EVOLVER | Zai Divecha

Zai Divecha

Paper Artist | @zaidivecha

San Francisco

 

"I WANT MY WORK TO FEEL LIKE A RESPITE FROM AN OVERSTIMULATING WORLD."

Zai Divecha finds beauty in simplicity. A wave of fog rolling in. The quiet of night. Even a white piece of paper. Especially, actually, a white piece of paper. The San Francisco artist all but creates magic with white pieces of paper — pleating, rolling, incising, and folding piece after piece into soothing, quietly stunning geometric sculptures. Here’s how she does it — and why.

 

WHo do you live with? 

“I live with my partner Phil, our sweet 12-year-old dog Simi, and if I had to guess, about 40 houseplants.”

 

WHY DO YOU LIVE WHERE YOU DO? 

“I live in Diamond Heights, a quiet, foggy, hilly neighborhood in San Francisco. I’m a Bay Area native — I grew up in Berkeley, went to high school in SF, and have lived here since college. I’m pretty deeply rooted in the Bay Area; it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. One of the reasons I was excited to live in Diamond Heights specifically was the fog. I just love San Francisco’s dreary, overcast weather. It’s so dramatic and quiet.”

 

WHAT DO YOU DO - PROFESSIONALLY, PERSONALLY, PASSIONATELY?

“I’m an artist. I make geometric paper sculptures that range in size from tiny framed art pieces to giant installations that span entire walls. For fun, I love getting outside on my road bike and taking photos. I started taking Zoom voice and guitar lessons in the last year, and it’s been really fun to learn some new skills.”

 

WHAT PATH LED YOU HERE? 

“I’m pretty sensitive to my environment (sounds, smells, temperatures), and I’ve found that I’m calmer and happier when I’m “turning the volume down” on all kinds of sensory inputs. For instance, I’ve switched to mostly fragrance-free home and body products, I wear noise-cancelling headphones all day long, and I try to keep my spaces pretty tidy.


In my creative practice, I try to create the kind of visual stimuli that I want to be surrounded by. The all-white palette allows me to create pattern and texture with just light and shadow alone, which feels soothing to me. I aim to create work that makes people feel centered, quiet, and focused. I want my work to feel like a respite from an overstimulating world.”

 

HOW DO YOU APPROACH YOUR WORK?

“I use a variety of techniques, like pleating, rolling, incising, and folding. I typically create one “unit” — an incised flap, a pleated strip, or a rolled-up cone, for instance — and then repeat it dozens or hundreds of times to create a larger pattern. I often try to balance geometric and organic elements in my work.”

 

SOMETHING YOU’VE LEARNED ON THE JOB?

“I learned that I can work late into the night if I’m making art, but my ability to write emails, proposals, or do any critical thinking expires around 5pm. So I try to start my workday with administrative computer tasks, and then shift to studio work in the late afternoon or evening. For some jobs, it’s useful to be online at the same time as your clients and vendors, but I’ve found that for getting into the zone and making art, I’m most focused and engaged if I stagger my studio time so that I’m working after everyone else’s business hours have ended.”

 

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT ONE PIECE YOU CREATED THAT IS ESPECIALLY MEANINGFUL TO YOU?

“I recently did a salon-style gallery wall titled “Halfway to the Stars.” This collection of 13 framed paper sculptures explores some of the many facets of California’s rich cultural history. Hidden amongst the abstract shapes and patterns are recognizable landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid, and the California poppy.


Less obvious motifs and symbols include Ohlone shellmounds, to honor the unceded Indigenous territory we currently occupy. The pink triangle, for San Francisco’s history of LGBTQ and AIDS activism. Railroad tracks, to recognize the labor of Chinese immigrants who built much of the state’s early infrastructure. And rows of crops, to acknowledge the Latinx farmworkers who grow our food. As a Bay Area native, I felt it was an opportunity for me to share some history that newcomers might not be familiar with.”

 

ANY ADVICE FOR ASPIRING ARTISTS?

“Learn how to document your work and process! Invest in a real camera (used or refurbished is fine), watch an online tutorial on how to use Adobe Lightroom to edit photos, set up a basic portfolio website, and create dedicated social media accounts for your artwork. Having some basic photography skills and a clean, professional-looking portfolio will help you put your best foot forward.”

