The Artist Marcel Dzama Is Collaborating With His Cat

As David Zwirner launches an online exhibition of Dzama’s drawings, he’s at home in Brooklyn with his family, developing coloring books for his son.

A painting by the artist Marcel Dzama picturing five women next to a swimming pool in blue-white bat...
Marcel Dzama, Children playing around a basin, 2018 © Marcel Dzama. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

For W’s new series, “One Fun Thing,” we’re inviting creative people around the world to share the activities that have brightened up their days spent at home, from Manolo Blahnik’s daily sketches to Jewel’s guided meditations and more. Consider it a grab bag of ideas for how to shake up your own quarantine routine.

In 2018, Marcel Dzama spent just over a month in Morocco with his family, traveling through Tangier, Essaouira, the Rif and High Atlas Mountains, Fez, Beni Mellal, Marrakech, and the Agafay Desert. In the two years since, the Canadian artist known for his ink and watercolor drawings has built on sketches and ideas from that journey, producing a group of works with surrealist and folk influences that form part of an online exhibition at David Zwirner that launches today. Titled Pink Moon, a nod to the renewal symbolized by the first full moon of spring and the romance of travel, the hopeful, colorful show also includes drawings from Dzama’s recent trip to Mexico. He is currently at home in Brooklyn with his wife and son and their cat, where he’s shifted his focus to smaller works and developed a coloring book, Coloring the Moon Pink, which is available for download on Zwirner’s site. Here, he shares his thoughts on creating during a pandemic and the particulars of his family’s quarantine rituals.

Do you feel that this has been an especially creative time for you?

Yes, I’ve been working more on small drawings because my workspace at home is a small desk. It has been a lot of fun and much more immediate and intimate. I haven’t been to my studio since the lockdown started, so it has been difficult to work on larger pieces. I had a deadline on a large drawing and I had to have most of it rolled up while I worked on it because it was too big for my home studio space. Also, my cat walked through it a few times and added some ink prints. He likes to collaborate.

Marcel Dzama, The pool near the ocean, 2020.© Marcel Dzama. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

What does a typical day look like for you right now?

It’s been pretty organized, for the most part we wake up early, I’ll make breakfast for the family, my wife helps my son with online school for most of the day and I work on small drawings. I’ll do a lunch for everyone, and we’ll go back to online school and drawing. Once he’s finished online school, I’ll help him get his homework done and then we’ll draw together, or color RxART coloring books—which he filled up, so I started making drawings for him to color. We’ll play music and make short time-lapse or stop-motion videos with cutouts or Legos together. Then my wife or I will make dinner. After that, we will watch a film or read. I’ll draw again, I’ll read to my son before his bed time. Then I’ll work late into the night on drawings or film ideas. The weekends are much more fun ’cause there is no online school and we can sleep in and work on more ambitious projects with our son—like Papier-Mâché or something like that. We even did a time capsule and buried it.

Any new daily rituals you’ve added to the mix?

At 7 o’clock p.m. each day we go outside and clap, play bongos—my son learned to play his mouth harp really loud to show respect to all the essential workers. Our whole block has really gotten into it and my son usually leaves the cheer a minute earlier and gets everyone to come out, which has been a great connection to the community in this isolated time. I’ve done a few drawings to raise money for charities in need right now and also am trying to collect any PPE equipment for hospitals: protective masks for nurses and doctors, mainly. I actually got a big box of masks from an art collector in Hong Kong and another from an art collector in San Francisco that were given to hospitals in need.

What would be your advice to someone who is getting into drawing for the first time as an adult?

Besides practicing a lot, Just make sure you’re having fun while you’re drawing. People can see that spark when someone is enjoying making art.

What inspired you to make a coloring book?

My son loves to color and we had a whole collection of RxART coloring books and he filled them in quite quickly so I started making drawings for him to finish and to color. He’s a great collaborator, he’ll add an extra head or creature and color it, he’s very creative.

Marcel Dzama, Store of women’s kaftans in a market and my son with hat, 2018. © Marcel Dzama. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

Any music recommendations to listen to while drawing or coloring?

I’ve been listening to a lot of old music when I’m working like Bunk Johnson, Lead Belly, and Earl Hooker. When I’m not working, and am with the family, we’ve been listening to a lot of Nina Simone. Oh, and Bill Withers, who just passed away. I just taught my son how to play Lean On Me on piano, he got it very quickly.

What are some of the places or things you love about Morocco?

We really saw a lot of Morocco. We were there over a month and I drove, so we went to most of the main cities: Tangier, Chefchaouen, Fez, Atlas mountains, Marrakech, Essaouira, and many other, smaller places on the way. The High Atlas Mountains were breathtaking and very hard to drive on, though—sometimes the road would even disappear because of landslides. Near Fez, the Merenid Tombs had a beautiful view at sunset. The old part of Essaouira was like traveling in time. They use it when filming Game of Thrones and Orson Welles used it in Othello. We stayed in the Casbahs most of the time and those were always very exciting, with the marketplaces surrounding them and the local shops that have been there for many generations. I love the use of color in most of the tile work and in the clothing. It really influenced my work. I’ve been using a lot more brighter colors and patterns. And the carpets, of course. We ended up shipping more carpets than our house could fit, but they’re so beautiful.

What are some of the places or things you love about Mexico?

I love everything about Mexico. The people, the culture—I lived in Guadalajara for about half a year in 2007, I was working at a ceramics foundry owned by [the art collector, gallery owner, restaurateur and third-generation ceramicist] Jose Noé Suro, I worked on a lot of ceramic sculptures and put them into dioramas. I even made a film in Guadalajara called A Game of Chess that was filmed in an old, torn down shoe factory call Canada Shoe just on the outside of the city, and I made another film in the beach town Sayulita called Loretta. But most of the drawings I did for this exhibition were done near the town of Tulum. I started sketching most of them while we were on my son’s winter break, staying in a nice hotel near the ocean, and I’ve been finishing them up now while in quarantine.

Since none of us are able to travel at the moment, do you have any ideas for how we might be able to recreate or approximate the feeling of discovery while at home?

I started most of these drawings while on vacation, and I only started finishing them now, so a lot of them have one foot in pre-lockdown time and on vacation. It’s been a nice way to travel back there in my mind and get away from this feeling of anxiety and isolation from this pandemic. They also have a very optimistic feeling about them. I think when times are easy I am more cynical and world-weary in my work, and when times are hard I try to be hopeful and positive.