Artist Diana Ormanzhi exhibited several of her paintings, including the “Protectress” series, at Twisted Track Gallery in Sacramento this month. (Photo by Jennifer Fergesen)

Art Exposed: Diana Ormanzhi

A Sacramento artist reinterprets surrealism through a feminist lens

Back Web Only Oct 31, 2022 By Jennifer Fergesen

At Twisted Track Gallery in Sacramento, which recently emerged as a keystone of the thriving R Street art scene, one wall is devoted to a triptych of the feminine divine. In three oil paintings, figures swathed in frills and lace stand against backdrops of fire and smoke, their skirts sheltering creatures in greener worlds: foxes, toucans, a ray wreathed in seaweed. Each of the paintings has a placard designating it as Protectress I, II or III — and each is marked with the red dot that means it’s been sold. 

But artist Diana Ormanzhi, speaking on the last day of the Twisted Track show “Distant Realities,” says that the dots are a bit of a ruse. “These are pieces I want to keep for my personal collection,” she says; though marked as $4,500 each on the gallery placards, the Protectress series is not for sale. After the show, the paintings will return to their home in the Arthouse building outside Ormanzhi’s studio about a block away, which is open to the public every second Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

The series, painted in early 2020, was inspired by that year’s devastating Australian bushfires, but its themes have personal relevance for the artist. In 2019, she lost her home and much of her work to a house fire, an experience she says she rebounded from “with a vengeance.” The following year, she acquired her studio at the Arthouse, one of the most sought-after studio spaces in Sacramento due to its high rates of foot traffic. “The turnover rate there is really low, but there was a departure because of the pandemic,” she says. “I knew I had to jump on it, even though I knew it might not be profitable for a while.” 

Diana Ormanzhi pays homage to her Gagauz and Ukrainian ancestors in paintings like “Inner Timezone.” (Photo courtesy of Diana Ormanzhi)

Ormanzhi describes herself as a surrealist painter, and her incongruous juxtapositions recall 20th-century giants like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. However, she takes a conscious departure from the misogyny that often characterized the work of early male surrealists, instead centering women and girls in postures of power and autonomy. Some of her female figures wear dresses she says are inspired by Japanese lolita fashion, a street style said to be a feminist response to the male gaze. Others, like the woman at the center of her painting “Inner Timezone,” wear traditional clothing that recalls her Gagauz and Ukrainian heritage.

Ormanzhi has been asked to participate in art shows that respond to the current war in Ukraine, but has so far demurred. “A lot of my family is there, and I don’t want to do anything that would make them feel that I’m misrepresenting them,” she says. “In a few years, I might be able to do a better job.” 

Can you tell me about the path that got you to where you are in your career today?

I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember but I started taking it more seriously after taking an AP art class in high school. I had a very supportive art teacher who knew I have a competitive nature and found ways to critique my work in ways that always made me want to improve on my next piece. During that class, for the first time I saw a direct correlation between committing time to a craft and seeing improvement. 

After high school, I ended up going to community college where I was a part time student and worked part time at Blick Art Materials. It was a great combination because I was gaining so much new art knowledge from my day job and applying it to my school work. Around this time I also began teaching myself oil painting which spiraled into my primary art practice. During those five years in community college, I slowly started getting more involved in the Sacramento art community: attending and participating in group shows, going out to events hosted by local artists I admired, and learning the craft of curating. 

Much of Diana Ormanzhi’s work, including this 9×12 oil painting “Apparition’s Apprentice,” was lost in a 2019 house fire. (Photo courtesy of Diana Ormanzhi)

Things took a turn in late 2019, when my family and I lost everything we had to a home fire. Other than all my personal belongings, as an artist I also lost most of my art materials and a large collection of my work. It was a very dark period of my life, but when I was able to make art again, I came back with a vengeance and made a new body of work that I was very proud of. Then in 2020, things took a turn again with the pandemic. At the time, I was finishing my last courses in community college and just got accepted into the UC Davis art program but with everything shutting down, paying tuition to go to a closed school didn’t make sense. So I gave up on my education and ended up getting my first art studio in Arthouse which is where I’m located to this day.

Diana Ormanzhi says some of the clothes her characters wear are inspired by Japanese lolita fashion. (Photo courtesy of Diana Ormanzhi)

At what point did you know you wanted to be an artist?

There isn’t any point when I decided to be an artist because that’s something that’s always been a part of my life. I grew up as an only child and would spend most of my days in the backroom of my family’s pizzeria business so I had no choice but to find ways to entertain myself. So I filled my time with lots of arts, crafts and rollerblading. I got very comfortable with the idea of solitude and learned to enjoy my own company and making art was a big part of my existence. Making art my career was a slow but intuitive and natural process.

What or who are some of your main inspirations?

Two names that come to mind immediately are Greg “Craola” Simkins and Adrian Cox. Any contemporary artist who combines storytelling with detailed technical skills blows me away. For a long time I collected art publications such as Hi-Fructose magazine, Spectrum Fantasy Art books, and old sci fi pulp magazines. Flipping through those would fill me with awe and endless inspiration.

Diana Ormanzhi participated in the Wide Open Walls festival in 2019 with this mural located at 701 12th Street in Sacramento. (Photo courtesy of Diana Ormanzhi)

What are some of the main themes of your work?

Most of my current work focuses on the coexistence of humans and other living beings on our planet. I try to bring attention to how our actions impact our environment and the creatures living in it. I enjoy the juxtaposition of feminine beauty against harsh surroundings. There’s many Mother Earth-like figures who shapeshift with the environment to protect animals. Then there’s some more personal themes such as the strangeness of growing up as a child of immigrants and how that’s shaped me as a person.

Diana Ormanzhi reinterprets a classic surrealist style through a feminist, environmentalist lens, centering female figures and nature. (Photo courtesy of Diana Ormanzhi)

What do you think of Sacramento’s creative scene? What are its strengths, and how could it improve?

The Sacramento art scene is a great one to get started in. It is big enough to offer good opportunities for your resume, but not large enough to be intimidating. I imagine that getting started in a big city would be a lot more daunting. As an artist first starting their career, there are a plethora of small-scale opportunities in cafes, restaurants, tattoo shops, etc. Once you get comfortable with having eyes on your work, submitting to art calls and galleries feels less intimidating. 

I would also describe the Sacramento art scene as “artists supporting artists.” The community is friendly, shares opportunities and welcomes new faces. The negative aspect of that structure is that there is a general lack of funding for the creative economy and every year we see galleries and creative venues go out of business. I’ve seen a lot of talented people have short-term success in Sacramento because it’s a difficult career to sustain while paying your bills.

Have you found it easy or difficult to make a living as an artist in this city?

Making it as an artist is never easy and I can’t say that I’ve cracked the code of how to do that successfully just yet, but I’m working towards it every day. The struggle that I face as an artist is that I haven’t encountered many serious collectors in Sacramento who are interested in surrealistic paintings. My art tends to attract a younger audience but that audience is struggling to get by in their own ways. That is why I try to make my art as accessible as possible through stickers, prints, and various reproductions. If someone walks into my studio and loves my work, I want them to have the opportunity to walk away with a piece of it regardless of how much money they have in their pocket. 

Edited for length and clarity.

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