First Friday’s Lauren Emily Brown sat down with local artist Selena Zontos to talk about getting inspired, working unedited, living an uncommon life, her evolution as an artist, and what it’s like to paint in front of thousands of fans.
LEB: Where do you draw inspiration from for your art?
SZ: My inspiration is always changing, especially because my environment is always changing. I’ve had so many really amazing, blessed opportunities in the past year that everything I do enhances where I’m getting my inspiration from. I’m definitely inspired by this place, by the people here; there’s definitely something special about Santa Cruz. I’ve been traveling a lot for my artwork, and when I come back here, it’s different. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the vibe of Santa Cruz, or the “one love” thing that happens here, or something special that myself and all the other artists here are tapping into. But once you’re there, it’s just an infinite flow of ideas and things that can happen. A lot of really good stuff.
What is your favorite thing about Santa Cruz?
People’s awareness here. The awareness of everything, really. I didn’t even notice the extent of it until I went other places because in Santa Cruz we put so much emphasis on consciousness and on being kind and just simple things like recycling and taking care of one another. We put so much pressure on ourselves to have this green environment and when you go other places, they don’t do that at all. There is no awareness of other things. I feel like what we do here is to create the consciousness, to create that vibe, that “one love” thing, where we are really aware of each other and our environment. We’ve created this place to be a sacred place. When you go other places, it doesn’t necessarily have that wholeness of everything. Here, I feel the oneness of it all. I know that everything I do is a part of everything else and everything together is interconnected. I try to put that into my artwork, and maybe it can trigger someone’s creative process where I left off so it’s just a crazy interconnected idea that just keeps going and channelling through everyone. The oneness really emanates here, even just in our interactions with each other and the pressure to enhance ourselves and our community and the pride that has come from that. People who live in Santa Cruz love living in Santa Cruz.
What does it mean to be an artist in Santa Cruz?
To me, it means that I’m playing an integral part in everything. I feel like art is just a translation of everything that happens here. I’ve definitely evolved as an artist here and in the past two years I went through a complete transformation. Now, the artwork that I make, especially in a public setting, is so humbling because the way that people connect with it is indescribable really, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it. All I do is imagine something and all of a sudden it’s there, and I’m just as surprised as as everybody else. Sometimes I don’t really know why I’m making something. All I really do is trust: I trust the universe, I trust that everything is happening for a reason. And I make something and put it out there, and somebody will connect with it, and in my mind it was meant for that person. It was meant for them to pick up where I left off. I think it’s just natural human reaction or ability to recreate something or want to make it better. I just put an image out there and it continues to grow and becomes something so much bigger. I think that’s really what it’s all about. Just so many ideas bouncing back and forth all the time. No matter what, your ideas are going to change. I definitely believe in there being a collective consciousness that happens, especially here.
How do you combat feeling uninspired or not wanting to create art?
I just keep making art. If I don’t feel like making art, then I might take a day off, but never more than that. Finding inspiration requires you to be aware on a physical and conscious level. I work towards living inspired every day. I always try to keep my mind positive and spread good vibes. But at one point, before I’d really found what I was trying to say, I realized that making the art itself almost wasn’t enough. It had to have a greater message to it. I knew that I had a purpose and a message that I wanted to put forward, and I just wasn’t realizing that my artwork could make that big of an impact. But now, it’s all encompassing and you just get the good vibes from the artwork. To be able to share that as much as I can is the biggest thing. Just to spread that everywhere, that positivity and vibe, is huge. So now I’ve passed out thousands and thousands of stickers, which just have my artwork and “live a life uncommon,” which is the message I want to put forward. Every single time, when I hand someone a sticker, they read it out loud: “live a life uncommon.” That keeps me inspired.
What is your planning or thought process when approaching live painting?
I’ve been doing a lot of live painting at reggae shows, and Cali Roots was a big game changer for me, almost like I manifested it in a big way. My whole life is already reggae; that’s what I love. And all of a sudden, my artwork has a spot in that world. I didn’t even know that was a possibility! The first time I painted on stage, it was in front of 10,000 people with Rebelution. It was so crazy, but it was completely fine when I got out there. I just let go of all the thoughts in my head and I’m just present in the moment. At first I’m thinking, ‘This is absolutely terrifying,’ and however scary that sounds, with the band it is totally fine.
