In the Studio with Christina Saj

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday June 23, 2022

Christina Saj, a New Jersey-based artist whose work was recently on view at the Ukranian Museum, will soon finish her month-long EFA Studios residency, in Hell’s Kitchen. I visited her there this week to see her most recent paintings and to find out more about her work and process.

Peggy Roalf: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work? 
CS: I love and need open space. Space to live, space to think and to work. I live in Northern NJ, near Montclair, in a house that overlooks a reservoir and abuts a forest. I always seem to gravitate to open space that has a view and a clearing to hang out in. A place to focus the gaze and one that offers a way to absorb the changes in the world around me, the weather, the passersby, and even whether it is day or night. It’s how I find my bearings. 

PR: Please describe your work space and how it serves the artist’s basic condition of working alone. 
CS: I have a studio that is broken down into different areas for different activities. This provides the ability to work in different techniques and on a variety of interests and not have them to erode oneanothers’ gestation. I can paint, then take up a different area for work on the computer, do construction, metal or wood work.

PR: I understand that you’ve studied traditional arts of Ukraine, including icon painting. Could you tell the readers how you go about deconstructing some of the motifs that create narratives originally meant to teach the illiterate in order to create specific meanings for your own art?

CS: I studied Byzantine Iconography closely, working in egg tempera, learning to create works for church use. These icons relay familiar stories that originated in the Medieval era. Working as a contemporary artist and wanting to create work that resonates in the world today, it became quickly apparent that much of the specific symbolism in this tradition is lost or simply unknown to the wider audience of contemporary art. However, there is a real, common thread across different cultures. Mankind has explained the world through a variety of traditions and today, looking through many lenses we see that our stories often aren’t so dissimilar. My fascination with sacred space and holy object, and the care with which they are made is something I naturally embrace. 

PR: Your work appears to be very process driven—in the sense that materials, from metal and gold leaf to household objects that become stencils to found objects, like vinyl LPs find their way into your abstractions. Can you describe your process of choosing or finding materials and in going from the finding to creating the works themselves? 

CS:  I have an established personal visual vocabulary and subjects that at this point have engaged me for decades. The impetus for a new work often starts with an individual object or its qualities. We all have biases and things we love. For me it’s color and rhythm. I also respond to materials, so I’m always picking stuff up for texture, shape and surface – and letting it inform my process.  Something about a found item will spark an idea about a shape, a color, a texture that feels like a piece of something known to me. Because my personal process is about collecting, arranging and building, there is always an element of collage in the work.

PR: I understand that finding meaning in ritual objects, such as religious icons, has been a theme that runs through your work over time. Can you tell the readers about how you arrived at this motif as a subject [and how it has evolved in some of the themes in your current work?

CS: One doesn’t need to be a careful student of art history to realize that for hundreds of years religious subjects have engaged all the great artists. Though this is no doubt due to patronage, you can’t ignore that these works examine the human condition which has preoccupied all of humanity for centuries– and so much of this work is uplifting. As humans we strive to understand the complex and rich world in which we live. As artists we attempt to articulate things that other people may sense but not be able to express. 

When we think of the work of art that helps us to an “Aha!” moment – there is often a combination of ingredients. For me, there is “Beauty,” there is a sense of capturing something you can’t quite understand, something elusive, something magic – perhaps some inexplicable zone where hope comes from. The tradition of icon painting is what resonates for me; it portrays the invisible through the familiar and gives shape to ancient religious narratives. Many people have referred to my latest collection on vinyl as “joyful.” In making this work during the pandemic, I wanted to be reminded to have hope and that life is beautiful and worth living.


PR: How do you clear your head when distractions, such as the war in Ukraine, interfere with work?

CS: It is very hard to block out the big distractions; I am not sure that you can, and in the case of mass horror and genocide I am not sure that we should. Sometimes, we must listen to the distractions and let them inform our approach and just keep going, one foot in front of the other. I love Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a step-by-step guide on writing. I think that really is how you do any art. Once you get solidly into the project, bit by bit, it distracts you back to “flow” and then we are exactly where we are supposed to be. 

PR: What is the most indispensable tool or medium in your studio? 

CS: My natural thought was to suggest a specific tool and yet, I realize that I can create art almost anywhere and with pretty lean tools and materials. The things I most rely on are color and the ability to build work out of some initial inspiration that often comes from materials (often found or scavenged objects) and my ideas around them. New directions in my work evolve by some outside stimulus and create an opportunity to shift and grow the work, a spark as it were. If I had to pick something that is a constant in the work, it might be my interest in metallic surfaces. The integration of metallic and reflective materials gives an added dimension to the work. I’ve come to arrive at it in many different ways. So I don’t have a single method—or tool—to do it and am always intrigued by new possibilities.

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

CS:  There are so many influences, but presently, I am acutely aware of being Ukrainian, which is something that formerly was easy to take for granted, as it was just part of my background. It afforded me another language, another culture and another body of literature. Naturally, I’ve been exposed to tons of folk art, a rich heritage of embroidery and weaving: my grandmother was a weaver and very creative. So color texture and pattern are a huge inspiration. The basic patterns of criss cross, tree of life, sun and moon are the fabric of human existence and not specific to any one culture. I’ve studied a lot of art history and of course enjoy Medieval and Byzantine art but also have a serious love of Modernism—that moment when color took off in new directions and was used for its emotion rather than to describe objects. That said, I also often listen to music as it removes me from the immediate surroundings and helps reach another place where the work can happen. 

CS: I definitely keep physical notebooks for reference materials and ideas. I collect online images to inspire, and I have a library and there are hundreds of years of examples to draw from. I spend some time exploring and absorbing and then put it down and go work painting. My work is built up as the result of layering and juxtaposing images, influences and ideas to make up a composite that holds together. 

PR: Do you see a lot of museum and gallery shows? What’s the best takeaway from seeing art shows in person?

CS: I try to see art whenever I can. Anytime I go to a new place it’s how I size up the place. The best shows are the ones that send you home with tons of ideas, that you learned something and feeling truly inspired and/or amazed.


PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?
CS: My process is pretty uncomplicated. I start with the skeleton and then flesh in the details. It is a bit like a puzzle and once the pieces fit right, I know I’m done. I work on many things at the same time, which keeps me from overworking things. I have a somewhat obsessive approach and this approach affords opportunity for my focus to be dispersed. Finally, I want to allow for imperfection. I want you to see my hand and that a person made this. It should not feel mechanical or machine-made. 

Christina Saj’s abstract paintings reveal a fascination with vivid color and rich patterns rooted in modernism and the tradition of sacred paintings informed by her training with Byzantine iconographer Petro Kholodny, the Younger. Saj holds a BFA in Painting from Sarah Lawrence, and MFA from Bard College, and studied Byzantine Art History at Oxford University. Her work has been widely exhibited, including such venues as the Museum of Biblical Art, The National Cathedral, The Ukrainian Museum in New York, The Museum of Cultural Heritage (Kyiv, Ukraine), The National Museum in Lviv (Ukraine), the American Embassy in Qatar, and the White House.

Instagram @christinasaj