This is Zozoville. An extraordinary, fuzzy, and snug place where life has a million colours and no one has to be perfect. Well, so long as they are fluent in monster language.
I first became familiar with the art of Johan Potma and Mateo Dineen while strolling along Berlin’s Boxhagener Platz, all covered in January snow, a few years ago. Fishing for oddities, I was instantly captured by the unlikely elegance and oddball brilliance of respected Zozoville citizens like Lord Slugworth and Mr Knowitall, the gracious, whimsical solitude of Cat Lady and the irresistible strange beauty. I remember thinking, such magnificently furry talent, how can it sit freezing in the ruthless cold?
But that eclectic, idiosyncratic, and utterly inspirational bazaar has worked out well for the artists over the years, helping them crystallize their vision into something more concrete: The creation of Zozoville Gallery, two small rooms only a few steps away from the square. Having recently celebrated its tenth birthday in its brand new, larger, and more commercially productive space just around the corner from where it all begun.
“We Find Clues” by Johan Potma
So when did your paths first cross and what made you decide to unite your artistic vision? Were there similarities since the very beginning, or has your art evolved in parallel in the process?
Johan : We met up in 2004. I saw Mateo’s artwork in a little show in Friedrichshain and saw many similarities with my own work, so I decided to contact him. We met up and soon became good friends. Mateo invited me to come to the flea markets with him, where he was already selling his artwork. I did and soon we figured that instead of being competitors, we might do better if we teamed up. This is how Zozoville came to be. During our time in the Zozoville gallery, which we soon after teaming up, opened, we saw that our styles got even closer together Much like how maybe a band works towards one sound, we too, shared many ideas and techniques, that now somehow seem to define the world of Zozoville.
“Wrong Turn” by Mateo Dineen
Where do all those one-eyed monsters and benevolent oddballs, like the Count of Foie Gras and Ernest Muffin, come from? What are the key features of Zozoland’s imaginary citizens?
Mateo: For the most part, the characters you see in our finished pieces are the result of lots of sketching. There are many ideas that are explored through our drawings, but only the strongest ideas survive. Knowing which ones to paint is sometimes difficult, but other times it can be an idea that seems to take on a life of its own. As far as where their particular features come from, I can only say that we both try to just let the creativity flow. There aren’t necessarily any “key” features that a Zozoville monster should have. In Zozoville just about anything is possible.
From old pieces of wood to tins and cigar boxes, one thing your creations have in common is their connection to old, worn-out treasures you often transform to modern artworks. Is there a symbolic value to it, the new emerging from the old, the art of the present from the art of the past?
Johan: Hmmm, maybe. But then again, maybe not ;) We both really appreciate the old materials for the story they bring to the artwork. meaning that all the cracks, dents and scratches themselves tell stories of a past. This is a very nice layer to add to the story we tell in our sketches and finished artworks. What I also like is that the materials we paint on aren’t perfect. They present obstacles we have to work with. For example, when you are working on an old door, and all of a sudden a hinge is in the way. You need to then figure out what to do. This keeps the painting process unpredictable, which is a nice way to paint. Painting is in many ways, problem-solving. The materials help us create many of these problems, which is great.
“Collector” by Johan Potma
Talk to us a bit about the art-making process, from the initial idea to the final output: Where do you fish for ideas and materials? Do you like working in total silence or listening to music? Following certain habits/schedules, or just going with the flow?
Mateo: I’m always looking forward to the next exciting idea that I can come up with to paint, always hoping it’ll be my best yet. But at the end of the day, the journey is the goal. My path to making a painting usually starts with the sketch. I either explore an idea, or just do free-drawing where I let my doodles almost draw themselves. Then I might refine a sketch further, or use a very rough little drawing as inspiration. Then I choose a background from my collection of old boxes and so forth. I sometimes work in silence, but most often there is either music or a podcast playing in the background. I like to get input and inspiration via my ears while my eyes and hands are busy with the painting. As far as habits and schedules, the birth of my son has forced me to be much more organised. So now the times when I paint are sometimes planned a week or more in advance. I think Johan has a very similar process, but I’ll let him explain it…
Johan: I have a very similar process :)
“Out of Body Experience” by Mateo Dineen
I first got hooked on Zozoville when I found you selling your prints at the flea market on Berlin’s Boxhagener Platz. You don’t often find gallery owners doing that - thumbs up! How did that come about and can one still find you hanging around there?
