“I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” – Rebecca Solnit, ‘Wanderlust: A History of Walking’, 2000
“You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something else.” ― John Irving, ‘The World According to Garp’, 1978
To talk of Ernest Zacharevic, particularly his private life, who he really is, the man behind the name, is to understand the mindsets and habits of a minority of people around the world: the creative self-employed, the artists and freelancers… those who bounce around as a one-man-show and are usually considered indigent, if not a drain on the working and middle classes altogether. As the artist famous for creating the initial murals on George Town’s walls at the beginning of 2012, Ernest’s life has no bearing on the steady nine-to-five lifestyle. When he has projects to complete, Ernest works like a dog. When he doesn’t, he is still working on the next potential project. But at the same time as seemingly always working, he makes work sound like an oxpecker bird riding a quality of life not enjoyed by the traditionally employed.
Due to his pluralist life – working to live while at the same time living to work – his routine is noticeably skewed. He wakes late in the day and spends the remaining daylight hours planning a night of work. While this may sound like a routine as a whole, the details are fuzzy and unplanned – except for coffee, which he drinks constantly. After he wakes, he does – what he likes to call – “daytime stuff”, which means activities like socialising, eating, maybe some light exercise and, most importantly for Ernest, walking. “I sleep through breakfast and wake up just in time for lunch,” he said. “Once I have had dinner with my friends, that is when my workday starts.” In his own words: “My daily routine is figuring out my daily routine.” We both laughed at that.
However, such a blasé approach does not quite reflect the success Ernest has had in recent years. Behind his seemingly laid-back routine is an undercurrent of movement, around the world, that requires a fluid interpretation of ‘routine’. “I cannot remember the last time I stayed in one place for a month or more. Seriously, my routine changes all the time,” he explained. “I have several types of projects. Sometimes it is a festival, sometimes commission work. Some are overseas, so I fly there for a week, do the work, and then fly out. At least once a year there is a project that I need to curate and this takes up a large chunk of my life. I have to assess the location, meet the people, find spots for artwork; then planning my work, executing it and publishing my work. So, it is a process that goes through a lot of different routines.” His nightly working hours are also more deliberate than a general sense of procrastination. “My work sometimes starts at eight or nine at night and then carries on into the morning. I have no distractions, places to go, people to see at night, so I concentrate better.”
When in George Town, word of Ernest’s arrival spreads out silently among a core group of friends who make up a large majority of George Town’s young artistic crowd. He frequents cafés like Coffee Addict in Nagore Square and Narrow Marrow in George Town. The only similarities between his hangouts – apart from coffee – is their propensity for hipster vibes and rustic chic. Settled at a table with a cup of black coffee, a glass of water and a sketch pad, Ernest cuts a subtle figure not worthy of a second glance, blending as seamlessly with his threadbare surroundings as his murals do with George Town’s patchwork walls.
Which suits Ernest. He is almost allergic to limelight and has had to work hard at managing his rising status as an artist. He describes himself, quite knowingly, as an introvert, and anyone with the same characteristic could tell you how daunting having to manage media attention would be. “There are moments in my life where I thought I had too much attention. At the beginning, it would freak me out a lot; you can’t have a meal in public because someone is going to come over to you.” Yet, despite being perceived as the artist on everybody’s lips, he quickly realised that his fame was but a blip in the grand world of celebrity. “You know, I am not a Di Caprio. I don’t have to walk around with bodyguards and get the constant harassment,” he laughed. “The attention was never bad. Of all things, any attention I have ever got has been positive: people are happy to see me, excited to take a picture with me. Yes, if you have to do it ninety-eight times a day it is a bit tiring but it’s never negative. If I don’t want media attention, I just don’t put my work up, or my picture in the newspapers. It is very easy to manage.”
Ernest’s relationship with the media, and managing his increasing fame, points towards his understated personality; a trait that influences other aspects of his life, like his clothes. Ernest’s relationship with his wardrobe can only be described as Zuckerbergian: an unnecessary distraction that is given no more thought than “dirty clothes and very dirty clothes.” His preferred outfit of choice usually comprises of a t-shirt, shorts and a pair of Converse shoes, each item sporting a varying degree of paint splatters and strokes. But, even this seemingly repetitive appearance is in flux. “Now is a time in my life with a lot of weddings, so now I start shopping for shirts and suits. It is the first time in my life that I feel conscious about what I’m wearing, and having to actually save my clothes for occasions, you know. So, I am getting into that slowly.”
However, painting a picture of Ernest as a dirty hermit fuelled solely by coffee would be to neglect the active parts of his life. “I am not a naturally healthy person, which encourages me to keep myself healthy.” Ernest swears by drinking a lot of water and getting outdoors. Due to his regular travelling, he tends to take exercise whenever and wherever he can. When he is in Los Angeles Ernest goes rock climbing, despite his phobia of heights, and when he is in Penang, he practices in Muay Tai. Some mornings start with stretching, some not. When he is near a beach, he likes to go surfing. Yet one thing that he tries to do always, wherever he might be, is walking.
