Actor, Photographer, Singer & Poet: Lucien Zell is an all-round talent in the sphere of arts. His current exhibition at Café Styl and Interier is an absolute delight – and the stories behind the photos are captivating. If you find yourself near Václavské náměstí – or need a reason to visit Old Town once in a while – stopping by the café to look at ‘The Howl between Us’ is absolutely wonderful and highly recommended.
We got to meet this multifaceted artist at the place of his current exhibition. Reclining beneath his ‘Mona Lisa of Prague’, we settled down for a cup of coffee with him and got to speak about his life, works and the art scene in Prague.
Shaped and honed from an early age, molded by the urge to find what ‘keeps him hungry,’ Lucien Zell is a meteoric talent both in Prague and the international art scene. Starting out with a career as an actor at only 6 years old, he quickly discovered a taste for theatre and cinematography. It seems fitting, looking at the birthplace of the artist.
Born in Los Angeles, California, the artist’s early life seems to fit the stereotypical view we have of Hollywood. But Lucien didn’t settle for acting – he quickly picked up photography, his first camera being a Pentax K1000 without any of the typical features that digital cameras come with nowadays.
With a difficult tool in hand, he had to learn how to get the angle, saturation, light and shutter speed just right, to reach the desired goal. Once he mastered the camera, he went on to write extraordinary poetry and fiction and compose and perform remarkable music.
Today, we get to sit underneath one of his masterworks: The Mona Lisa of Prague. Nestled in the green and lively garden of Café Styl and Interier – just off Václavské náměstí – it is the crown piece of the garden; mesmerizing and beautiful.
Exhibition @ Styl A Interier
Next to the black and white shot of Prague’s Mona Lisa, visitors of Lucien Zell’s exhibition will find extracts from everyday life. Moments that seem so precious and yet pass us by without us noticing. Lucien has a talent for capturing these moments, telling stories of the exceptional aspects of each human’s life.
Entering through the alley, we are greeted by Lucien’s latest photography series ‘The Howl Between Us‘. The surrealistic style of his photographs is uncanny. They tell stories of life as we know it – and hint at the aspects of it that escape us.
As we follow the pictures into the garden, we meet Lucien lounging in one of the deck chairs in the back. With a cup of coffee and a piece of cheesecake on site, we get to talk with him about life, what led him to Prague and what the art scene in the city looks like through the lens of the Howling Eye.
Coffee Talks with the Howling Eye
Lucien, we are sitting in front of your new book called «Tiny Kites», an assortment of poems full of heart and creativity. All the while we get to marvel at the beautiful shots you’ve taken all around the world. You are an actor, photographer, singer & poet – a lot of talents for one person!
Lucien: (laughs) It seems like a lot of professions in one, yes. But what really made me pursue all these different paths, I can’t quite tell. It was as if they found me at different times in life. Born with only one hand, I like to think that my third hand is grasping slightly more than the eye can see.
And you do! «The Howling Eye», which is your artist name for your photography seems to catch glimpses of everyday life that are precious and yet often remain unseen. You are working in 4 different art spectrums. But what came first?
I think first came a desire to express my spirit. When you’re born with only one hand, people look at you as if you are less than them or that you are somehow limited. When I was 6 years old, auditioning for a role in the theatre, I realised that when I am able to express what’s in me, people would realize ‘hey, this person is not less capable at all!‘ Instead I had something extra: a hidden aspect of myself that I could reveal and share with them and that allowed them to look past my physical limitations. So acting was really the first thing that I loved.
What was your first role?
They changed the name from the initial title ‘The Witch’ to ‘The Warlock’ – and I played the warlock. So my first role was as a magician.
Landing the main part as a 6 year old kid! That is unbelievable! And did acting consume all of your time and energy in the years to come?
Some, but not all. After acting came photography. I took a course when I was 14 years old and was fortunate enough to get the rudimentary experience that you need when first starting something. I had a Pentax K1000 camera – one of the simplest cameras that you can still call a camera. With film, of course. Because the instrument I had was so basic, I was forced to learn about the essential relationship between shutter speed, aperture and depth of field. So I learned the roots of photography – and then I built a dark room in my house.
In your house?
It’s actually not as hard as it sounds. It’s a lot harder on paper than in reality. All you need is to find a room that you can make completely dark. I had a closet with only one small window – it was perfect. One thing that came with it, though, is that dark, small rooms don’t tend to have adequate ventilation. So there were many days where I would spend several hours in the red-lit darkness and come out bathed in sweat, feeling kind of high. Kind of a low high, I must say!
