Julie Klear is an art educator with a dedicated career working with children through the arts, in museums, schools, and prestigious galleries. She is also an award-winning product designer, children’s book illustrator, and painter. She was born in Germany and raised in Toledo, Ohio. Julie and her partner, Moulay Essakalli’s, passion and desire to create Zid Zid, is the natural evolution of personal and professional experiences. They are a husband and wife design team, working together as entrepreneurs in different parts of the world for the past 15 years while raising two trilingual children.
While maintaining Zid Zid, Julie is active as an artist, in that she creates all the paper-collage illustrations for Zid Zid and has continuing national exhibitions, including a current exhibit in collaboration with artist, Yto Barrada. She's worked internationally in Morocco, Bahrain, Belgium, the UAE and the USA.
Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?
Julie Klear: January of this year, it’s pretty new to me at this point. I hadn't really started fully using it until about a month ago.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
JK: It was pretty much outfitted the way it is currently. They left it pretty raw, and I like it that way. The previous tenet left the shelving and the table. She was a designer so she left this really wonderful textile desk.
F-D: Has the location of the studio (i.e the neighborhood, city, building etc) influenced your work in any way?
JK: Over the Rhine is just such a great community, and in the 90’s I lived right over by Findlay Market and so it’s all familiar territory. I think it’s great that it’s going through such a renaissance. At the same time, you cross Central Parkway here, over further into the west end, and it’s like no-man’s land, which I kind of like. Everything is within walking distance, but the fact that I'm a few blocks off the main path, I get some distance. I also think that the neighborhood is just so visually appealing: all of the architecture, textures, and other details lend itself to a certain aesthetic.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself, inside the studio and out?
JK: It’s a little crazy, because I’m a painter at heart, and that’s so contrarian to running a tech company. Balancing those two worlds can be really challenging at times, but it's a pleasurable challenge because tech is great at opening boundaries and retelling experiences that don’t necessarily exist, at least when your designing for a child. When I design for children I’m really looking at how they interact, play, and learn from the world. I'm presuming here and I could be wrong, but it seems that designers that develop infotainment games for children don’t seem to have the entire child in mind. The market seems to be about the game-ification of education, and I don’t really subscribe to that as a method of learning. I would like to take whatever creative experiences that I have and apply them to creating experiences for children. We're taking into account the entire child.
I make everything analog. Then we add in storylines and other digital components. People collectively have learned about the world through stories for centuries. Children are no different. They use stories and narratives to learn languages and connect with each other. Having a certain aesthetic to the work is very important to me. We could hire a digital artist and save a lot of time with me not hand painting every single texture, but those things bring a level of sophistication— children can appreciate great design. They know when something is made well and created in a healthy way, but they don’t always get those opportunities to explore design or interact with design of a high standard. So I try to keep the design bar set high, because they set the bar high, and I want to meet their expectations and challenge them at the same time. That’s a very long winded way to explain that I split my day between creative things, managing, writing content, or simply spending time in the studio creating visual components.
F-D: Does that framework work for you? Do you try to separate those activities or can they live within the same day? What does that look like for you?
JK: Before moving in here I was working out of our home. I had the somewhat typical installment of “I’ll paint over here, and I’ll have my computer space over here, my collages here, the laundry here. . .” I was productive in that space, but now that the company is expanding I need a little bit more room to work and breathe. Having a studio outside of the house, I can now utilize the space to assist in restructuring my time. I don’t have to break my day into minutes— I can schedule whole days where I’m in one location and performing one sort of task.
F-D: That’s good—because it’s been my observation that artists whom run a business work one of two ways: they either work on small parts of their projects in tiny segments of time all day long, sort of hopping from responsibility to responsibility or they separate by days; needing that quiet and distance of breaking those varying thought processes apart.
JK: It helps having a co-founder. I think if I didn't have him (Moulay), Zid Zid wouldn't be where it is today, as Moulay is so good at always pushing the ball further - whereas I prefer to be working in the studio. We share a good balance of responsibilities overall, which helps tremendously when running your own business
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
JK: I would say that everything I make for Zid Zid is kid centric. Then I have my own body of work that I’d say is more abstract, but the two feed off of each other. Most of these works that you see here are simply a way to stay active and play with a sense of composition and form. I just consider them sketches. I’d say that the sketches are important for me because I don’t really have the luxury of time to make paintings for myself— but if I can get these sketches done, that works to keep my mind flowing and hands loose.
