Every artist has their preferred media, be it pencil, pastel or paint. In the case of our MarkMaker Aleksandra Zee, it’s a type of wood – redwood lath – most likely to be found propping up plaster walls or your garden fence. In her hands, it’s transformed into beautiful geometric wall hangings.
Born in Southern California, Aleksandra moved to San Francisco at 21 and has been refining her craft in the city ever since. “It’s as if the Bay was calling my name,” she says, inspired as much by the nearby ocean as the surrounding art scene. The artist and woodworker enjoys a generous helping of both, moving between her apartment in the hip Mission District and a studio space across the water in Oakland.
As well as the large-scale wall pieces that have become her signature, Aleksandra creates headboards and tabletops, plus gallery installations that draw upon her degree in Fine Arts. Whatever the outcome, it’s the love of working with wood that is her driving force.
We caught up with the artist to talk lumber yards, lath and why you should “never stop making.”
Timberland: When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I’ve always known that I needed to create with my hands – it’s something that’s always been within me. When I was young, I remember making this topographical 3D map of California out of a salty clay. I think I was 8.
T: Now your clay modelling days are behind you, why wood?
I love everything about working with wood. It’s such a beautiful process to refine it – and it’s been a process for so many years so I feel lucky to be part of that history. I also love that wood is imperfect. There are all these amazing lines and grains in it and you just never know what you’re going to get until you slice into it. The element of surprise when you're working excites me, and also the feeling of working with something that the earth made – it keeps me grounded.
I’m always on the hunt for beautiful redwood lath from local lumber yards – that’s my medium of choice and I’m quite picky about its condition.
T: What’s special about redwood?
The Bay is surrounded by millions of redwood trees that are native to Northern California. I like to bring that into my work and I think it's important to use elements that you are surrounded by. I love the variation in redwood and that it's a bit softer. The wood grain in it is beautiful too; you've got these rich red hues, plus browns, whites – it's just delicious.
I also like working with hardwoods like walnut and ash – once you sand those they can shine up really nicely.
T: How would you describe your art?
Clean, modern and geometric.
T: Has the Bay Area been an influence?
Life in the Bay Area is like nowhere else I've ever been. There's so much to be inspired by in this part of the world – you've got the redwoods and the mountains where you can hike and camp, and then you can go spend hours by the ocean and the cliffs. If you dare go in the water you can swim in it too – it's quite cold!
T: Do you have a favorite or secret spot in the city?
It’s hardly a secret, but I love being in front of the ocean. Mostly it's that indigo blue that I love – whether it's in my house or my work, it's always showing up. It's been a big part of who I am forever, and I think it will always be in my work.
One of my favorite places to go is Sutro Baths down by Ocean Beach. The ruins of the old Sutro Baths are beautiful – the way the waves crash up against the wreckage of old staircases. It's so beautiful how the lights hit it at sunset – it's all my favorite colors with the indigo again and those desert oranges. It's definitely a place where I go to pick up inspiration and bring it into my home or the studio or what I'm wearing.
T: Talk us through a typical day in your life?
A typical day usually starts at my home in the Mission District, then I put my pup Jack in the truck and we head over to Oakland where my studio is. It feels different there – quieter and more spread out – so I get that really intense city life and then get a little bit of a break once I cross the bridge.
Being in the studio is my favorite place in the world – I can make an unbelievable mess and then come home to my apartment which is calm and serene. I’ll work on my project until I feel good with what I’ve finished. Sometimes that means staying until late in the night and other times that means leaving early to grab a glass of wine. What is most important about my day is that I feel present with my material and process, and that I am always creating from that place.
T: What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love when I first get started and I’m laying down my first pieces, because that's the path where everything will follow. The most satisfying part is after I’ve put the sealer on a piece and let it dry. I prop it up against the wall so I can really just stand back and take it in, feeling all of the emotions that the piece vibes off of.
T: How would you describe your personal style?
Clean, simple, comfortable and modern. Sophisticated workwear. Projecting an image with my look and my artwork, my home and my life is very important to me. I want to portray honesty with what I wear and how I wear it.
T: How does Timberland fit with that ethos?
Timberland to me is about being authentic to who you are, and about being comfortable in your own skin. The clothes are adventure-ready and I love that. They’re comfortable and versatile, ready for the studio or a day trip somewhere new.
T: Where do you like to go on a free weekend?
I really like getting outside to adventure. I'm always trying to plan my next trip to Joshua Tree or Palm Springs – or Utah, I love going to Utah. The idea of traveling gives me butterflies. I can't wait to go and experience every place that I possibly can – being out of the city and my studio allows me to take in all the creativity that I can.
T: How would someone follow in your footsteps?
Never stop making is the advice I give anyone who asks. If you feel compelled to make something but don’t know what it is, then try everything until you’ve settled on what it is you love.
I've always been making things, but it took me a while to figure out what to do with it. I did paintings for a couple of years and they were terrible – maybe one painting is left in existence. Once I started doing installation and three-dimensional work I knew that I had found something that I was going to pursue. It's been about seven years now that I've been committed to working with wood, but it's been a lifelong journey of discovering my creativity and honing this craft.
T: What does the Modern Trail mean to you?
The Modern Trail is about making your own way. It’s about using your own ideas and originality and owning who you are.
Take a tour of Aleksandra’s neighborhood (and find out what restaurant claims America’s Best Burrito) in our guide to The Mission District.