This was already in Seattle – where you lived for 8 years after leaving California. It seems as though not only in the arts spectrum you have several places you like, but also in the world. What made you choose Prague? What made you burst the California dream bubble?
Well I think it is true that California does represent a kind of frontier, a pioneering spirit. And that’s because people always thought life was better further west. California, however, is the furthest west you can go, before you go east again. It’s the center of a very interesting culture. However, I guess I felt this boomeranging call back to my roots. My ancestors lived in Europe and so it felt like coming home to me. Also, America represents so many things. I think the best way I heard it described is in the lyrics of the song ‘Democracy‘ by Leonard Cohen: ‘The cradle of the best and of the worst.’
“I just felt this boomeranging call back to my roots.”
I’m glad I experienced it, though. I also think that if I hadn’t experienced it already, I would have this hunger and curiosity to explore it. But because I’d already tasted it and plumbed its depths, I was able to let go of it.
I then dropped out of art school – despite having a full four-year scholarship – for personal reasons. At first, I planned on going back, but quickly had to admit that I wouldn’t. Europe was in my head and I knew once I was there, I’d never come back. It wasn’t a vacation from my life, it was my life.
And yet you managed to become a professional actor, photographer, writer and singer. People can now listen to your album ‘Fall into Flight’ online and marvel at your pictures in the city. Part of your collection is a striking image called ‘Making a Dying’ – it puts the beholder in a position where they ride a train with three people who are completely exhausted. Is this your approach… to instill a question in people?
Sure. The title refers to the fact that in ‘making a living’ we are often just making a dying. I recently encountered a statistic that said 74% of people in America are unhappy in their jobs. The natural reaction to this is ‘well, that’s so sad that all these people don’t do what they love.’
But the reality is that we all know people that are facing this fight and stumble in the trenches and get their hearts shattered in the daily war of survival that to a degree our civilisation has fostered. And that simply means it’s not a question of them wanting to make a dying, but they just can’t manage to make a living doing what they love.
That’s what I tried to show in my picture. One of the biggest compliments I’ve received about it was when someone asked me if I had staged it – when it really was just lucky timing. The organic surrealism of everyday life. It’s one of these moments you can’t completely believe that you are witnessing – which seems so normal and yet we are often not present enough to fully catch these exceptional moments.
Have you made a dying before?
Oh absolutely! I’ve been blessed, because I did not have this circumstance as much as many other people… Part of it comes when trying to make a living exclusively through doing what you love. As an artist, if I was hoping to make my daily bread solely from exhibitions like this one, well, I would be sleeping under a bridge. I mean if I didn’t have plenty of other projects going on at the same time.
I am happy we get to talk about this subject. Prague attracts a lot of artists: be it musicians, photographers, painters, writers… I encounter a lot of people that came here because they claim Prague has helped them to find their muse. Yet they find it hard to find platforms or options to exhibit, show their work. How do you deal with this issue? And do you think it is easier in Prague than anywhere else you’ve lived?
Prague is a muse for me. At times I feel like I’ve been seduced by its architecture. It can become a kind of idol worship, however, if you’re there just for the elegant buildings. You’ve asked a really good but really tough question. I don’t think it’s that easy in Prague – then again, I don’t think it’s truly easy for artists anywhere.
The grass is greener on the other side of the fence – as we know. But the grass is actually greener where you water it! In fact there’s a proverb I’ve recently encountered: “The grass is greener on the other side of the fence… but it’s harder to mow.” You gotta water the grass where you are and it’s gonna be difficult.
“The grass is greener on the other side – as we know. But the grass is actually greener where you water it.” – Lucien Zell
If I was in LA I would have more opportunities language-wise, here I’m in an English-language ghetto – but that would also mean I’d face an immense amount of competition. Here you can stand out a little bit as a foreigner and I also think there is a subtle element to being a foreigner in Prague. I don’t have the same expectations thrown upon me as a Czech artist would, for instance. But no, it really isn’t easy.
