Ed Zelenak: In Contemplation on the World Around Us 

Sculptor Ed Zelenak's decades of work defy easy categorization, moving from extroverted early pieces to introverted, cosmic explorations. His art, showcasing an evolution across materials and scales, challenges viewer expectations and encapsulates a journey of metaphysical inquiry devoid of political or social messaging.
Ed Zelenak Exhibition, 2013, Divining the Frontiers, Christopher Cutts Gallery, Toronto. Photo credit: C. Kovach

Among sculptors working today, Ed Zelenak stands out as an artist whose work defies easy categorization. His decades-long commitment to exploring materiality, scale, and form has led to a body of work that both arrests the viewer and encourages deep contemplation of the surrounding world. He spoke with me about being consistently guided by an introspective, spiritual, “come what may” technique he developed in the 1970s and has carried forth into the present day. Here are the fruits of that conversation.

The Early Years: A Journey of Discovery

From his West Lorne studio, Zelenak began by reflecting on his “extroverted” early work. This extroversion, he explains, was a natural response to these formative years in his career. He sought to understand his presence in the world, projecting an inner self outward, which remains an aspiration he follows today. Ed’s early works were “voluminous,” rife with the energy and enthusiasm of a burgeoning artist reflecting the rapid, multi-faceted innovation of the 1960s. These culminated in iconic fibreglass sculptures of the 1970s, larger-than-life works monumental in scale and challenging in impact.

Convolutions, 1972, fibreglass, dimensions varied: largest piece (in the back) approx.. 8 x 8’ , all diameters 30”.
Photo credit: C. Kovach

But as Zelenak’s career progressed, his practice and, more intimately, his philosophy shifted. It became more introverted, articulating a sense of cosmic curiosity in a subtle and deliberate manner as his work evolved across material and scale. Straying from industrial-scale projects was “unintentional.” As an artist moves through their career, Zelenak explained, they start to ponder their intentions and their place in the world; and this contemplation inevitably leads to a gradual and natural ‘transformation’ in their art. In his own artistic journey, he acknowledges that this may not be the “right” framework to establish direction, but “it is what it is.” He likens the unpredictable evolution of his work to a kind of spiralling direction, emphasizing that creativity is not linear but instead a winding path: 

In many ways, one’s life kind of spirals, you know. I’ve never believed things to go in a straight line. And I think that has been pretty evident in the last five decades that I’ve been working.”

The Exploration of Materiality

Ed Zelenak fosters an ability to challenge the viewer’s expectations. As he progressed from fibreglass to textures like steel, steel wire, copper, wood, and acrylic on canvas, he engaged with the material world in innovative ways. One of the most significant features of his work is his meticulous treatment of the materials he employs and his fascination with the innate qualities, textures, and visual effects that is evident in every piece he creates. For Zelenak, the tangible is a medium through which to explore metaphysics; and the materials he selects play an integral role in conveying this existential essence through reference to natural forms all around us. From gleaming, polished steel vessels to colourful geometric multimedia canvases, the work invites the viewer to engage with vivid materiality, transcending the merely artful and engaging to the material experience itself.

Ra’s Voyage Remapping the Cosmos, Study #2, 1989, gouache, 17.25 x 21.25”. Photo credit: C. Kovach

Zelenak’s practice has shifted from large-scale sculpture to more compact, fixed, wall-mounted pieces, as well as experimentation with new materials and techniques. Opting to avoid the monumental, Ed has embraced the concept of working in the realm of what he can manage with “[his] own hands” as compared to an excavator, in testament to a natural, spontaneous , galactic spiral approach rather than a rigorously systematic one.

Ra’s Voyage Remapping the Cosmos, Study #8, NM, 1989, gouache on mulberry, 15.50×19.50” Photo credit: C. Kovach

Aesthetic Neutrality

My conversation with the artist also touched on the concept of branding in our social media-saturated world. Zelenak recognizes the pressure to establish a recognizable style, but he remains true to create what from experience, even if it means deviating from expectations that often bind artists to cliché. This commitment to authenticity and personal expression is a guiding principle for work influenced by “fondly encountered” external sources of inspiration. At one point in the interview, Ed shared a personal anecdote about encountering a dowser (or underground water-diviner), sparking his fascination with the inexplicable. He also references the influence of architectural forms, particularly the subterranean churches of Ethiopia highlighting the intersection of spirituality and materiality, which he has brought into his own work.

Vase, Still Life with Divining Rod, 2008, Bronze ed. 1 of 3, 18.75×13.75×7.5 in., (47.63×34.93×19.05 cm). Photo credit: Christopher Cutts Gallery

Zelenak engages sincerely with the realms of mythology and symbolism, imbruing work with layers of ambiguous meaning. His art reflects a quest to understand the mysteries of life and the world in a manner remarkably free from overt political or social messages. The artist’s work doesn’t seek to advertise any cause, ideology, or opinion; instead, it retains a certain aesthetic neutrality. Zelenak doesn’t preach; he enacts space for contemplation. In a refreshing respite from a politically polarized world, he believes in the power of beauty and simplicity to transcend chaos.

Ed Zelenak’s art practice is a testament to the ever-changing nature of creativity. While others often feel the need to replicate what they’ve seen others do, his journey reminds us that art is not static; it is a living, breathing reflection of the inner life, constantly evolving and responding to the shifting tides of experience. On this point, he relates the following:

“I was just thinking, actually, yesterday, [that] the sky has been watching me for—Well, I’m in my eighth decade. It’s now time that I’m watching the sky. And what is intriguing about it is that there’s no answer to it, you know: we’re just simply driven by finite things [and] it all has to do with the question of life. Where you are, why you are—I guess that’s what we try to solve.

Ed Zelenak. Photo credit: C. Kovach

Sarah Oakley is a recent undergraduate in sociocultural anthropology from Western University. Residing in London, Ontario, writing for the local visual arts community has encouraged her to seek a career in museum and heritage work. Sarah is currently pursuing distanced post-grad studies in Cultural Resource Management at the University of Victoria while working in the heritage industry.

All images courtesy of artist.

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