to inspire me. Marlene Dumas is a more contemporary favorite. Children everywhere.

 How do you get ready to paint? Do you have a special ritual?
I usually start off with a primed black canvas. More often than not I have some sort of preconceived idea of what I´m going to paint. However, the painting almost always emerges as something completely different. It is when I let go of the preconceived image that the work really starts. Working from black, I feel the power of the strokes of the brush or the palette knife.The face is usually the first thing I paint. It tells me where it is and what’s going on. I usually work on about 3 to 5 pieces simultaneously.

What do you love the most about painting?
The struggle and then the magic moments of ease, of feeling like everything has meaning if only for a fleeting moment.

Which painting would you call your master piece?
I could’nt say.

Who is the most famous person to buy one of your paintings?
 I consider everyone who buys one of my paintings a famous person.

What new projects are you working on? Is there an upcoming exhibit?
I have been invited by the Jury of the Florence Biennale in Italy to exhibit in December 2009 so I am currently working on finishing some paintings for this exhibition. I of course hope to exhibit again in Jamaica next year.

Curry Goat or Jerk Chicken?
Jerk chicken because I am a chicken lover. Although I do admit I miss a good curry goat!

Roast Bread Fruit or Roast Yam/
Roast bread fruit without a doubt.

I thought we would get you in the mode for some Jamaican food before we asked where do you get your Jamaican food in Norway?
There is one section of downtown Oslo which is pretty good at carrying some specialty items but I must admit I rely on my father’s packed suitcases!

What is playing on your ipod/mp3 right now?
A really eclectic mix of music including r and b singers such as India Arie and John Legend; old time reggae/ska, ambient, Ryuishi Sakamoto and David Sylvian; jazz compilations including such greats as Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Billi Holiday.

What famous Jamaican would you like to paint?
Hmmmm. I can imagine incorporating a lot of famous Jamaicans, particularly musicians and visual artists in a huge collage or mural but it wouldnt be a “representative portrait”.

Thanks for the interview and final thoughts?
Final thoughts? I am now retreating into my studio ( a converted barn) on this very cold and dark winter evening in Oslo with thoughts of Jamaica and all it’s warmth and vibrancy uppermost in my mind. Hopefully I will be able to translate some light onto canvas.


About the author

Xavier Murphy