Roman Zuzuk: Ukrainian-born artist whose wistful style began life in Prague

Roman Zuzuk

Roman Zuzuk is a Ukrainian born artist who runs a gallery with his brother Miroslav in Prague's Mala Strana. Roman studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kiev, and came to Prague in 1991 to begin painting professionally. His work features colourful dreamscapes and illogical scenarios, musical themes and interaction between humans and animals. Roman lived in Prague until January 2000 and now resides in Toronto, Canada. He comes back here every year to visit the city, and his gallery. That's where I caught up with him a few days ago.

'I started painting immediately when I came to Prague. I came to Prague with my exhibition. It was two months after the revolution, something like November '89. The exhibition was in the Jewish community centre. It was quite successful, I sold two paintings, and I was happy, and I returned with my wife, and we slowly started to live here. I was twenty years younger actually at this time, and I started to live, and I made a new friend and we started to do an exhibition, to exhibit in many places. It was like investing our income to our futures. Money that we made for one month, we'd invest of course to pay for rent and paints and management for the next month. That's surviving!'

What made you come to Prague in particular, and to the Czech Republic?

'I wasn't thinking to go to some specific place away from the Ukraine, but I was very motivated to be an artist, and to exhibit and sell my work and survive as an independent artist.'

What made you start to paint?

'I drew enthusiastically as a child, and I could draw all day. My uncle told my parents to help me become a professional. So I started actually from the age of six to draw in a studio, next I went to a professional drawing school, and later I finished college in Simferopol, and after that I finished the academy in Kiev. And just when I graduated from the academy in Kiev it was a very difficult time in the Ukraine, it was the year when Perestroika had almost finished. It was a year of price increases and crises, but it wasn't bad because I was enthusiastic to do something with my talent. That is the short story! Actually there were many funny moments. When I started to run my gallery in Prague, it was a nice time because actually I was a popular artist. A few companies started to buy my paintings, tourists from Germany, Europe and America. It was nice. I paid very high rent but I always had something extra for myself. It was a big risk, but this risk wasn't so bad; because I had some months very little money and some months a lot, so it was a good balance. And actually when I decided to go to Canada, it was just a moment when I told my wife that we could try one more country. My brother visited me many times when I lived in the Czech Republic, and my brother decided that he would like to be here to run my business. Later he rented this gallery in the Mala Strana, and it's quite successful and I'm happy to come here every year for one or two months, that's not bad! Just to see everything that's happening here, and I go to Kiev sometimes and back to real life, to my Canadian life.'

So how does life in Canada compare to life in Prague and in the Ukraine where you grew up.

'That's hard to tell. I like every part of my life; when I lived in Kiev, in the Czech Republic, even in Canada. It's hard to change. Even harder when you're old.'

And where are you based now?

'When I came to Canada I started to work with many galleries, and I worked with some quite good galleries in Toronto, Montreal and in Quebec City. Later I went to New York to look for my success. It was average success, but it's far away, so I decided to just be a Canadian artist, just to take it easy because too much travelling steals my time, ten hours in car and hotels and everything. I have an agent who does this.'

On the whole who are your clients?

'Here in Europe many Germans buy my paintings. I am very successful in the Netherlands because I did many exhibitions there, and people know me because it's not a big country and art-lovers are a small group of people. They can buy a reproduction or from a local artist or something. But in Canada, different people, different nations, even from Iran, from Israel, some visitors and people who live there, Canadians. We have a multi-cultural country where there are different groups of people. Take the relationships; I have Ukrainian clients, I have real Canadian clients, but it's hard to tell, all who live in Canada are Canadian. And I'm happy to live in this country because it's part of the world. We can speak Ukrainian, English, Russian, Czech. I have a local pub nearby; sometimes I speak Czech - with Slovakian people!'

So if we turn to your paintings themselves, can you talk about your work at all, about what inspires you? When you paint, what are you trying to create?

'That's hard to tell, because I do many sketches, and sometimes when I feel like picking some older idea I do oil paintings, because I'm not famous enough just to sell sketches just for big money: a sketch is a sketch. I do charcoals, paint, pencils, watercolours, but the market here is mostly for oil, because people like to buy a valuable style and to save a nice painting. Sometimes I paint just according to my momentary mood, what I feel like. I pick some green colours. It is my ideal if it's green, if there's something moving around and some love story or funny story from my childhood memory. In my creation I like to be more free, that's why. More free, and it reflects when people buy my feeling, what I feel like, it's mostly like theatre, like any kind of art. They aren't paying for canvass or colours, they're paying for what I feel like inside. And when they feel this, it is the way that I feel, it is anger that I think.'

All your paintings seem to generate a very good mood, they're full of colours and there's a very dreamy sense. They don't seem to be bound by the normal laws of every day life. Is they're any inspiration behind that?

'Yes. Some paintings are very flat and understandable, but some touch people more deeply, and when they see more and more, they open something of a second base; more dramatic or more funny or more predictable, I don't know. But I design my style like little - not exactly comics, but I like these faces that I create. I make their heads a little bit smaller, draw a bald man, and kids, and I use chickens and fish in my paintings, flowers, trees, houses, people flying, people playing violin and harmonica. That's kind of my understanding of the positive feeling that life brings us.'

You can find Roman and Miroslav Zuzuk's gallery on U Luzickeho Seminare 20, Mala Strana.

Roman Zuzuk with Joshua Singer