Now that I have a little more experience with live painting, I like to have a vague idea of what I will create before I go up there. I’ve found that going in blind creates a little bit of a stress or fear that I won’t know what to paint. I look at lots of pictures beforehand and play memory games so I have a lot of images in my head to draw on. Even with a pre-conceived idea of what to paint, there is so much magic that happens while painting live. The painting is seemingly channeled through me, just with the energy of the musicians and the crowd. It’s one collective conscious. The painting is, in turn, a visual representation of the music that was just created and it’s pulling from all elements.
When I’m painting on stage, I’m able to vibe with the music and every one of those people in the crowd is definitely a part of this energy. I’m totally able to surrender to what’s happening. I channel this creative energy and put it out in a visible form, along with the energy of the music and the energy of the crowd, and when I snap back into it, I can’t believe it’s over. I actually feel like something has been extracted out of me. It’s this really crazy, weird, hippie experience [laughs] but it’s so real. It’s kind of hard to put into words. It’s weird to put art into words. It’s crazy. Crazy fun stuff.
Do you ever feel like creating art is a meditative experience for you?
Oh, absolutely. More so now than before, when I was in my younger years [laughs], like when I was in art school. Back then, I knew that I could make art and wanted to be an artist but I was focusing on making art in somebody else’s box, basically. I used to overthink things then give it a lot of forced meaning and everything was such a stretch. I would say my art was about oneness or the interconnectedness of all things. I felt like that’s what I wanted my artwork to be about, but it wasn’t. In the end, it was just more stress than anything. It took me about four years to get art school out of my head and own what I was doing. I don’t think what I’m doing now would have been well received there. This is really unedited: I don’t draw anything first, I don’t ever change anything, I just let it happen. I just kind of let the art develop on its own. This is the way it is. I can do whatever I want to my paint, like glob it on or mix it with water, and I don’t care if it lasts forever. I like that my art could not last forever, and it could just last for the time being, or even just right now. It’s supposed to last for the period of time that someone is supposed to experience it. I want people to skate on my boards, and to scratch them up. If you scratch it up, just bring it to me and I’ll paint it again. I want it to be ever-evolving. Because, yeah, on so many levels my art is meditative, especially now that I’ve realized my artwork to be a visual path of my conscious evolution. I feel like every time I create something, it’s a divine experience. It’s a way of being aware and finding purpose in what I’m doing. I can’t even argue with the fact that everything that’s happened since my first First Friday, which is when it all started for me, and how crazy of a success it’s been, has to have been something bigger. The meditation part is just a way of tapping into what is happening. I used to just make pictures, but now I don’t do that at all. It’s so much more than that.
How did you get involved in First Friday?
I was one of those people who had always heard of First Friday but never really gone to it. I was working downtown and would see who was doing First Friday in the Good Times and would think, ‘I bet I could do that. Why couldn’t I do that?’ So I decided to figure it out and to put myself out there. This is when I first decided to own the style that I was doing, which was kind of a scary thing too. I was getting a reaction, more so than any other artwork that I had done. I figured out the First Friday website and made a profile and put all of the artwork I had on there, which was only a few pieces. I wanted to make my artwork accessible to people like me and my friends so I started painting on skateboards to see if people responded that way. I figured it would be easy for me to make, I could sell it for pretty inexpensive, and then people could carry my artwork around.
I didn’t really follow the rules and wait for someone to call me, but instead I reached out to venues where I wanted to show at. So I went down the list of venues in the Good Times and tried to find one that matched my vibe. I thought Motiv seemed right, and found out who to contact, and showed them my art. I thought it wasn’t going to happen because it was one of the biggest venues, but I showed the owner my skateboards and they liked them! They told me, “Yeah, let’s do it next month.” At that point, I only had five skateboards painted and a couple prints so before I saw inside, I was thinking, ‘Okay, how big can Motiv really be?’ [laughs]. But I did it. I made 40 skateboards the month before. I made cards, and I promoted, and I did an official art show. I figured that it was my chance and I needed to make it happen. There was not one doubt in my mind until the night of the show and I was so worried that nobody was going to come. But it was awesome. It had such an amazing turnout. It was full all night and I sold basically everything. That’s how I got almost all of my connections; everything stems from that one show that I did. It was just meant to be on this path. It’s crazy. First Friday was definitely the way to go.