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Seyburn Zorthian

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  • 20150609221044-free_jazz_for_web
  • 20150609221050-chromaticism_for_web



Birth year

Lives in
Santa Barbara

Works in


CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), 1971, BFA
Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles CA, 1967
The San Francisco Art Institute, 1966

abstract, drawing, painting

Bio, Statement, and CV

Biography as an Artist

The work I have pursued for the last four decades is rooted in my early love of the American and European abstractionists of the forties and fifties.  The direction and ongoing tenor of my painting was deeply influenced by my upbringing in a sophisticated social environment that exposed me to contemporary art, architecture, music (especially jazz), and design, as well as the art of the past masters. 

My study of abstract calligraphy in Japan further developed this foundation.  During a stay in Kyoto in the seventies, I studied an abstract form of sumi (black carbon-based ink) and brush writing called Shoudo.  I came back to the studio and began exploring the expressive possibilities of the Asian calligraphy brushes (some very large) with sumi.  I worked from the human form, developing a unique process in which I collaborated with a model moving to music, asking him or her to stop in mid-dance, and used brushwork to express the inner and outer lines of the form.

Simultaneously, I felt the need to continue drawing with pencil, charcoal, and ink from life: specifically, more work with the human figure, the face, and occasionally other subjects of the natural world. Throughout the seventies and eighties, the sumi brushwork became more of an inner expression of my own perception, while my drawing gave me a deeper understanding of the physical form of the subject itself.  I began to combine these two media in the same piece, which allowed me to integrate the outer aspects of my subjects with a representation of the emotions they evoked from me.  Throughout this time I balanced my brushwork practice with abstract color composition, working primarily in oil. 

Finally, in the later eighties and into the nineties, I combined these media as well, drawing on a method of the Italian Renaissance painters.  Traditionally these painters created the highlights and shadows of a composition with a neutral earth tone, before applying color by layering translucent glazes.  When water-based sumi is dry, oil-based paint does not disturb it, so I found this technique effective when integrating color with my basic black ink design.  I discovered that I could maintain the sumi brushwork bones of the composition, while integrating color in a way that married the two elements to create a dynamic visual relationship.

From 2002 to 2008, I explored a totally different approach.  I gave my attention to creating abstract color compositions on paper, often on a very small scale, and allowing a longer period of sustained development for each piece.  These pieces were rarely dependent on the foundation of an initial dominant brushstroke, but the calligraphic line sometimes remained present as a playful and rhythmic element instead.  They were more deeply informed by my earlier oil color compositions.

By 2009, the study of complementary primary and secondary colors was at the center of my ongoing development.  Because the eye sees the comparative relationship between two colors—rather than experiencing them as unvarying absolutes—I found that I could track the transformation of a single color in a calligraphic line moving from one background to another.  Interested in the overall effect of a painting on the eye and the emotions, I created with the aim that the viewer could experience the work as pure sensation in the body. 

The entire 2002-2008 period of compositional work—and the exercises in color relationships that followed—represented a major exploratory divergence from years of devotion to expressive sumi brushwork, and a crucial step toward my current large-scale work. 

My recent work—the Rhythm and Movement series—brings together what I explored in an earlier period of large-scale color relationship pieces with a conscious return to the ongoing influence of movement and music on my work.  My convoluted path here has given me a rich repertoire of techniques (both Eastern and Western, traditional and contemporary) to draw on in manifesting these ideas visually.  I am reintegrating the expressive brushstroke technique that I disciplined over decades of earlier work, but in a different medium with different properties and possibilities.  Returning to the very large sumi brushes, but now using them with acrylics, I combine the brushstroke foundation of my work—taking on a new energy from the period of rhythmic play in the 2000s—with color variations and other abstract visual elements, occasionally including oil and metal leaf.

Read more about the current paintings in the Artist’s Statement below.