For Ernest, walking fulfils a number of roles – exercise or getting from A to B, for example. But wandering around George Town’s city streets is both a form of incubation and inspiration, and perfectly demonstrates to the employed how he is able to live two parallel lives of work and play simultaneously. Not only an opportunity to get out of his studio and step back from a project, but walking also provides Ernest with inspiring imagery as well as things; walls, locations, stickers, abandoned knick-knacks, garbage that can be lifted off the street and brought back to his studio – like a magpie building its nest. “I like to explore. I like to discover. A big part of my work is walking around looking for things. I spend as much time looking for things and discovering things as I do painting. I like walking places that you’re not supposed to walk, places where you know you’re gonna’ get a surprise. This is what my work is based on.” After bringing back a particularly interesting find to his studio, the object will either undergo a process of experimentation or be put in its random but rightful place. Whatever the outcome, the object is hoarded and now belongs in Ernest’s dual world.
* * *
Ernest was born in Lithuania and left home for boarding school at eleven years old. At that stage in his life, he followed the standard trajectory of his peers through Sixth Form and University, moving to the United Kingdom after graduation despite the daunting prospect of expense, for both him and his parents. Yet leaving home at such an early age did not impede his dream of pursuing art largely thanks to his supportive parents. His father flirted with art as a young man but left it behind when starting a family, so it was only a natural act to encourage Ernest in his dream. “They always gave me enough freedom to make my own choices in life. Even if they don’t approve of those choices they still let me make them. It is nice that they trust me; it has been like that from the very beginning. I always got nothing but support from them.”
It is from this decision to become an artist from such an early age which partly explains his symbiotic lifestyle with his work. He still remembers advice from his teachers, who always highlighted the need to take time out as well as the need for discipline. “I always make sure I spend enough time a day working because there is no one else watching me over my shoulder making me work. It still feels forced, until this day. In high school my teachers were very disciplined; first thing in the morning you sketch three drawings, you know? Everything I learnt from my drawing is what I practice in my life. It has been such a big part of my childhood and my teenage years, you know, that learning drawing was as much part of my life as anything else. My teacher would always say that if you stuck on a painting, if it is overworked and messy, and you are only painting to finish it, the best thing you can do is take three steps back and just look at it. You know, this applies to everything in life.”
What Ernest considers home now is his studio, wherever that may be. He calls Penang his base – if not a home-away-from-home – but his studio is his special place. “I take my work as my personal life; I don’t separate the two. I always work in the space that I live. As much as I try to separate my bedroom from my studio, it merges eventually into one unrecognisable space.” It is not a description that appears to ease the mind around things like marriage and children – concepts that most of his friends his age are already embarking on – but that does not phase Ernest. Despite being in his early thirties, he attributes his lack of anxiety over entering ‘adulthood’ to being surrounded by like-minded friends who also practice a freelance or self-employed lifestyle. “I feel very lucky that I have the freedom of choice. If I get anxious about things I am not doing, I just do them.” Either way, he is a family man at heart and is slowly coming around to the idea of settling down, but in its own time and in its own way.
This reveals the crux of the man, his base-line personality capable of being happy living a life in flux: stoicism. An aspect of his personality that stands out when you get to know him – with his doleful eyes and soothing Lithuanian-accented drawl – is that he appears impossible to anger. Of course, he does get annoyed at times but never to the point of anger, preferring instead to distance himself from a certain annoyance until he has righted his inner calm. Injustice, in all its forms, is the only thing that provokes him to a point of heightened emotions, which goes some way to explain his motivations behind his most recent project ‘Splash and Burn’, a collaborative project of murals and installations in Sumatra raising awareness to the region’s poisonous slash and burn practice of palm oil plantations. Yet, when I asked him if he ever paints out of anger – particularly concerning his new project – he again took a distanced outlook. “My work is not that spontaneous. I spend a lot of time thinking and over-thinking and then forgetting about my ideas and then getting back to them. So, they go through a full circle of emotions. It is never based on just one emotion. There is always an important, inspirational moment in my life which triggers an idea. Then there is a lot of concentration and I can’t be distracted emotionally. It is not a project that came out of anger, by any means, but I feel it is a subject I find interesting, a subject that is not talked enough about, I feel. I think we are all affected by it; it is an injustice to all of us.”
In essence, Ernest reveals not only a different way of living but also a refreshing way of thinking. “It’s important to accept everything around you, acknowledge it, but you don’t have to be happy or not happy about it. It’s about accepting what’s there and then understanding what is in your power to change and not to struggle over changing things which you cannot. There is a lot that we can contribute to better the world, from very little things to very big things. Each of us is something in this world; we are artists, we are journalists, we are writers, we are the person at the post office, we are a politician, we are a musician. We are all able to make a change in our own way.”
What Ernest proves is that life does not have to be regulated, structured and repetitive to yield success. In fact, by leading a life open to change, inconsistency and disorganisation, it could be argued that we can free up mental space to slow down, take stock and begin thinking rather than following. In the end this life, and appreciating it, is all we really have.