Backstage at the Utah Arts Festival 2022: Fitting in, Mark Zirinsky’s metalwork pieces celebrate the ubiquitous presence of geometry in our lives

Nearly one-third of the artists in this year’s Utah Arts Festival’s Artist Marketplace are appearing for the first time in Salt Lake City. Now retired from his career as a mining engineer, Mark Zirinsky (Booth 142) has been gaining nice traction on the arts festival circuit, with 48 shows in eight years. Zirinksy, who lives in Denver and retired four years ago, now works as a full-time artist, making designs carved, machined, engraved and relief carved from aircraft aluminum. His work is definitely abstract, with the designs inviting viewers and patrons to make their own interpretations.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Zirinsky says that he prefers abstract designs “not for the purpose of expressing myself as much as drawing a viewer’s attention to understanding and appreciating geometry.” He adds that really the title of his artwork could be anything, as long it stimulates a viewer’s curiosity. Then, perhaps the best way to summarize Zirinsky’s artistic intentions is to showcase the ubiquity of geometry and mathematical structures in our lives as well as our natural world. This ranges from the microscopic scale of biology and nature as observed by scientists or students in a biology or chemistry lab to expanding the vista, as we look out towards the trees, valleys and mountains. 

Fitting In, Mark Zirinsky. Carved, machined, engraved, relief carved
and burnished aircraft aluminum, 20″ x 12″ x 1/2″. Completed June 2022.

Zirinsky is part of a small but growing group of artists, who come from the STEM fields with long careers and have opened chapters in their lives as artists with marvelous and tantalizing results. Another example is Lee Hendrickson, who also is returning to the festival this year. Hendrickson translated from research biologist to artist, and to some, as noted in a previous feature at The Utah Review, his photographs might appear as glorious abstractions but they are precisely representational images of the results of nature. What happens in his work is a sophisticated, significantly advanced version of the Rorschach ink blot test protocol. However, one also would be foolhardy to contend that they know what had to transpire in order to create the images which constitute his art. At the recent Old Town Art Festival in Chicago, Zirinsky was impressed by the work of Sebastian Sparenga, who has worked as a professional photographer documenting scientific research samples for microscopical analysis. As an artist, Sparenga has produced a series of microscopic art featuring substances such as acetaminophen, ammonia nitrate, caffeine, cinnamic acid and others. 

This is why the abstract designs serve artists such as Zirinsky so well because they astutely see venues such as the Artist Marketplace as ideal spaces to demonstrate how easy it is to build the bridge between art and science and perhaps discover for themselves that, indeed, they, too, have an inner artist waiting to blossom. 

Zirinsky says that he had spent at least 25 years looking for his style of artistic expression, often in tandem with his experience as a mining engineer. For a while, he thought about carving gemstones and jewelry with jade, gold and silver and then it eventually “bubbled out” to geometric objects and sculptures. Once the epiphany of aluminum being his ideal material to work with struck him clearly, he realized that finally “the right style found me.”

Mask, Mark Zirinsky.

Zirinsky says he remembers always being fascinated with art, even in his childhood years. His intellectual curiosity fueled that long journey of him trying to find his style – or, more accurately, the style eventually finding him. He talks about his fascination with the geometric characteristics of Art Deco and then the original blueprints for the homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But, then he retraced the steps of the geometricists through history, in art as well as architecture and anthropology. There is, of course, Maurits Cornelis Escher, the famous 20th century Dutch graphic artist who made mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs and mezzotints. And, then there is Picasso and Cubism and then the Roman baths and the classics of Greek antiquity and Islamic tile art. But, Zirinsky also makes the critical point that the geometricists, from the antiquity ages all the way through 20th century architecture and graphic arts and to the present, represent a continuously evolving learning curve because as extraordinary the designs were, there also were unresolved challenges. For example, Zirinsky mentions the problem of the Wright designs and what to do with the space in the back of the house. While the open plan of many of Wright’s designs reflected modern sensibilities about flexibility and freedom, the homes also exposed the residents to the prospect of being under continuous surveillance and loss of privacy. The effort to achieve harmony also requires some balance because of possible unintended disharmonizing effects. At some point, they run out of ideas and it’s up to the next group to take up the challenge.

Zirinsky’s patient journey toward becoming an artist sounds credible and common, especially when one sees that the most successful artists understand what it means to be realistic and grounded. While it may not be as apparent as at the festival’s various performing venues, an artist marketplace booth can become its own little performing space, as Zirinsky sees it. “You overhear lots of conversations with the artists and visitors,” he adds. “Some of it sounds like tall tales being told, I suspect. Some of it might be true but some of it also could be a bit exaggerated, which is fine.”

Perception, Mark Zirinsky.

Zirinsky says he enjoys watching the connection with his work during festivals. Sometimes, “it is emotional or intellectual. Some people might return to my booth five or six times and decide to buy it and sometimes they don’t,” he explains. One of his favorite memories from a festival showing came from Park City, Utah. He noticed a patron with a hangdog expression who seemed like the “unhappiest guy I’ve seen. Then he caught sight of one of my pieces and he reacted as if he had been in shock. He stood up tall and his head went back and I could see that he was grinning, as if he was the happiest guy in the world. I never spoke to him but I was happy to see that my work could have such a positive impact on someone.” 

Zirinsky’s designs for his art could take anywhere from hours in a day to months, or years, or it might never come to fruition. He keeps a sketchbook handy, which allows him to set aside a design and then return to it later. Some take even longer to germinate. Take, for example, Pong, the table tennis–themed twitch arcade sports video game by Atari developed in the early 1970s with two-dimensional graphics. Zirinsky remembers playing the game when he was 12 years old. Fifty-years later, the memory of a ping-pong ball bouncing around inside a frame became the inspiration for a piece. 

His show at the festival includes more than 20 new works. Following UAF, he will be in Michigan for shows in St. Joseph as well as the big Ann Arbor Street Art Fair. Other summer shows include stops in Washington, Colorado, Missouri and Kentucky.

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