For Zid Zid, we keep a very DIY story board, where we loosely sketch out the storylines and plots of each story. I prefer to keep everything as movable pieces. Myself and our digital artist are building up a digital archive of images for Zid Zid. I draw everything out, paint, and collage by hand and then we digitize them, and save the digital versions for multiple uses. We start with a basic storyboard: if we have a story about a tiger, we have two “views” or “perspectives” for that tiger. We’ll have him/her standing on two feet or all four. We did a whole unit, or nine learning quests, that are all based in things that the kids are being taught in class already: numbers, colors, letters. . . that sort of idea. Then we use visuals to help tell and narrate what those stories are. So the story line with that may be something around the lines of (keep in mind this is geared for pre-schoolers), let's say, the tiger is hungry and he proceeds to eat all of the shapes until all of the shapes are gone. Then there may be a song that goes along with the shape eating story and then we’ll have a handful of activities in which the child would be able to interact with shape, using the five senses, it may be a solo game or it may be an interactive game that they all play with one another. It’s very experiential in the classroom, in that sense. There is also printed accompaniment and a teacher’s aid for the teaching of the material.
F-D: So to clarify, you are working to teach secondary language skills through teaching material that the teachers are already covering at this level: is it an immersive language teaching program? Similar to how a child would learn a secondary language in the home?
JK: Yes. Exactly. I wouldn’t quite say it’s immersive; but it’s similar. We like to see it as a dovetail within the classroom because, as you can imagine, the teachers are already so busy. We simply suggest that they lay the multiplicity of language on top of the material that they are already teaching— a lens if you will. That way they are getting reinforced teaching of the english language and material, with the added benefit of incorporating Spanish into the narrative. Another component of Zid Zid is our approach to teaching children to play in the tactile way that we had the opportunity to learn when we were children.
F-D: What mediums do you work with?
JK: Sumi ink and gauche, found paper. Digital media after the fact.
F-D: Are you collaborating with any musicians or producers for sound design? Where is that coming from?
JK: The songs within the videos are all pulled from traditional folk songs. We use songs that the children and teachers are already familiar with that way they aren’t having to memorize a song on top of understand the language.
F-D: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?
JK: For Zid Zid or just in general?
F-D: Either, or?
JK: I think in general it’s just about constant looking and continuing to push yourself. That has to happen before any work can be made. That’s how you continue that evolution.
F-D: What does that look like for you?
JK: I think, just being present and inspired by where I am. Morocco was a huge influence. I’ve brought it with me both in memory and in images: especially Moroccan trees, I simply Iove them. I love Midwestern trees, too. That sort of stuff percolates in my head all of the time, but where I am is really important, I really try to draw inspiration from wherever that is.
F-D: Do you do that with or without comparing the two?
JK: I try not to compare, but I realize that I do. I feel like my brain is split in two ways: I have my Midwestern brain and my Moroccan brain.
F-D: How are they different?
JK: For me, there is something so grounding about Ohio. I always find myself coming back to it. There is something that is really. . . I don't know. . . perhaps it’s the Andrew Wyeth aesthetic? It helps anchor everything that Morocco is for me. Morocco, for me, is so wild, challenging, and exotic. Morocco is home for me too. . . but, now that I have a studio, I think that I’m going to work to make a body of images that pulls from those two contrarian ideas of home and speaks to both of those places. That idea rumbles around in my brain a lot and that leads me to believe that I’ve gotta put it down on paper.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your making?
JK: I don’t really consider the work that I make to be autobiographical— seeing as how most of the making that I’m doing is for Zid Zid. It’s not necessarily autobiographical. But personal history definitely affects my making— I always had educators and artists around when I was young. I know how important early childhood education is, and how important those experiences are. That feeds into everything. I’m just trying to provide access to good design and aesthetic to a space where children don’t really have that opportunity. It’s a different way of seeing or interacting.
F-D: Do you think there is a little bit of childhood activism in that?
