Sharon Zorn-Katz is a grounded woman. Literally.
Her rammed-earth home is made from the soil she and her husband excavated from their property in Perris, California, and much of her art is made from the family ties that root her to this earth. In both her work and her life, she never wants to forget where she comes from.
Sharon's prints are currently on exhibit at the Riverside Art Museum, a show she was granted after she received Honorable Mention at the 2013 RAM Member's Exhibition. The show lines two walls in the upstairs alcove of the museum; one wall features "Family Stories," prints based upon stories told to her by her relatives, many of whom were pioneer women. "May Day," a hand-colored etching featuring a Xerox transfer photo of her grandmother Nettie at age 12, recounts the day Nettie was dancing around the maypole in Pima, AZ. Nettie's Aunt Lena, a seamstress, had hastily basted a new dress for Nettie's birthday; as they danced around the pole, Nettie's cousin stepped upon the hem, tearing off the bottom tier of the dress. Nettie never got over the embarrassment. Sharon added real ribbons to the may pole on the print to make her grandmother's story jump off the paper.
Memory is a poignant subject for Sharon, who is witnessing the atrophy of her mother's mind. She feels a real urgency to capture her family's stories through her art. "It's important to tell the stories when they're still in your mind," she says. "You never know when you're going to lose them."
Sharon's formal art education began after she agreed to teach Spanish at the Redlands Montessori School in 1972, where she ended up teaching for 23 years. She didn't know how to read or speak Spanish herself at the time, so she took a course at San Bernardino Valley College; she only learned enough Spanish to share some simple songs and phrases with the preschoolers, but she also discovered that Valley had a great art department. She began to study print making and etching, and was instantly hooked; she transferred to Crafton Hills College and later to Cal State San Bernardino, where she took one or two classes a semester over the course of ten years, sometimes with her children in tow, until she received her BFA in 1986. Sharon also began to experiment with water colors, and is now Vice President of the Plein Air Artists of Riverside; she looks forward to their nine day "Paint Out" in February, when participants will complete a new painting a day at different sites throughout town. "I love how plein air forces me to pay attention," she says, a quality she takes with her even when she isn't doing on-site work. "Sometimes I'll be driving along and I'll see a little thing that touches me; I'll race home and draw it down." She points to a print of a woman picking purple weeds and wearing a purple head scarf that came from such a sighting.
Sharon's art is also influenced by her politics. In the 1970s, Sharon was awakened by the feminist movement and started to question her Mormon faith. When she returned to Utah to visit family, she made an appointment with a psychologist to discuss how she found herself looking for more of a female deity; she no longer could accept a patriarchal religion that excluded women, even at the level of its language. The psychologist pulled out a folder of articles about feminism and started to rant and rave against the movement. "Spit was coming out of his mouth," Sharon recalls, laughing. The experience led her back to her own female ancestors. "They became like little goddesses to me," she said. "I had to admire their strength, the way they raised their children on their own." Her foremothers quickly became a focal point of her art; her piece "The Family Book" features bound serigraph portraits of women in her family, printed on acetate so each layered image builds upon the next. A self-portrait of Sharon, looking a bit like Gloria Steinem, rests on top, all the generations that came before her shining through, creating the strong foundation that shores her up.
Sharon also became active in the anti-nuclear movement; she met her husband Gerald Katz at a peace rally where she had tied her hand-painted "No Nukes" banner between two trees. After the rally, she was standing on a lawn chair, struggling to untie the banner, when he came by with a pocket knife and cut it down for her.
The couple spent their honeymoon at a rammed earth building workshop -- not her idea of an ideal getaway (a prize was given for the hardest worker over the course of the class; "I didn't win," she deadpans) but she loves the house that she and her husband ended up crafting with their own hands. The 1800-square foot home is full of light and art and charm.
"The walls look like sandstone to me," she says, and they do; they give the feeling of being inside a rustic Tuscan villa.
While they were building the house, the couple lived in a trailer on site; Sharon used a second trailer, a rare 1948 redwood-sided one nicknamed "Bluebird," as her studio, but the floor wasn't strong enough to support a press. She's grateful to now have a studio with a sturdy concrete floor she helped to mix and pour herself, and space for the press Gerald bought her nine years ago for her 60th birthday, along with all of her paintings and prints and frames and inks and other art supplies. The house is open concept, so her studio flows into the kitchen flows into the living room, making life and art one and the same.
Sharon and Gerald keep their house open to others, as well; they host Occupy Riverside and other activist gatherings at their property and love to invite people over to teach them about permaculture and sustainable building practices, offering tours of the solar panels Gerald salvaged from a job site 25 years ago, and the solar water heater they've been running since 1986. "It's amazing what you can do with a little dirt and sun," says Gerald. The couple still hasn't been given an official "permit to occupy" the house--they've been going through an elaborate dance with the city to get it signed off--but this didn't stop them from moving in as soon as the floor was poured almost 30 years ago.
Despite her unconventional life, Sharon still sometimes finds herself censoring her creative output.
"I do tend to worry about what people think," she says. "I want to make things perfect -- it can be hard for me to let my imagination go wild."
Important teachers have come into Sharon's life to help her open up her process.
Master printer Ron Pokrasso similarly helped her get out of her own way. He showed her how to play with "ghost prints", the images that come from the same plate as the ink slowly disappears with each new printing. "It can show you what you didn't expect," she says. "The print tells you what to do with it." The work she did in Pokrasso's Beyond Monotype workshop at the Riverside Art Museum makes up the "Monotype Variations" wall of her exhibit, and showcases how she transformed her prints with chine colle, paint and stencils. "Ron taught me to not be so anxious that you don't have fun," she says.
Her house, too, she says, has helped her let go of perfectionist tendencies. "Everything is dusty if you live in a dirt house," she laughs.
Sharon recalls how she first came kicking and screaming to Perris after she and her husband bought the property -- she loved living in Redlands and it took her a while to embrace Perris as home. "Now I love it," she says. "So many people here are working to keep its heritage alive." In 1886, Perris became a train stop on the transcontinental route of the Santa Fe Railway, and was incorporated as a town in 1911. The downtown is full of buildings from that era in various states of preservation.
"I'm interested in the people who came before us," she says, talking about her art now as well as her adopted town. "The people who gave us something that continues on."
Sharon Zorn-Katz's exhibit will run at the Riverside Art Museum into the Spring. 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside CA 92501. For more information, please call (951) 684-7111.