Especially if you are trying to navigate towards your own vision and at the same time you are working to comprehend the commercial element of art. It will always try to divert you to a different vision. And the question is how stubborn you are – like Modigliani, who never had a single exhibition. His only exhibition in Paris was shut down, before it opened, for nudity – his pictures lying next to the building on the street, not worth a dime. Nowadays they go for millions of dollars. If he would have tucked in his head (and his necks) a little bit and made something more in tune with the modern trends of his particular time he would’ve been able to at least make some money. But he refused and that is why his paintings are now some of the world’s most treasured pieces.
So basically, ‘eating dirt’ has made some of the world’s most well-known artists big. Do you think that eating the aforesaid dirt, in an odd way, keeps artists going?
That’s a great question. I have a feeling I would love to be part of an organization that would start the ‘Van Zant Prize.’ The idea behind this is that it would give a young artist enough money for the rest of their lives. They would never have to work for money in their life again. Upon discussing this with people, one question that arises is: How much of Van Gogh’s brilliance was linked to his suffering? How much was that existential threat of poverty part of his productivity? And Van Gogh was supported by his brother, Theo. What about all those people out there that don’t have a Theo? What about all the almost Vincents…?
I would love to start the prize as an experiment in democracy. It would take the top echelon of artists to agree to pay an art tax of something like 0.1 % of their income. This would be enough for probably around 100 artists to receive the Van Zant Prize each year.
I would also love if artists connected more with each other, abandoning this feeling of competition. Say you have a slice of pizza – and you don’t want to share it. But why fight over a slice of pizza, when you can get to know one another and together take over the pizzeria? The pizzas, with all kinds of toppings, will just keep coming. I really hope that more people in the art scene can come together and comprehend the surprising strength of unity.
Talking about your phrase, “the organic surrealism of everyday life.” You got to encounter a very different real life when working on your series ‘Intimacy – Into Me You See’ for which you accompanied a refugee family for a week, taking the beholder along on the journey you went through. How was that week for you? And how does one get to the point of following a refugee family through such a difficult time?
I actually came about this project through a friend, Antonio Cossa, who wanted to travel to the Southern border of Hungary, leading to Serbia. To get shots of refugees for the media. Antonio said: “Come with me!” And I was torn between excitement and distress – but eventually I went.
Antonio had to leave due to duties back in Prague and I decided to stay. This was right after the Hungarians had closed the border to Serbia. I couldn’t just give up – like Vaclav Havel, when I decide to do something, I do it. I walked blindly, spied a dragonfly over my head, took it as a sign of divine dispensation, and the next thing I knew I was crouched in the grass with a refugee family. This is also when I took what I think is my best shot of the series – it’s also in the current exhibition: Child of the Road.
People sometimes ask ‘How can you photograph people who are suffering?’ The great Brazilian photographer Salgado was asked that very same thing and he answered: “The lens becomes a microphone.” And I hope that’s what I managed to do with my project. After a week in Serbia, going to camps and bus stations, however, I was burned out. It felt like… instead of the illicit joy of crashing a wedding, I was crashing a funeral. And I felt uncomfortable sticking my camera in suffering people’s faces.
You also wrote two novels, one of them a rather light-hearted story called ‘Invisible Bars’ which is available, in Czech translation, in book stores throughout the country. What is it about?
It’s about a traveler that goes to surreal, crazy bars all over the planet. He returns and tells his stories. So the book is essentially a night of storytelling and the bars are really fantastical. For instance, there’s a bar where you have to be drunk to get in. There’s even a breathalyzer out front. But once you’re inside they only serve supremely rare waters like ‘the rain on Saint Helena the morning Napoleon died,’ for example. And those waters affect you in strange ways. That’s just one of a myriad assortment of other wild bars. So far, the book has been quite successful in Czech.
Now for the picture in front of us. Who is the Mona Lisa of Prague?
She’s my oldest daughter Eden Hanna! It was taken in Hungary and because she herself is a photographer it was incredibly easy to get the picture just right.
It’s not just Lucien’s photography and books that are fantastic – he recently produced an album that you can listen to online – and buy your favourite track with a simple click, supporting a local artsman. Hungry for some good tunes? Here’s the link to Lucien’s latest album ‘Fall Into Flight’. Or, if you feel like voting today for more art in the world, you can go straight to Lucien’s Patreon page.
Haven’t checked out Lucien’s work yet? Then you should definitely plan to visit his exhibition in Styl and Interier Café, Vodickova 35 just off Vaclavske Namesti. And while you’re there, why not sip on a cup of coffee or one of their delicious lemonades? Happy exploring!
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