Rachael Zur’s expanded paintings blend sculptural physicality with traditional painting techniques to depict objects found in living rooms. Her work has been twice published in New American Paintings, as well as in Friend of the Artist, Under The Bridge Magazine, and Stay Home by Stay Home Gallery and Residency. After 12 years as a stay-at-home mom, Zur resumed her education and completed her MFA in 2019 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since then, she has exhibited her work locally and nationally in places such as the Museum of Museums, Seattle, WA; CHART Gallery, New York, NY; SOIL Gallery, Seattle, WA; Artworks Northwest Biennial at Umpqua Valley Arts Association, Roseburg, OR; Stone House Art Gallery, Charlotte, NC; and Young Space. Zur has worked as a Program Mentor in the Low Residency MFA Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2021, she drove her family of five across the country in an RV to complete a residency at Stay Home Gallery while homeschooling her children en route. In 2022, she was a finalist for the Hopper Prize. Zur currently resides in the greater Portland, OR Metropolitan area, where she is an active member of the artist collective Carnation Contemporary.

Can you describe how you blend sculptural physicality with traditional painting techniques to portray objects found in living rooms?

I build irregular shaped forms to paint on out of wood, plaster gauze, and resin. These surfaces range from about a half an inch to several inches in thickness when they are hung on the wall. The edges of the work are also contour lines that outline some of the objects depicted in the piece. While my work has a ceramic-like appearance, it rarely includes ceramic components. Instead, it’s the way that I’m manipulating acrylic paint and acrylic mediums that is giving the appearance of ceramic surfaces. I’m interested in how painting as a medium can mimic ceramic qualities and how that mimicking can expand what’s possible in the language of painting.

Your artwork has garnered attention in various publications and exhibitions nationwide. What has been the most fulfilling aspect of your artistic journey so far?

It’s always exciting to land in a publication or exhibition that felt out of reach a few years prior. I remember when I was first published in New American Paintings thinking to myself, “maybe I don’t have to feel embarrassed about my garage studio anymore,” though the most fulfilling aspects of my artistic journey are often in the solitude of my studio. My process is very labor-intensive and there are a lot of time and materials invested in just making the form that I paint on; it can take a month or so to fabricate. When I start the painting process, there will inevitably be issues with the colors not harmonizing, or an issue with the composition. While it can be super frustrating, I’m almost always thankful to be in the throes of the creative process working out these formal issues. When the formal issues start to resolve, I feel an enormous gratitude to be making art—not just because it’s going well—but for the entirety of what the process demands. Knowing why I make art and articulating my visual language have really crystallized over the last few years. I think the strength that I’ve found in that has been tremendously rewarding day to day in the studio. There is a clarity for me, for why I’m working so hard, and it carries me through the ups and downs with a sense of purpose.

After spending 12 years as a stay-at-home mom, you pursued higher education and earned your MFA in 2019. How did this transition back into academia shape your approach to art-making?

After so many years as a stay-at-home mom, I was terrified to go back for my MFA. I attended the Low Residency MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and everyone in my cohort was (still is) wonderfully talented and brilliant—which was very intimidating. I could see the aspects of my practice that were not as developed as that of my peers, but I really struggled to see what talents I had to offer. I was attending one of the top art schools in the country, working with extraordinary faculty, but my self-doubt was holding me back. Over time, I started to care less and less about comparisons; this could have been due to becoming friends with everyone, or just that the act of comparing myself to others was becoming too heavy of a habit to hold. Whatever the reason, when I let comparisons go, I was able to find the thing that I really needed to find: my own standards for making art (which are ever-evolving) and the specifics of my visual language. I became really clear that I wanted to pay homage to the residue of lives lived held in domestic spaces. Simultaneously, I was interested in how painting can be stretched as a medium and was exposed to the concept of Expanded Painting. I also developed the mantra for myself, “wherever I am with the work right now is where I need to be.” Thinking like this was, and still is, so important for me because I have a tendency to overwork. In the long run, that will just lead to a multitude of setbacks. As these realizations became embedded in my thinking, my art practice rapidly grew, like a fast-forward button had been hit.

