Zach Johnsen

Zach Johnsen

“Goblins in the shadows and monsters in the garbage” are only two of the horde of creatures that Brooklyn artist Zach Johnsen, known to some on the Internet as the artist behind zenvironments.com, recognizes lurking in the darkness that the average passerbyers fail to notice. Working as a freelance, and recently an exhibition artist, in addition to his role as creative director and part owner of clothing line Tank Theory, Zach spent his childhood drawing swarms of characters in fighting in battles between good and evil, and spends his adult-life drawing swarms characters in battle with the world, struggling both internally and externally.

“There are goblins in the shadows, monsters in the garbage, little things here and there, out the corner of your eye.”

Format: Please discuss your history as an artist, before the development of Zenvironments.
Zach: I grew up drawing extensively as a child. Me and my two brothers would sit down and create armies of comic book characters and battle scenes. I would draw different characters, both from the good team and the bad team and assign them names, weapons and stats then I would draw them in big battle scenes using only two colors: black for mostly everything and red for blood. Comic books and mad magazine were a big influence back then.

My mother is an artist and has a studio of her own. She used to create works with colored pencil, now she mainly paints landscapes and portraits in acrylic paint. She was the main influence on me growing up, because I was close to art and I saw the way she worked. My high school was tiny and the art department almost non-existent. Art wasn’t exactly considered a legitimate class or major then, but I had one great art teacher that took it very seriously and pushed me to really work hard in it. I attended art school in Boston, basically, to expose myself to other work and technique, and how to use the computer. During those years, I was drawing, drawing, drawing, working on little jobs: flyers, stuff like that, filling up sketch books, experimenting, figuring out what I liked best. Now, I’m at a point where I need to learn more again.

Zach Johnsen

Format: Much of your work incorporates human and animal hybrids. How do you generally draw connections between humans and animals? What are some of the specific connections you’ve drawn and why?
Zach: Well there are two parts to this. First, there is the inherent connection between man and animal. We are all animals after all and intimately connected in that way. We eat, shit, procreate, have babies, show affection. We are so close at the fundamental level. And people have definite animal traits. I have the habit of assigning animal types to people when I meet them or see them on the street. Many people say I have a sheep like look and quality. Often, I include a sheep or ram in my work to include myself in the work. Secondly, I’m very interested in the idea of shape shifters and Native American folklore, or fact! The idea of human forms taking on the form of a coyote or crow. This is a world of mystery, a life in flux, and constant change. I try to embody that idea in the work.

Zach Johnsen

Format: Why do you feel that the side of life you focus your work on is ignored?
Zach: I think most people just don’t pay attention. There is change and transformation all around us. There are goblins in the shadows, monsters in the garbage, little things here and there, out the corner of your eye. For me, there is more than meets the eye in life, more than cafes, bars, TV, your apartment, girlfriend, etc. There are spirits, energy, things that we cannot explain. I want the work to represent that.

Format: Your work can be described as very dark. Do you personally feel it’s dark?
Zach: Yeah, I do consider a lot of it dark, dark, but funny. It stems from my morbid sense of humor and my desire to show people that there are spirits and monsters lurking over their shoulders. If only they knew, maybe they would be less self centered.

Format: You’ve recently started working with installation and other media. What has the transition from working primarily in print been like?
Zach: The transition has been welcome. I love drawing and working on paper, but I’ve been feeling the need to break away from it more, to experiment and play more with art technique and medium. It has forced me to think about application and interaction much more.

Zach Johnsen

Format: The “Sketch” section of your website is put together in a very interesting way. Please describe how it is put together, and the process you went through creating it.
Zach: I wanted a cool and different way to showcase all my various sketchbook and rough stuff. I thought of this long page of jumbled together sketch material, something like one huge sketchbook page, but on screen. So I gathered up all my rough sketch stuff and arranged it on one long Photoshop file. Then I cut it up in Image ready and stacked it all together in HTML through Dreamweaver.

Format: Your “Revolution” piece that ultimately became the “Ecko Revolution” piece went through changes when it was transferred to T-shirt form. How did you feel about the modifications you made to the piece?
Zach: The concept of the piece was really freeing the circus, but could also be applied to freeing anything from an oppressive force. But I have always empathized with the animals, specifically elephants that get stuck in the circus and become a spectacle for people to gawk at.

Yeah, this was really the first time I had to consider changing my work for a corporate client. To be honest I was pretty hesitant. I was like, ‘alright, is this the path I want to start going down-changing my original artwork to fit into some commercial piece?’ Ultimately, no I wasn’t comfortable making the changes, but I did. I’m not sure I would ever do it again though.

Zach Johnsen

Format: Please discuss your recent piece “Land of the Crooks.”
I tell you, I’m feeling like these days, everybody is just stealing, you, me, everybody! We just take and take and take and really never give anything back. Of course some worse than others. We steal ideas, images, cultures, resources, pretty much everything. We don’t pay for it, at least not how we should be paying for it. That piece comments on this idea.

Format: Please discuss your recent installation “Welcome to the Neighborhood.”
Zach: This install followed along the theme of my work that creatures and spirits are always amongst us – walking behind and with us, but that which we don’t see. So it features this one girl who stands taller than the rest, and oblivious to the army of dodgy looking characters, ideas, and energy that surrounds her.

I wanted to explore another way of presenting this though, a way that was much more immediate and in your face, so building each of the characters out of wood and having them interact in real space was my way of making the work more real.

The name comes from my recent move to a new neighborhood in Brooklyn, where everything is pretty rugged and different from my last. It’s kind of how I felt at the time.

Zach JohnsenZach Johnsen

Format: Please discuss the development of Tank Theory and your role within the company.
Zach: Tank Theory is a T-shirt and apparel company started in 2001 by my partner Andrew Silverman and myself. We began the project in Boston at the time right after I left art school, at a time when I needed a practical application for getting my art, and other peoples art, out there into the public. A T-shirt design company became that application and I became the art director. I created the brunt of the design work at first, and still do actually, and I round up other artist’s work to showcase.

Format: How do you select artists for Tank Theory?
Zach: At first, it was basically friends of mine and those close to us. Friends who had great work and so much talent that weren’t getting the exposure they deserved. We tried to get their work first because it was awesome and not many people were aware of it. We still operate on that basis – finding artists whose work is killer but not many people are getting the chance to see it.

Zach Johnsen

Format: To what degree do you struggle between doing personal work and work for Tank Theory?
Zach: The struggle comes through poor time management. I try and set aside a certain amount of time every month or couple months to create a new brunt of graphics for the upcoming season. The struggle comes when I have to create artwork for a show or some freelance projects gets in the way of that time I set aside for TT. Otherwise, it’s pretty harmonious.

Format: Anything else you would like to discuss?
Zach: Nothing comes to mind at the moment. I’m sure I’ll think of something after I’m seeing this live. Propers to Format for showcasing some great stuff and propers to all my peoples on the east and left coast and everybody all over the world who are working hard to put their ideas out there. Keep ‘em original!

More Info: http://www.zenvironments.com

Zach Johnsen

Shane Ward

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5 comments

  1. I really can identify with alot of his answers about animals and people. Awesome work and an inspiration to say the least. This is the first time I have seen his work and I’ll be looking for alot more.
    Thanks for the intro Format.

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