Artist’s Statement, 2015

In my early training with the Shoudo master in Kyoto, I was exposed to the work of Japanese calligraphers whose art centered on interpreting those characters of the writing system for which they had accumulated a deep personal affinity.  The meanings of these characters resonated with their own lives, imbuing the shapes with special significance.  Because of my different cultural and linguistic background, I lacked the personal connection to the writing system.  Instead, my task as a student of Shoudo was to master the brushwork as a means to focus the ephemeral emotions and experiences of the instant of painting into a bold visual expression of the energy of the moment.  On returning to my studio in California, I continued to practice this highly disciplined approach to brushwork, developing some new parameters in place of traditional ones.  I began to merge Shoudo techniques with figurative gesture drawing, abstracting the figure as Shoudo abstracts a calligraphic character.  This work involved painting many focused single-stroke pieces, from which I selected those that had the greatest integrity of line and coherence as compositions. 

During these years of working with the single stroke of brush and ink, I had the feeling there was something left out.  I was missing an integral and meaningful part of my own American/European culture.  It emerged that while I valued the access to the ephemeral moment facilitated by the calligraphic brushwork, the process dramatically limited each piece’s further development.  The termination of the stroke simultaneously marked the end of the process and the end of the brief moment it recorded.  Eventually this limitation grew stifling and gave rise to my new challenge: to integrate the single skeletal stroke, the expression of the moment, with color and other elements to create a composition that cohered as a whole, all without diminishing the original energy and focus.  Those efforts have been realized in these recent large-scale paintings, which express the immediacy of the moment, further developed with a greater sense of emotional and aesthetic depth.

The first brushstroke—rooted in my earlier expressive brushwork practice—usually becomes the bones of the painting, and directs the course and character of the composition.  Thereafter the color and movement of each brushstroke is a response to a previous stroke, improvising like dance partners. (In choreographing a dance, each step gives rise to the subsequent step.)  Thus all other elements of the painting—lines, colors, shapes—spring from that initial “soulstroke.”  The initiating soulstroke remains a record of the particular ephemeral moment and its emotions, an expression that is responsive to music and the movement impulse of the body.

The current paintings are a visual expression of movement inspired by the music I listen to while working.  My musical collection is wide-ranging but when painting I am particularly drawn to R&B, Motown, jazz, and African music.  The energy that makes you want to dance and move your feet, the rhythms, melodies, and emotions transmitted by music, all move through the body, evoking a response from arms and brush, to translate the implied movement of the music into expressive brushstrokes on canvas. During the continuing development process, the music plays an important part in determining the painting's direction and feel.  The resulting energetic dance of the brush and paint leaves a visual record that defines the personality of the finished work.

 At a certain point, the painting acquires agency or identity apart from the music, and from that moment on, it seems to direct its own completion, for as much as the work is tied to music, there is nothing literal or representative about that connection, which is aesthetic and abstract in the extreme. Rather, the music stimulates the flow of authentic movement, encouraging me to relinquish the need to control the outcome, and the loaded brush becomes the translator of the Unconscious.  Like all visual artists, my task is to communicate using a non-verbal inner language, to create an expression of the soul conveyed through the body visually, a lasting record of something ephemeral.  In the same way that our dreams communicate the voice of the Unconscious to the conscious mind, art of all media can illuminate the intangible unknown, thus giving a deeper awareness of our own nature and the nature of the universe.





San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, CA  1966-1967

Chouinard, Los Angeles, CA  1967-1968

California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, CA, B.F.A., 1971

Kyoto, Japan, (studied shodou with Shiryu Morita), 1974


Solo and Semi-Solo Exhibitions:

2014            In the Rhythm: Seyburn Zorthian, Kwan Fong Gallery of Art and Culture, Cal Lutheran University,             Thousand Oaks, CA

2014            From Askew to Zorthian, Seyburn Zorthian and Anthony Askew, Indigo, Santa Barbara, CA

1997-2011  Annual Studio Exhibitions, Seyburn Zorthian Studio, Solvang, CA

2006            Seyburn Zorthian/Sally Chiu, Recent Work, Caruso-Woods Fine Art, Santa Barbara, CA

1998            "Stroking the Dragon", Pacific Asia Museum, The Contemporary Gallery, Pasadena, CA

1995            DesignARC Gallery, with Bud Tullis, Santa Barbara, CA

1990            Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, Installation, Santa Barbara, CA

1989            "Spirit Lines", Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, CA

1988            De La Guerra Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA

1982            Hancock College Art Gallery, Santa Maria, CA

1981            De Vinci Gallery (Carolyn Watson, dealer), Santa Barbara, CA

1980            Vorpal Gallery, San Francisco, CA

1978            Pacific Oaks College, Pasadena, CA


Group Exhibitions:

2015            “Out of the Great Wide Open”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara, CA.