Your work has been showcased in a variety of venues, from museums to galleries across the country. How do these diverse spaces influence the presentation and reception of your artwork?

A venue that’s allowed for a great deal of experimenting in the presentation of my work has been artist-run spaces. My most recent solo exhibition, Hours After Winter, at artist-run Carnation Contemporary in Portland, OR, gave me the opportunity to build 9-foot expanded paintings in the shape of archways. Having the form repeat throughout the space creates what feels like a hallowed space in the gallery. Being a local show means that I’ve been able to talk with a lot of gallery visitors directly and learn about how they connect with the work. Often, however, I don’t really know how the work is received in many spaces. That’s especially the case when my work travels to parts of the country without me, which is a lot of the time. Of course, a sale, review, or someone sharing the work online gives me an indication, but it can be a year or so later when someone reaches out about a past show and lets me know how it impacted them. By the very nature of my work being about the remaining radiance and tenderness of the departed felt in domestic spaces, that’s going to stir up very uniquely specific and personal feelings for each viewer. To an extent, regardless of whether the work is being shown locally or not, my work draws up memories specific to the person looking at my work, which then overprints onto their experience of my work. I find this to be a really exciting experience to facilitate.

In 2021, you embarked on a cross-country journey with your family to complete a residency while homeschooling your children. How did this unique experience impact your artistic perspective and creative process?

My partner and I rented an RV and drove our three kids from Oregon to a residency in Tennessee. It was a week of camping there and a week of camping on the way back. Like a lot of parents who don’t normally homeschool but did so because of the pandemic, I really struggled with the demands of my family and my professional ambitions. Keep in mind that it really hadn’t been long since I graduated with my MFA when the pandemic started, and that my MFA was something I had deferred for so long and worked so hard to earn. I didn’t want to lose momentum—and I also wanted to give my kids the extra care that they deserved during very uncertain times. I had to get creative about creating meaningful experiences for my children that would also allow me time to make art. This cross-country adventure has become symbolic for all the other times during the pandemic that I conjured up a plan that offered my family a meaningful experience while moving my art practice forward. Anecdotally, I’ve heard lots of other artist parents—often other artist moms—who had to get really creative with how they ran their household during covid so that they could continue to be creative in the studio. The camping part of my story is unique to my creative journey, but I want to put emphasis on that for artist caretakers, there are what feels like hundreds of creative maneuvers we do to just to set foot in the studio.

Being selected as a finalist for the Hopper Prize in 2022 and 2023 is a significant achievement. What significance does this recognition hold for you and your artistic career?

With MFA students I’ve mentored, I’ve told them to do their research and be selective about the open calls that they apply for because the fees really start to add up. Additionally, I tell them that I like to have something that I apply for often that feels like a long shot—a long shot that would be excellent context for my work and that would place my work in front of an audience that would value what my practice offers. For me that’s been the Hopper Prize. To be a finalist for it twice means a lot to me, not just for my own art practice, but it validates the advice that I’ve given to students.

Currently residing in the greater Portland, OR Metropolitan area, you're an active member of the artist collective Carnation Contemporary. How does collaborating with fellow artists in this collective influence your creative practice and artistic collaborations?

There are the day-to-day things in an artist-run space like learning how to properly light a show, helping another member to install their show, or just seeing how different members use the space. All of these things help me to think about different ways that my own work can be displayed. As a member, I’ve also been able to organize, along with Raquel Mullins (founder of Wavelength Space), an exchange between Carnation Contemporary and Wavelength Space in Chattanooga TN. That project was a lot of fun because Raquel and I were able to expose a lot of artists to our respective communities, who wouldn’t otherwise be showing there, and connect the exhibiting artists with each other too. Raquel and I have formed a small group of artists from different parts of the country who make work connected to domestic space. We meet virtually to support each other’s practice and exhibit together. I’m looking forward to sharing more about this project soon.