JK: For sure.
F-D: Perhaps a reaction to a stagnated educational system and structure that we reside within?
JK: Yes, and the little ones are just on screens all of the time now. More than they need to be, and the parents don’t realize it because they are on screens just as much. It’s no fault to them, I feel like oftentimes they just don’t know any better. So if there is something I can do to combat that, then I feel pretty good about doing something. I’m trying to use a digital tool to take kids back into an interactive and analog space. The screen is simply a tool in the same way that a pen and pencil can be. We try to participate in everything except passive consumption. We want to activate the learning.
FD: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
JK: I think forward thinkers in early childhood education are a big inspiration for me. Ann Wiseman is a big inspiration. I absolutely love her book The Best of Making Things. She just died recently. She was an artist and she kind of lived in the same mode of thinking. She goes and illustrates all of these super DIY toys, some are super dated (the book was written in the 70’s) but I love the aesthetic of the making and the aesthetic of passing on information. It's really wonderful. There are tons and tons of children’s authors— I’m not even going to try to list all of them.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
JK: I can make a mess an leave it and not have to share.
F-D: Has it affected your making yet? I know you just moved in here, but have you felt or observed any changes?
JK: Yea, a little bit. I feel like I have more space for artistic layouts, which of course helps. I am fluctuating between all of my materials. Before, I was at one table and I had to clean it up in order to move on to the next thing. I am curious to see how this will affect me moving forward, because I have that space for Zid Zid, but I also have space for my own work. I’m interested to see how the space will influence all of it together.
F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
JK: No. I feel like I’m perhaps involved in a childhood education movement— if you even want to call it that. I’m just attempting to teach children to have sensory awareness and be well rounded, functioning, people. I’m not so sure if that is a movement so much as just an expectation and hope, but. . . I would say that my aesthetic isn’t really active in any grouping of artists. I don’t really think that I could fit my personal work into a show, I’m not sure of any mold that I’d fit into.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
JK: I go by no motto. You pin yourself any the second you have any type of motto.
F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?
JK: I just tell them about Zid Zid.
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
JK: In terms of aesthetic, the work that I do is really safe. There is nothing edgy about painting tigers and flowers. But the context in which the work is created is a bit dangerous. It would be really easy for me to create a digital game or easily consumable app. What we are doing here; producing great content that takes into account the whole child, is a lot a more risky, I suppose. It’s not the aesthetic that’s edgy, but more of the approach.
F-D: Has there been any financial or personal risks?
JK: Oh, yea! I’m a huge risk taker. Even the building that my studio is situated in is a bit of a risk— there is a huge hole in the floor on the other side of the building! Risk hasn’t really ever frightened me though. I just dive into things and they tend to work out.
F-D: Words of Wisdom?
JK: Try to stay outside of your comfort zone. I think in order to create, you have to stay outside of that.
F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
JK: Zid Zid is continuing of course.
F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
JK: I’m in a show up in New York. Once Upon a Forest, the Animal Spring. It’s based on a set of flashcards that an artist friend of mine and I made. When we made them we were inspired by the Arab Spring in 2009. We were inspired by the protests that were precursors to our contemporary moment in tragedy. We wanted to pull from imagery of Moroccan animals that you don’t really see represented. We had a story line questioning what would happen if all of the animals began to protest and they begin to stand up for themselves. We made a set of flashcards based on that idea and it’s in four languages: English, French, Arabic, and Dutch. That’s the baseline of the work, but at the end of the day it’s an interactive place for children to learn those four languages. Then we provide ten little ways for kids to play and interact with the game. We also provide material for kids to make their own protest poster. Now, the exhibition in New York is based on this, but at a larger scale. Within the exhibit, we have animals that are based on these images, as well as trees and buildings; large, double-printed cardboard cutouts. The story line that’s introduced is that the city is growing and the humans keep cutting down the trees and the animals have no where to live, and what do they do? Do they fight? Do they cry? Do they make a plan? What do you do if your space is being taken away? The kids can come in and re-arrange the cut-outs and execute an idea for a solution. They can transform the space back into a garden. That show is at FIAF Gallery and a part of the TILT Kids Festival and is extended through April 6th.