1998-2014  Represented by Indigo, Santa Barbara, California.

2014             “Westridge School Festival of the Arts”.  Westridge School, Pasadena, CA. Independent Curator, Jay Belloli

2014            “Art + Love Group Exhibition featuring Santa Barbara County Artists from Mark Robert Halper’s book Between Seer and Seen”  Santa Barbara Tennis Club, Santa Barbara, CA. Curator, Susan Tibbles.

2012            "Figure Fragments: The Part as the Whole". Channing Peake Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA. Juror, Priscilla Bender-Shore.

2011            “Energy”, an international exhibition juried by Howard Fox, Curator Emeritus of Contemporary Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, Santa Ana, CA.

2011            “The Abstract”, a juried exhibition of California artists. Juror, Phil Linhares, Chief Curator of Art, Oakland Museum of California. Sandra Lee Gallery, San Francisco, CA.

2010            "Bugs", Indigo, Santa Barbra, CA. Juried group show of Santa Barbara County artists.

2010             “Small Images”, Atkinson Gallery, Santa Barbara City College. Juror, Thomas Lawson, Dean of the School of Art, California Institute of the Arts. Merit Award 2D for "Cicada Speciosa, 6".

2010            "Art of Ink in America - 2010, Florida", The Gallery at Eissey Campus, Palm Beach Community College, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

2010            "Art of Ink in America - 2010, Florida", University Art Gallery, California State University, Dominguez Hills, Carson, CA

2009            "Vino de Sueños", Participating Artist (Painting for wine label design representing Buttonwood Winery). Benefit for Santa Ynez Valley Vineyard and Farm Workers. Buellton, CA.

2008            "EDGE: Santa Barbara County Artists Respond", Ro Snell, Curator, Channing Peake Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA

2008            "Santa Barbara Abstractions", five artists from Santa Barbara County at the Collector's Gallery, Bakersfield Museum of Art, Bakersfield, CA.

2008            Traveling Show: "Art of Ink in America - 2008. The 9th Exhibition of International Contemporary Calligraphy", Art if Ink in America Society, Irvine Fine Arts Center, Irvine, CA

2007            “A Body of Work: Life Drawing of Participants in the Seyburn Zorthian Studio,” Elverhøj Museum of History and Art, Solvang, California.

2007            Traveling Exhibition: "Art of Ink in America - 2007. The 9th Exhibition of International Contemporary Calligraphy", Art if Ink in America Society, Association Culturelle Franco-Japonaise de Tenri, Paris, France.. Exhibition traveling to Hyundai Art Center, Ulsan, Korea and Irvine Art Center, California. Catalog available

2006            "Small Images", Atkinson Gallery, Santa Barbara City College; juror, James Elaine.

2005            "Art of Ink: An Exhibition of International Contemporary Calligraphy", W. Keith and Janet Kellog University Art Gallery, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA

2005            "Art of Ink in America-2005 International Contemporary Calligraphy", New York Hall of Science, Queens, NY.

2005            "Portraying Women", Jewish Federation, Santa Barbara

2005            "Mobilé: Local Treasures", an exhibition of artists and furniture designers, Livingreen Gallery, Santa Barbara

2004            “In the Abstract”, Fielding Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara, California

2004            "Art of Ink in America-2004 International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition ", the 10th International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, Alabama; Museum purchase of 2 works for the collection.

