Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.
Linda Rzoska has been creating nature-inspired artwork in her Vine studio for almost 30 years. But two years ago, the concept of photosynthesis took hold and wouldn’t let go.
Not only was Rzoska stimulated to explore photosynthesis in her own work, but the topic turned out to be so vast, she decided to create an artists’ invitational.
What evolved was the Photosynthesis Project, a group of 16 Southwest Michigan artists who exchange ideas, share skills, attend and facilitate workshops, travel, and participate in artist’s shows all around the theme of photosynthesis.
A well-recognized and awarded artist, Rzoska is not new to starting projects. As a graphic designer, she ran her own business, Design and Illustration Associates, for many years. Later, she was invited to help start the Center for New Media at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, where she was hired full-time as an instructor and then served as chair of the center. She retired in 2016.
Passionate about nature, Rzoska’s interest in photosynthesis was piqued during a chance radio encounter. In 2017, she was listening to Krista Tippet’s radio show, On Being
. Tippet was interviewing Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer
, a specialist in forest biology, who admitted she had “photosynthesis envy,” because trees can turn air and light and water into oxygen, medicine, and food for the world, a supremely creative process.
Rzoska (pronounced Zoo-ska), whose artwork of landscapes and trees convey a deep and nuanced sensitivity to the natural world, felt an immediate kinship with Kimmerer’s words. Spurred by curiosity, Rzoska began researching environmental, metaphorical and environmental aspects of photosynthesis.
“I learned about the scientific process in sixth grade, but I hadn’t stopped to really consider it. The leaf can turn sunlight and water into carbohydrates and sugar, and absorb carbon dioxide, and give us oxygen to breathe,” says Rzoska. “Without that little magic, we would not be here at all. When you think about that, you wonder, do people really realize the importance of it?”
Linda Rzoska's third floor studio is an artist's paradise.
An avid reader, she began researching photosynthesis, which led her to study environmental justice, biosphere consciousness, and Joseph Campbell’s writings on mythology.
“As an artist, my work focuses on creating imagery that moves the viewer to re-establish their ancient connection to nature and the Earth,” Rzoska explains. “Photosynthesis was a perfect topic for my work.”
The more Rzoska discovered about photosynthesis, the more she realized there was to know. Her initial plan was to use the topic to produce a solo show in 2018. A three-week trip to Ireland to delve into photosynthesis only furthered her interest and understanding of how vast the topic was, so much so that she began to conceive of sharing the idea with other artists.
Rzoska decided to start her own invitational, inspired by a previous Southwest Michigan artists and writers collaborative, “ALCHEMY: An Artist’s and Writer’s Initiative,” that was co-directed by Kalamazoo’s artist Sydnee Peters and poet Elizabeth Kerlikowske. ALCHEMY artists and writers joined creative forces for two artwork exhibitions, poetry readings, and a book publication.
In the spring of 2018, the Photosynthesis Project
So far, the group includes drawers, painters, jewelry and fiber artists, sculptors, and two poets, who all participate in what has turned out to be a productive, inspiring collaborative, Rzoska says. The group includes poets Kerlikowske and Lynn Pattison and artists Michael Dunn, Maryellen Hains, David Stokes, Randy Walker, Anna Ill, Vicki VanAmeyden, Tamara Hirzel, Dave Middleton, Alexa Karabin, Joe Smigiel, Justin Bernhardt, and Susan Badger, among others who have joined more recently.
To date, the Photosynthesis Project has hosted several exhibits and workshops, such as one in October at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, and Art Hops at Ninth Wave Studio. The group is also planning a trip to Krakow, Poland.
“This community of artists here is so supportive of each other. I don’t see that jealousy or competition,” says Rzoska.
The Photosynthesis Project plans its first major exhibition in the Center for New Media Galleries
on Nov. 2, 2019. The project also plans to host poetry readings and eventually a print suite and possibly publication of a book. In the spring of 2020, Doet Boersma, an artist from the Netherlands, will be an artist-in-residence at Ninth Wave. The KIA has invited Boersma to do an ArtBreak session to introduce her to the Kalamazoo community.
“Photosynthesis is a philosophy,” says Rzoska. “By delving into it, we’re learning more about ourselves and becoming better artists.”
Ninth Wave is not Rzoska’s first artist studio in Vine. When she first married over 40 years ago, Rzoska and her husband, Leszek Rzoska, who was trained as a shipbuilding engineer and who later worked for D & A Automotive in Kalamazoo until he retired, made Vine their first home. They rented a house and she had a studio in a dusty attic.
