On Color, Place, and Story: An Interview with Zoe Spiliotis

by Leslie Moody Castro September 16, 2022
Photo of the artist

Zoe Spiliotis

At times the desert can be a lonely place. The quiet is often only disrupted by the sound of the wind, and time seems to mostly just stand still. While it can be lonely, I was lucky to meet artist and educator Zoe Spiliotis during my time living and working in Las Cruces, New Mexico; our friendship became a reliable foundation during my time there. 

Through getting to know Zoe I learned about her commitment to her students, to teaching, and the ways that she goes out of her way to create opportunities for everyone she collaborates with. She is a tireless artist who invests as much time into her own practice as she does fostering and mentoring others. Zoe does a lot, and on top of it all she and I recently had a chance to catch up and talk about some of the things she has coming down the pipeline, including a solo exhibition of work with the Museum of Pocket Art, opening Friday, September 16th. 

Leslie Moody Castro (LMC): What is your biggest preoccupation or interest when you first start a painting or a work? 

Zoe Spiliotis (ZS): You might say I have a color obsession. So when I first start a painting, I usually see a specific color in a shape. From there it is really about building and creating chromatic events through color relationships. Like Josef Albers, I like to play with color relationships to change how we see each color, confuse space, or complicate our understanding of a pattern.

I believe I have a heightened sense of color because of my very poor eyesight. Without my medically necessary contacts, I can only see large areas of color, which is a pretty interesting experience in itself. That is probably where my interest in understanding our realities and shifts in perception comes from. However, my mentor and first painting professor at Moore College of Art & Design, Frank Hyder, taught me that painting is about color and shape. And when I reflect on how my paintings have evolved since that class, I can see that I have tried in my own way to reconcile the relationship between those two elements through my personal experiences with them. I enjoy color because I can see it clearly with all its intricacies, yet with shape, I am reliant on man-made interventions or systems to create it for me.

A colorful painting of pinks, greens, and yellows vertically oriented with lines rising to the top of the canvas

Zoe Spiliotis, “Ecstasy,” 2020.

LMC: How does this translate to the language of abstraction for you? 

ZS: All of my work is based on mathematical principles as a source for form, both artistically and conceptually. Geometric and simplified organic shapes, symbols, and symmetry are the framework I use to explore the complexities and duality of life. The tense, continually active figure-ground compositions reflect modernist aesthetics where every portion of a painting is of equal importance and treated with equal intensity. In the works, the repetition of patterns becomes its own space, with each shape supporting every other shape until they have no existence without each other. This creates a continuous space full of pulsating patterns, where color combinations are created and change with the spectator’s movement. Because these events unfold in time and space, the viewer is free to discover their ability to create and destroy color, and to examine their understanding of reality with their own perception from monocular cues.

LMC: Is scale something that you also think about? 

ZS: It is — I tend to work in extremes. I like big paintings that envelop you and pull you into the pattern, where you can see how your position as a viewer can change the patterns or colors you see. I also love making tiny pieces, because they allow me to work through color ideas quicker, and the pattern-to-color ratio seems to be more in balance; I think they feel more reflective/meditative than experienced. Right now, because my studio is in my house, I can’t work as large as I would like to.

LMC: When you are painting, do the associations of color and memory guide you? If so, how?  

ZS: I am fascinated by the idea that color can evoke memories. I certainly have color associations with my mother and my childhood in Florida. At three, my son even assigned our family colors to represent each of us. So, just like smell and taste, I believe color can also instantly transport you to another time and place or invoke memories of loved ones, though this isn’t as widely accepted. And yes, sometimes these associations come out in my paintings. If I am thinking about someone or something, I do notice that a painting’s palette as it evolves is influenced by those associations.

brightly colorful painting with a yellow orb in the center, gold lines extending to the top of the canvas and colorful abstract shapes on the bottom

Zoe Spiliotis, “Finding,” 2022, acrylic and mixed media, 25 x 17 inches.

LMC: How did this interest and obsession with color evolve into the Color Project?

ZS: I started wondering how I had been influenced by the colors of my environments, which ranged from New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, and El Paso/Las Cruces. I wondered, could I create a unique identifiable color palette that defines a specific place? Does every location have a unique, identifiable color palette that can define it? What can you learn about a place through its colors? And why are specific colors important to specific places? 

I also had to think about my own cultural color biases as a relatively “placeless” American. Like many others who have not stayed in a place long enough to develop storied roots, I had to search to understand my complex relationship to place, my attachment to place, the rootedness I do feel, and how each of the places I’ve lived have embodied their own identities through color for me. I also realized there is something magical about choosing your “place.” It reminds me of a cross-stitched piece that hung in my childhood foyer, which read “This corner of earth smiles for you.”

LMC: How does this apply to the region of El Paso/Las Cruces, where you have essentially landed with your family? 

ZS: Well, I love this unique place, southern New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Mexico. It is my chosen home; where I have experienced a profoundly emotional and spiritual connection that has allowed me to hear my intuition more clearly. I don’t think I am alone in this feeling, as many other women abstractionists have recounted similar feelings after landing in this region. The unique colors of El Paso’s Borderland region are rooted in its geography, culture, and varied traditions. Our colors contribute to memory and are generated by the location and the culture, which both store and transmit historical and cultural memory. 