Johan: The flea market is where the whole Zozoville adventure really started and took off. Like I said before, Mateo was already selling his artwork there every Sunday to pay the bills. I joined him shortly after and we teamed up. I always love going to flea markets to hunt for nice items to paint on and search for old collage materials to incorporate in my work. I like the chaos, the people, the weird stuff you can find. We are still at the markets every weekend. By now we have people helping us sell the work on the market but the first 7-8 years we would be there every Sunday selling our monsters, which is quite a challenge sometimes, because winters in Berlin can get pretty cold.
Does the gallery mainly focus on your own work, or do you often feature like-minded artists?
Mateo: When we first opened our gallery, we did indeed feature other artists. It was nice to have some other artists involved in our space. But our first gallery was small and space for displaying paintings was limited. We still needed a place to display our own work, so during exhibitions we would move our own paintings to the back room. This didn’t work so well because we also used that room as our painting studio. Our sales suffered, and honestly it seemed to us that the customers that came to our gallery were looking to see our work, and not the work of a guest artist. So in the end we decided to only show our own work.
“Rowbot” by Johan Potma
Zozoville recently celebrated its tenth birthday. Well done! Do you feel it’s fulfilled its initial goal during that time? What is your vision for the future to come?
Johan: Yes! Amazing, what a journey. We are both incredibly proud of what Zozoville has been and what it is today. We feel blessed to be able to paint and make a living as artists. It is the biggest reward for all the work we put in, to be able to paint on a regular basis. This was and still is the goal. Make paintings, tell stories and share these. The future will hopefully be more of the good stuff. We don’t mind the challenges, as we are quite a good team in tackling these along the way, but if the future holds more good stuff for us, then bring it on!
You’re also now under a new roof. What are the advantages of the new space?
Mateo: Yes! We’ve got a lovely new space. We merged our two smaller galleries into a bigger space. The two galleries that we had previously were lovely, but in some ways it was an inefficient set up. Now we have everything under one roof. We produce the prints in the new space, and have plenty of storage. There’s lots of space for our paintings, framed art prints, books, and other products. The shop is right around the corner from Boxhagenerplatz, so it’s easy to find for customers. Best of all, we spent months designing the space, and it turned out really nice. We think it’s the best customer experience that we’ve been able to offer so far.
“Selfie” by Mateo Dineen
Berlin is a celebrated arts hub. How big a part does the city and its people play in your art? Does it provide the inspiration, or just the bustling backdrop?
Johan: Both. The city is part of us, and we are part of the city. All the ideas, sketches and stories we create, are in some form connected to our surroundings. Berlin is beautiful in that regard. The city is full of beauty, sadness, joy, hate, love. Basically everyday you will be confronted with inspiring situations. These somehow all end up in some form in our sketchbooks. The stories we tend to tell are from life, but usually told in a monster language.
Apart from Zozoville, you both also have your personal side-projects. Would you like to tell us more about them?
Mateo: First and foremost it should be noted that we both have our own studio/gallery space in Berlin. Johan’s is called “The Cheese Mountain Tragedy” and mine is called “Skallywag Gallery”. It’s there that you can most often find us producing our latest pieces. Additionally, we are each working separately on a childrens book project. Johan’s book is being developed in conjunction with the Umbilical Brothers, and my book is a solo project that is very much in the early stages. Aside from that, we are often working on various painting commissions. Plenty to keep us busy and out of trouble.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Would you like to impart a final piece of advice for budding artists, or your personal moto?
Johan: Thank you for featuring us! If I had to give advice to beginning artists it would be that you shouldn’t give up on your dream. Stay staring towards that vague or clear goal. If it feels good, it probably is. Follow your heart, and keep making stuff along the way.
Mateo: I think Johan said it beautifully. I would only add that I think it’s important to stay curious and embrace wonder. Thank you for sharing our art with your readers! Cheers!
“Unintended Consequences” by Mateo Dineen
“Come Undone” by Johan Potma
“Scritter” by Mateo Dineen
“Nocturnal My Ass” by Johan Potma
“There Goes The Neighbourhood” by Johan Potma
“And So It Goes” by Mateo Dineen
“Dear Diary” by Johan Potma
“Warm and Fuzzy” by Mateo Dineen