A few weeks ago, a writer from my high school's newspaper, The Paper Tiger, reached out to me to see if she could interview me for their literary magazine. She found me on Instagram, and sent over some of the most interesting and thought-provoking questions I've gotten in a while! Here's a repost of the interview in full. Enjoy!
For this week’s LitMag interview, we interviewed Zai Divecha, designer, metalworker and owner of Elektra Steel (and an ‘06 LW alum!). As Elektra Steel’s website states, the company produces unique mosaic wall hangings. Zai specializes in the very precise, flexible type of welding called TIG welding, which allows her to create her bold, detailed work. Check out Zai’s work at www.elektrasteel.com or follow her company on Instagram at @elektrasteel.
How did you first get involved with metalworking? What advice would you give to people looking to take a similar career path?
I first got into metalworking at age 14, as a high school student right here at Lick-Wilmerding! I knew I liked art when I first got to Lick, but I knew nothing about metalworking, and to be honest, I was a little scared of the shops. Once I learned the basics in the metal shop and started to feel a little more comfortable with the tools, I fell in love. I realized I could create furniture and home goods from scratch. It was deeply empowering.
It took me a while to figure out that I wanted to do metalworking as a career, though — I studied other subjects in college and grad school (psychology, public health) and worked in a few different fields (nonprofit, tech) before diving into the art world full-time. It’s okay to change your mind a few times.
If you think you might want to pursue art for a career, the most important thing you can do right now is to start building up your portfolio. Make as much art as you can, and take photos of both the process and the finished pieces. Research “product photography” online — there’s a lot of great information out there about how to take high-quality photos of your pieces. Once you have a few pieces photographed, create a simple website and an Instagram account to show off your work. Whether you’re applying to art programs or just showing your work to a family member, it’s incredibly helpful to have photos of your work gathered nicely in one (or two) places.
If you know you want to pursue art as a career, you could go to an art school for college, or attend a liberal arts school that has a strong visual arts program. But you don’t have to go to school for art — I didn’t! If you’re not sure you want to commit to going to art school, explore art in your free time instead: You could take summer or evening classes at a place like The Crucible in Oakland, or TechShop in San Francisco.
Is there a specific person you look up to who has inspired your artwork or influenced you in general?
The most important person who shaped me as an artist was Mr. Clifford, who was the metal shop teacher when I was a student at Lick. He introduced me to metalworking, and helped me build my confidence in the shop. He pushed me out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to tackle more complex skills, like TIG welding and anodizing. Over a decade later, I still consider him a mentor. Two years ago, I went to him for advice when I was starting Elektra Steel, my company. He gave me encouraging, specific, and practical advice, and it helped me prepare to take the leap.
Many of your art works are installed or photographed in very specific places — when you create these pieces do you think a lot about your audience and the space you’d want them to be in, or not?
Depends on the piece! Some of my pieces were commissioned by clients — they hired me to make a piece for a specific location, like over their fireplace, or in a conference room. In that case, I definitely take into consideration how the space is decorated and lit, how and where the piece will be hung, and who the audience will be. But sometimes I just make a piece for fun, and then afterward try to find a customer to buy it. In that scenario, I’m less concerned about the audience and the space, and more focused on just making what I want to make.
What do you hope people learn or take away from looking at your art pieces?
Right now, my main goal is for people to look at my work and just think it looks cool. My priority at the moment is to refine my fabrication techniques, develop a coherent aesthetic, and make stuff that people like. That said, I’d like to eventually make pieces that tell a story and have messages embedded!
There are a handful of causes I care deeply about, like HIV/AIDS in California, and I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a series of pieces that explore some angle of the history, epidemiology, or stigma associated with HIV. Every year for the last five years, I’ve participated in a fundraiser called AIDS/LifeCycle, which is a seven-day, 545-mile bike ride from SF to LA. Each year, I raise over $3,000 for the cause. Perhaps next year, I’ll make a few pieces about HIV and auction them off to raise money for these two organizations…
Obviously the field of fabrication has been traditionally dominated by men — how does this disproportionate representation affect the way you work?
Great question! My feelings about it are complex. Sometimes I love that I’m a woman in a male-dominated field. The fact that I’m a woman who learned to weld at age 14 is a unique and memorable story, and I certainly use that narrative to my advantage in my marketing and branding efforts. But other times, I feel annoyed. Some men in the field don’t take me seriously, or they try to “mansplain” things to me in a condescending way.
At a previous metal shop, where most of the folks were white men, I experienced subtle sexism on a regular basis. Staffers would ask things like, “So, are you here for the jewelry class?” just because I was a woman (I was actually there for the waterjet cutting class). They constantly made assumptions about what type of work I was there to do. Other members of the shop would come over and try to tell me how to use a tool, even when I clearly wasn’t looking for help. I felt like I was constantly on the defensive, trying to prove to everyone that I was a competent metalworker. I think it helped me grow a thicker skin, but it wasn’t always fun, and it certainly distracted me from my work.
But at my next shop, The Crucible, I had a totally different experience. The community there was much more diverse — there were lots of women, folks of color, and queer and trans people. I never once experienced sexism or felt self-conscious about my identity as a woman (or as a queer person of color, for that matter), and I had talented role models all around me who looked like me. I felt so much more confident and comfortable in that space! And since then, I’ve made an effort to find friends and mentors who are other strong women who run their own small businesses. I’ve learned so much from them, and we help each other out constantly. Their advice and support has helped me grow tremendously.