by Lis Zadravec
I Dreamt Hellfires While You Were Gone
18" x 17"
Colored pencil and watercolor
The greatest compliment to me is when people see my work as painting. I started as a painter, and now I paint with these little pencil points. I blend colors in layers like I used to with oil on a canvas. All artist-grade materials are just pure pigment, so this wax or oil-based stick it comes in is just the vehicle with which you apply it to a surface. I have my oil painting palette in my head as I work. The colors I would mix are the pencils I choose. I still work in many layers. Only instead of oil mediums, I am applying the layers with heavy-handed pressure. The layers of my work can be six, ten or more layers deep. The result is smooth and painting-like. Perfect for the narrative portraits I like to make. I like to say I strive for excellence. To me that feels a lot like wrestling angels.
Once again I am in the ER. I don’t know why, but it always takes four hours when you go to the ER. Four hours of soul searching, counting time lost and time misspent in my studio, while I lose more time again. I was just making lunch and whoosh! That can sliced my finger so good I will be postponing artwork. That was all I knew with the blood gushing out. I will not be finishing what is on my table this week. I will not be entering that piece in this year’s competition.
People barely believe the year I have had: chicken pox, sciatica, God-knows-what sent me to the hospital with my blood pressure 220 over 180. I was incoherent. The flu (4 times) and pneumonia; a knee replacement and while they were doing pre-surgery tests, they find something in the mammogram. I had a breast lumpectomy and knee replacement in one day. In between all that somewhere, my Dad passed away. Recovery was more than I thought I could do. But somehow I did and then radiation. Let me honestly warn you, radiation is horrifically weird.
20" x 19"
Colored pencil on Canson MiTeintes paper
My mother had passed away from breast cancer when treatments were most likely more horrific. She was then 2 years younger than I am now. At the time I swore I’d never paint again and turned from arrogant young artist with work all over my hometown of Washington, DC, to a dark time, to eventually staying home with my kids and teaching and finding a new way. Now I wonder if my mother, a poet, had time to do her best work.
What does this have to do with my art? Am I Queen of all Catastrophes? Though this past year has been particularly hard, there have been four other leg surgeries and my older daughter’s umpteenth time in the hospital during her touch-and-go adolescence. During parts of my life, if I did one piece of art in the year, I was doing well. But look what I have done now - especially in these even more difficult times. My art has finally gotten recognized, won awards locally and internationally, and is recognized online by some of the biggest names in the colored pencil world. They tell me, I knew that piece was one of yours before I even read your name.
The definition of striving is a fight; to struggle or fight vigorously. It seems the more the fight, the more focused you get. No, it is not some curse, or necessarily connected. But there are things you learn along the way about how short life is. You start to get focused and do what you were put here for. You get the nerve to tell someone, No, I don’t have time to teach that class. Yes, I do only want to do my portraits in colored pencil. Look at the time I have missed. You start to appreciate yourself and the gift you were given, and finally learn to draw no matter what.
The Dangling Conversation
25" x 15"
Colored pencil on Canson MiTeintes paper
No matter who rejects you. No matter that they say colored pencil is not a traditionally accepted media. No matter that no one gets your point of view, your humor, or the stories you are drawing. No matter that someone will always be better than you. You can after all, keep striving to improve, to get accepted even though, to make people see your story. To get better at hands and mouths because a portrait doesn’t have to be a picture with any flaws.
From a poet-mother you learn to strive for excellence not fame or fortune, after all who ever heard of a poet making money? Success then, has a different definition. It is called excellence. For that I am still striving.
Lis poignantly expresses her subjects’ vulnerabilities and strengths, like a writer creating characters, her narrative artwork presses further in than mere likenesses. Her many years of trials allowed the world to catch up to her passion for colored pencils, while she refined her skills and found an even stronger voice.