At one point I was thinking about applying for a fellowship to explore these ideas of color and place, and Henry Bermudez, an artist friend from Venezuela, remarked on a painting of mine, saying: “This painting has an atmosphere that I identify with the color of the region where you are living, so it means that you are allowing yourself to be connected with your surroundings. The colors are describing a desertic region, nevertheless, these colors are joyful. Another thing is the mystical symbol on the top of the colored cone (circle) resembles the indigenous culture that still exists in that region. This painting in total is not just a good, well-painted painting, I see that you are interested in making geometric abstract art (which is in fashion now), but here you are humanizing this school of art, so this painting talks and I can hear it.”

Detail of a painting with two colorful cranes on each side of a dark sphere

Zoe Spiliotis, “Releve,” Detail, 2022, acrylic, 24 x 24 inches.

LMC: That is such an incredible compliment, and must have been so reassuring to hear since you really love the desert landscape around you and are so attuned to its colors. Did you apply for the grant? 

ZS: Yes! And I was the very first “Art” Humanities project awarded in the three years of the program, and earned the fellowship for my El Paso Color Project!

LMC: Congratulations! Can you elaborate on the program and how it relates to your role as an educator as well? 

ZS: I have been a Professor of Art at El Paso Community College (EPCC) for five years, and was awarded a Mellon Foundation-funded fellowship through the Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP, which seeks to strengthen the path of humanities students at El Paso Community College (EPCC) with increased academic, professional, and research options as they transition to the four-year humanities path at The University of Texas at El Paso. But what is also really important to my project is that it encourages an interest in research and a deeper understanding of art as a humanities topic. For me personally and professionally, one of the real values of this project is that it allowed the student fellows, who were not art majors, to be creators. It asked them to think like artists and to engage in the creative process — to be curious, look for possibilities, and experiment/play while being actively involved in the process of research; hopefully they take these skills with them throughout their academic careers. 

Accordion style piece with small, pocket sized paintingss

Zoe Spiliotis, “Pocket Colors”

LMC: What is the Colors Project, specifically?

ZS: El Paso Colors interprets the human experience through color, which is a non-verbal form of expression, and the most fascinating of the formal elements of art. It explores what we can learn about a place through its colors. As a digital humanities project, we sought to develop an identifiable color palette to represent the City of El Paso. The culmination of the research for this project is just starting to be published as a website that will feature the palette, associated color stories, color formulas, as well as photos illustrating the colors in use around El Paso.

It was a fun process; my student fellows and I gathered examples of colors from urban, suburban, and natural environments around El Paso digitally, using apps and cellphone/digital cameras. Then we worked together to categorize and identify colors or aspects of color that interested them enough to research further. This additional research entailed interviews, looking into the historical/cultural use of that specific color, finding references of the color in texts, and even documenting the process of making naturally derived pigments. It was also challenging because COVID restrictions did affect our types of research and ways we could carry out research, sometimes completely thwarting our plans and creating significant time barriers in the creation of the content. 

The painted interior of a bus

The interior of “The Color Project,” by Zoe Spiliotis and collaborators

LMC: What are short and long-term goals of this project, both for you and the student participants? 

ZS: I hope the experience of perusing the colors and their unique stories will challenge expectations and help people reconsider how we relate to color as a universal expression that shapes our environment, while also expressing people’s character and culture. Originally, I planned to organize an art exhibit with local artists and art students to create work inspired by the color palette and research. Ideally, it would be shown locally and then travel to other venues across the United States. I want viewers to make connections with place, whether they have visited or not. So for El Paso, using something as relatable and un-intimidating as color, is a way to counteract the ideas that have been propagated in the media about our city, our border, and our people.

However, planning this type of exhibit was another challenge because of COVID, and so for right now, we have partnered with the artist Laura Turon to transform her Traveling Paradox Art Bus into an interactive installation. Students from El Paso Community College helped transform the interior with a mural and designed chairs that were inspired by the color palette. Working with David Figueroa of Augment El Paso, my Drawing 2 class also created augmented reality drawings inspired by the color palette and their personal experiences within this region, which will be placed throughout the interior mural of the bus.

I do see this as an ongoing project, one that I will keep adding to and releasing new colors as I finish the research and documentation. I also hope to be able to recreate this project in other places. It would be amazing to have a view of our country or even the world through the visualization of color palettes.

LMC: This is such a well-rounded and ambitious project; has it influenced your own practice in any way? 

ZS: I would say yes, it gave me the confidence to continue exploring color as a subject. Also, I think it allowed me to reframe something I might have only thought of formally or as strictly “Art” into a larger Humanities context. Simply looking at elements of my work from a different perspective has created many ideas for future work.

Painting on paint chips

Zoe Spiliotis, “Thistle,” 2022 acrylic on paint chip, 5 x 2.25 inches.

LMC: What personal projects do you have coming up? 

ZS: So many exciting things! I am very honored to have a solo show of my tiny paintings at the Museum of Pocket Art, founded and directed by artist Robert Jackson Harrington, which opens on September 16th at The Contemporary Austin. Also, the Paradox Bus Installation from the El Paso Colors project will be finished and on display at El Paso Community College Transmountain campus in September and October. Lastly, a long-term project I have been working on — to create a nonprofit contemporary art gallery focused on women and other underrepresented artists in El Paso — is finally coming to fruition, and we hope to have our artist members and emerging artist rosters filled and some shows opening by the new year.



The El Paso Color Project opens at the El Paso Community College Transmountain campus on Thursday, September 29, 2022 from 5-9 pm.

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