Zai Divecha—a multi-faceted artist that knows no bounds in her creative measure.
When we got to meet Zai in her shared Potrero studio, we were greeted with warm vibes, chic interiors, and a space of pure talent. A Yale graduate (in both her undergrad and grad), Zai went on to work in Bay Area tech, a normalcy and mainstay of how anyone makes money in the Bay Area. After quite some time working in corporate, the young artist transitioned into her current role as an accomplished artist/steelworker. Her most recent work includes large scale wall hangings made from hand-finished stainless steel and hot-rolled mild steel in a fluid, ribbon-like design, mounted into a custom-built medium-density fiberboard frame, but has started to move towards a lighter feel, including the combination of bleached walnut and mirror and maple and hot-rolled mild steel. Zai has also created a mini version in the form of enamel pins (Editor’s Note: which I lovingly wear on my overalls.)
We caught Zai on a rainy Thursday afternoon in her studio and got to ask her an assortment of burning questions. // Photography by Anthony Rogers.
You use to be Elektra Steel, now you’re just your name—why the switch?
When I first got started, I was making furniture and home goods, and I thought it made sense to have a company name that was separate from my personal identity. I figured I might go the product design route: create a line and outsource the fabrication. In retrospect, I think a part of me also wanted an escape hatch. It felt safer to create a thing that was symbolically separate from me.
But lately, I’ve been moving more toward fine art. I’m less of a company these days, and more of an artist, so going by my given name feels right. The name change didn’t come as much of a surprise to my community, probably because my story and my voice have always been at the forefront of my brand. It feels good — and a little scary! — to put a stake in the ground and say, “All right, this is me.“
How did you get into your field of work? Was is something out of necessity or something you were passionate about? Or both?
Definitely a passion. Making art has filled me with joy since I was a kid. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve made it my career focus, though. I went to Yale for college and grad school (I have a master’s in public health), I worked in reproductive and sexual health for a while, and then spent a few years in tech before deciding to take a gamble on this art business. I left my tech job because I wanted to do something more creative, and I wanted to get into flow state for at least some portion of my work week.
Fun fact: I first got into metalworking when I was 14 years old. I went to Lick-Wilmerding High School, a rad San Francisco school that has a world-class shop program. I learned the basics of metalworking, woodworking, glass fusing, electronics, Autocad, and HTML. I fell in love with metal shop immediately — I got really into MIG and TIG welding, blacksmithing, and machining. Until recently, though, it was just a hobby.
What interests you in metal versus paper or vise versa?
I enjoy metal because the transformation that’s possible. It’s so delicious to take a material that’s hard, uneven, and industrial, and turn it into something polished and beautiful. I love experimenting with finishes — grinding, sanding, patinas — to create different tones and grains in the metal. It requires a fair amount of elbow grease, but when it’s done, it’s pretty magical to see the material totally transformed.
In recent months, paper has become a fun antidote to metal. Metal requires lots of advance planning, whereas I can be spontaneous with paper. Metal can be physically taxing to work with, whereas paper folding is relaxing and meditative. And while metal wall hangings take weeks to design and fabricate, I can create something with paper in just a few hours. I’m enjoying the contrast between the two materials, balancing one against the other.
Explain your creative process with us. Are their steps to creating or can you just jump in and start making?
For the ribbon wall hangings, there’s a lot of planning that goes into each piece. First, I play around with actual ribbons or striped pieces of paper. I photograph the form, bring the image into Illustrator, and trace the outlines to create a vector drawing. I have the parts lasercut or waterjet cut out of stainless steel, mild steel, brass, or wood. Then it’s time for elbow grease: hours and hours of grinding, sanding, applying patina, oiling, or lacquering to create various tones and textures. I make a frame out of MDF, and inlay the parts like a mosaic, mounting them to the backing with an industrial adhesive.
The paper experiments are much more organic. I’ll sit down with a blank sheet of paper, and trace out a grid of pleats. Sometimes I have a sense for what shape the piece will take, and sometimes the form surprises me. I’m fairly new to paper folding, so I don’t yet have an established process beyond that. I should also mention that I don’t have a finished product, yet, either — I’m still deep in R&D with the paper stuff. I think it’ll be a while before I have a finished piece that feels ready for prime-time. These are all just experiments so far!
How did you find your personal style within your art? There are a lot of ways to create but how did you find your voice?
That’s a great question. I’ve been drawn to geometric shapes for as long as I can remember. That hasn’t changed much. But I’m constantly fine-tuning my aesthetic. I used to only do dark, high-contrast pieces, with a lot of silver, gray, and black. Now I’m gravitating toward lighter, warmer tones and materials — bleached maple, brass, white paper, that kind of thing.
I’m definitely influenced by the people around me. For example, my studiomate (and very close friend) Emi Grannis is a jeweler who works primarily in gold, and her aesthetic is definitely rubbing off on me! The other day, she helped me figure out exactly which brass alloy would most resemble 14k gold for a wall installation I’m working on.
What are some recent developments in your art you can share? New shows? New stores?
I’m collaborating with my fiancé Phil Reyneri to add projected light to some of my paper pieces. He’s an expert at projection-mapping (i.e., projecting video or animated content onto 3D objects), and we thought it would be fun to work on a piece together. We rarely ever collaborate on creative projects, so this is new for us. Stay tuned for photos and videos!
What’s something we might not know about you?
I’m an avid cyclist! When I’m not in the studio, I’m likely in head-to-toe spandex, on the bike. I’ve participated in AIDS/LifeCycle for the last six years in a row, and it’s a huge part of my life. AIDS/LifeCycle is a seven-day, 545-mile bike ride from SF to LA that raises money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. I’ve raised over $35,000 for the cause, and I’ve helped dozens of newbie cyclists do AIDS/LifeCycle for their first time. Cycling is a pretty male-dominated world, and I especially love supporting women who are eager to get into the sport. I have two Instagram accounts — one for art, one for biking — and the contrast between them is pretty striking. See @zaidivecha for minimalist, geometric art, and @zaiilsa for colorful, outdoorsy biking photos. That’s me in a nutshell.