Born in Virginia to parents who fled communist Czechoslovakia, first-generation American artist Zuzka Vaclavik comes to her canvas with no shortage of colorful stories. As a child growing up in Munich, taxiing to school on a military base, she found her solace in art. Then, upon returning stateside with her family as a preteen, she discovered its ability to bridge cultures. Today her home is Athens, Georgia, where Vaclavik earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Georgia following a stint in Cambodia. “I feel like my aesthetic is different than most people,” says the artist, who served as an adjunct professor of drawing and painting at the university for a decade. “I think that comes from all the traveling and, fortunately, being exposed to world-class museums and many different cultures from a young age.”
Her 2016 foray into ceramics was intended to be a reprieve. “I thought it would be something lighthearted, to take me away from painting a little bit. But it became serious as soon as I touched the clay,” says Vaclavik, who today toggles between a duo of Athens studios. “Pottery is more physical than painting, more tactile; I love that feeling of being in the mud, creating something directly from my hands.” Her body of work in clay—largely porcelain, stoneware and earthenware—capitalizes on her drawing and painting repertoire but has opened up new worlds of discovery. Emblazoned with whimsical motifs using a needle or traditional pin tool, her silhouettes range from open vessels and wall-hung plates to antiquity-inspired alabastrons.
Though her ceramics practice is nascent, Vaclavik’s paintings have evolved over the years to embody imaginative explorations of color relationships. Using a multi-step technique that includes precise masking, she lays down vibrant planes of color that have drawn comparisons to Matisse’s cutouts.
With works on view regionally at Gregg Irby Gallery, Brad Walker Pottery and others, Vaclavik’s paintings will head to Iowa’s National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in 2023. Whether a pot or a painting, Vaclavik likes to leave each piece open to interpretation: “I think of it like a poem,” she says. “The nice thing about abstract work is that it engages; the viewer can bring something of themselves into it.”