 

WE ARE LIVING IN CRAZY — BUT IMPORTANT, FOR SO MANY REASONS — TIMES. WHAT IS LIFE LIKE RIGHT NOW FOR YOU?

“I’m very privileged in that I have stable housing, enough work, and a safety net. My parents are alive and well, and I don’t have any kids. So my life hasn’t been turned upside down the way many people’s lives have been over the last year. My life is pretty boring right now (in a good way): I make art, walk my dog, cook, watch TV, and talk on the phone with my friends. I’ve picked up some new hobbies over the last year — singing, picking up the guitar after 15 years, and learning how to shoot and edit videos.”

 

WHAT FEELS DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS YEAR?

“Well, the biggest thing for me is not having Trump in the White House anymore. I feel like many folks are still reeling after four years of seeing him consistently and systematically endanger huge segments of the population. It’s surreal to suddenly have a president in office who actually cares about people other than himself — and whose policies reflect those values.”

 

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO MOST THIS YEAR?

“Backpacking with my friends! I can’t wait until we’re all vaccinated and it’s safe to share a tent, food, and hugs with other people again. Spending time in nature with loved ones is one of my great joys in life, and I’ll be so excited when that time comes.”

 

WHAT'S THE SINGLE BEST THING YOU BOUGHT, READ, DID, LISTENED TO, SAW, COOKED AND /OR DREAMED UP SO FAR THIS YEAR?

“I watched Judas And The Black Messiah the other night, and it’s an absolute must-see. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I’ll just say that I’m totally outraged both by what happened, and also that we didn’t learn any of it in school. This is a crucial part of American history that everyone should know about.


And while I’m on the topic of race and American history, I would also highly recommend the book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who compares the history of racism in the U.S. to caste systems in India and in Nazi Germany. She makes a compelling argument that we actually have a caste system here, too. This book fundamentally changed the way I understand racism in our country, and I’m so glad I read it.”

 

Shop ZAI's PIcks

PIECE OF ÉPOQUE ON CURRENT ROTATION?

“The 2-in-1 Tee for now, but that’s only until the Mainstay Shirt becomes available. (It’s pre-order only at the moment). I love a nice, crisp button-down.”

 

THREE RANDOM ITEMS YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT?

“Noise-cancelling headphones: I’m sensitive to noise, so I wear them all day long. Buttered toast: it’s the most perfect food; you can’t change my mind. And ume plum vinegar: it vastly improves salads, raw veggies, and avocado toast. I order it by the case because I go through it so quickly. And I decant it into a squeeze bottle for easy access.”

 

ALL-AROUND LIFE HACK YOU SWEAR BY? 

“I’ve roped a bunch of my loved ones into being long-distance accountability buddies. My sister and I have a standing weekly date where we get on the phone for 2-3 hours and do all the things we’ve been putting off all week — responding to personal emails, opening mail, reorganizing a spice rack, folding laundry, applying for things, etc. We have a system! We say what our goals are, we set a timer for 25 minutes, and then work silently on our respective projects while still on the phone. When the timer goes off, we take a quick break to chat, and then we repeat a few more times until we either finish the task(s) or tap out. I do long-distance work dates like this with a handful of my friends, and it’s worked out so well. It makes these tasks just fly by, and I’m more disciplined when I have a friend keeping me honest.”

 

NOT-SO GUILTY PLEASURE?

“I love watching TV. And I definitely don’t feel any guilt about it. My all-time favorite is Succession; the writing is wickedly funny. It’s the only show I truly enjoy re-watching. I love an edgy thriller (Industry, Black Mirror), fictional crime shows (The Night Of, Mindhunter), creepy documentaries (Wild Wild Country, The Vow, The Night Killer, The Inventor — though you if you’re interested in Theranos, you should read Bad Blood instead), the occasional comedy (Broad City), and more reality shows than you might expect (Queer Eye, Alone, Glow Up, Married at First Sight). Like a lot of people, I had an intense Game of Thrones phase (though the writing was worthless in seasons 7 and 8).”

 

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