2003            "Art of Ink in America-2003", the 9th International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition, Shanxi Historical Art Museum, Xi'an, China

2002            "Saks Fifth Avenue Invitational", Santa Barbara, CA

2002            "Women Beyond Borders: The Art of Building Community; A Ten-Year Retrospective" Guest Curator Annette Kubitza, Ph.D., University Art Museum, University of California Santa Barbara

2002            "Art of Ink In America-2002", the 7th International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition, Contemporary Crafts Gallery, Portland, Oregon

2002            "Art of Ink - 2002 LA, International Contemporary Calligraphy Exhibition", Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA

2002            "Art that Works", a three-part exhibition to benefit the Environmental Defense Center, Santa Barbara, CA, featuring 2 screens, collaborations with furniture designer, Bud Tullis.   

2001            "Women Beyond Borders Ten-year Retrospective", Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles and University Art Museum, UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA

2001            "Working from Life: The Figure in Drawing", Westmont College, Reynolds Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA

2001            "Mythic Images", 3 artists; black and white, Santa Barbara Arts Fund Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA

2001            "Chouinard, a Living Legacy", Oceanside Museum of Art, Oceanside, CA, Catalog printed.

2000            Traveling exhibition;  “Art of Ink in America-2000”, International   Contemporary Calligraphy, Newark Museum, New Jersey, and National Taiwan Arts Education Institute, Taiwan, Taipei. Catalog printed.

1997            “LA Slide”, Living Room Gallery, Los Angeles, CA and Gallery 25, Fresno, CA

1996            "West Coast Works on/of Paper ‘96”, The Ink People, Eureka, CA, Juror, Peter Frank

1995            “Scissors, Paper, Stone: 9 Women Working”, Museum Art Center, Santa Maria, CA

1994            “Alchemy of Fire,” Channing Peake Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA

1994            Group Show, Karpeles Manuscript Library & Museum, Santa Barbara, CA

1990            “34  5” x 120  15’ Santa Barbara Artists,” The Woman’s Building, Los Angeles, CA

1990            “10 + 10, 10 Artists Invite 10 Artists,” Santa Barbara Arts Festival, De La Guerra Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA

1989            Santa Barbara Arts Council, Arts Festival, Santa Barbara, CA, Juror, Joan Hugo

1987            “Garden of Earthly Delights”, Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara, CA

1986            “Portraits” Santa Barbara Arts Council Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA

1984            Sumie Society of America, International Juried Exhibition, New York, NY

1984            Santa Barbara Arts Council, Arts Festival, Santa Barbara, CA Juror, Melinda Wortz

1982            Carolyn Watson Gallery, Group Show, Santa Barbara, CA

1982            Santa Barbara Arts Council, Arts Festival, Santa Barbara, CA, Juror, Peter Selz, purchase award

1980            “Santa Barbara Select ‘80”, Atkinson Art Gallery, Santa Barbara City College, Santa Barbara, CA

1974            Kyoto Municipal Museum, National Shodou Exhibition, Kyoto, Japan


Teaching and Demonstration Experience:

2005            Japanese Abstract Brush Painting Class, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, for graduating seniors from the Visual Art and Design Academy (with Ronald Robertson)

2005            "Principles of Drawing from Life", workshop presented for the Artists' Guild of Santa Ynez Valley.

2000            Semester at Sea, Spring 2000 Voyage, Professor of Studio Arts. Taught Foundation Painting and Foundation Drawing to undergraduates.

1999            Spring semester, Santa Barbara Arts Mentorship Program, taught abstract painting to gifted high school students.

1999            “Chinese Calligraphy: Two Contemporary Views”, Seyburn Zorthian and Ronald Robertson, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, lecture and panel discussion.

1998            “East Meets West, Contemporary Brushwork Painting, a demonstration/workshop with Seyburn Zorthian”, Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara, CA.

1980s            Teacher for Arts Outreach, Santa Ynez Valley, CA. Taught fourth through eighth grades as visiting artist. 


Recent Exhibits

Seyburn Zorthian participated in these exhibits:

Jan, 2015 Out of the Great Wide Open
Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB)
Jul, 2012 Figure Fragments: The Part as the Whole
Channing Peake Gallery
Dec, 2011 Holiday Art Exhibition
Sandra Lee Gallery
Sandra Lee Gallery
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