“There’s just something about the energy and atmosphere of an older home,” says Rzoska of the nearly 125-year-old Mary Louise Haynes House, which is where Ninth Wave is located. Haynes was the daughter of prominent Kalamazoo businessman Ira Bixby, who lived next door. The house “just has a history, a personality."
Rzoska, who grew up in an older home in Bangor, was immediately smitten with the Haynes house. “Walking into it was like deja vu. Very welcoming.”
Her husband, who Rzoska says can do “just about anything,” removed the drop ceilings, refinished the original molding, added a tin ceiling to the kitchen, re-did the bathrooms, installed ceiling medallions and added many artistic touches to the house consistent with its original character. The end result is a three-story home with a first-floor office area, currently rented by Holy Cross Children Services, a second-floor gallery and workshop area, and third-floor studio.
Rzoska chose the name Ninth Wave because of a book she was reading about Irish mythology that inspired her to think of taking risks.
“Once you get beyond the ninth wave of the shore, you open yourself up to possibilities of moving outward,” she says. “You’re not going to be careened back to shore. You can move out and try other things and think beyond the shore.”
Located on the block of Walnut that also is now home to the neighborhood’s most recent coffeeshop, Walnut and Park, as well as a variety of other historic homes, many converted to smaller offices primarily of therapists, the studio is also conveniently situated close to Bronson Hospital and downtown.
Rzoska says she’s enjoyed watching the area develop over the 20 years she’s been creating artwork there, addings she’s excited about the new Rose Street development
, which will have both business and residential occupants.
“I love the neighborhood,” says Rzoska of Vine. “Where I am is really ideal. It’s not in the hustle-bustle, but it’s in easy walking distance to the KIA and downtown.”
Trees, trees, and amazing trees
Rzoska, who earned her Bachelors of Arts in Painting from Western Michigan University, began her career as a technical illustrator.
“Everything had to be exact and precise. It’s a skillset I used when I came back to drawing. When I was in college, I wasn’t doing the detailed work I do now.”
The presence of individual trees is powerfully conveyed in artist Linda Rzoska's work.
As she transitioned from graphic designer and then to administrator and instructor at KVCC, while also busy raising her daughter, Rzoska hoped to have more time to pursue her own artistic interests, which wasn’t “an emotional difficulty. It was just logistics.”
That calling was cemented by a KVCC sabbatical in 2009, where she traveled to Europe, including Germany and the Netherlands. Then she went to Ireland for three months where she had a studio and held an exhibition.
“All I had to do was think about my art and nothing else,” says Rzoska. The stay in Ireland brought her back to her childhood experiences of engaging with nature. “We lived at a dead-end street and I spent a lot of time in the woods, which was near the Black River.” Growing up, Rzoska’s sisters called her “Nature Girl.”
In Ireland, Rzoska found she could explore the woods and fields without worrying about her safety. “In Ireland, a woman doesn’t need to worry. I felt so free because I could walk and not be afraid. I spent a third of the day walking the landscape and two-thirds of the day in the studio.
“I was really able to revisit with my connection with a sense of place. Here in our society, a capitalistic society, we tend to look at things as a commodity,” says Rzoska. “A tree is a commodity. A flower is a commodity. In Europe, they are so much more environmentally aware than we are, maybe because the countries are so small.
“I was able to get back to looking at things as I did when I was a child. The trees, the plants are essential beings on the planet just like myself.”
Rzoska’s work, drawing, printwork and mixed media, has been selected for many juried shows and is represented in several private collections. Rzoska has received numerous awards for her illustration and fine art, including two International Awards of Excellence from the Society for Technical Communications.
She has served as an artist in residence at the Burren College of Art in Ireland and had recent solo exhibits at It Skildershuis Atelier in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, The Burren College of Art, Ireland, and at Western Michigan University, where she currently teaches drawing. Her work is currently for sale through J. Petter Galleries
What’s most noticeable about Rzoska’s work is her affinity for trees.
“The landscape has always spoken to me,” says Rzoska. “An artist can’t always verbally say what they want to communicate. What I’ve sensed comes out in my work all the time.”
“It’s not so much thinking in the head. It’s a feeling in the gut. I try to convey a spirit of the landscape or some kind of personality. Not just you look at a tree and think it’s a pretty tree. One way of seeing can tell you more than another can because of some kind of mystery.
“I keep working on (conveying that mystery) and working on it,” she says. “And I think I’m getting closer and closer.”
Ninth Wave Studio
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