Zen Sevastyanova, the Russian-born model and artist, appeared at The GROUND studios like a modern version of a Tolstoy heroine. Dressed in a romantic-period jabot shirt paired with a contemporary leather skirt and oxfords, Zen invites inquisition when she walks into a room.
Raised in Poland, Zen wasn’t afraid to express her individuality; she always knew what she wanted in life: to pursue modeling and art. Zen also highlighted her appreciation of a woman’s natural virtues. Women, she said, are nurturers. For her, the maternal instinct is the most important female attribute.
This notion is reflected in her other passion: Art. When Zen is not in front of the camera, she is creating drawings that express her observations from daily life, turning them into surreal modern twists.
Zen celebrates the woman as nurturer – reveling in her own vulnerabilities and her nakedness to the world. This is how the two sides of Zen become one. The truly great models are able to open themselves up in order to allow their emotions to pour out of them with soulful expression. Zen is a woman who is very in tune with herself. Though delicate at times, she understands her place in the world and she is able to find the strength to keep herself rooted in the storm of the fashion industry.
You were born in Russia and grew up in Poland. Did you feel out of place growing up?
I did feel very different growing up, not because I was Russian, but because of my sensitivity to certain things. From a very young age, I loved being outdoors by myself – playing with flowers and enjoying nature. I used to pretend that I worked for Greenpeace and would yell at anyone who killed bugs. Other kids thought I was a weirdo because I wasn’t seeking the same things as them.
Did your childhood passion for the environment continue into adulthood?
I’d really like to see more recycling in fashion. If we could focus on recycling existing materials –if more designers would embrace this idea – I think we’d be able to make a positive impact in the fashion world. Right now, designers are looking for the next hot thing and they keep producing more and more. I respect Stella McCartney for what she does with sustainable and recycled fashion. To me, it’s more interesting to see what a designer can do when they choose to make something new out of something old. I know it would be hard to impose change, but we don’t really need to wear leather shoes, we’re just used to it. I have an idea to start a recycling company that sources and distributes materials from all over the world.
So, how did you get interested in modeling?
I don’t have a romantic story of being scouted in some unexpected place or at any particular moment in my life. One day, I just went to a modeling agency and said I wanted be a model. They did a test shoot, it went well, and I started working small jobs in between school. At the beginning, it was just a fun experience for me.
At what point did you decide that modeling could become a full-time job?
Looking back, I think I started modeling because I wanted it to be my career. I remember people telling me, “It’s crazy” and it would never happen – that every girl wants to be a model. I was young, hungry for new adventures, and hopeful that modeling would give me an opportunity to travel and see the world. Moving to New York made me realize [that] I wanted to model full time. Getting out of the “model’s apartment” and starting a life on my own was the first step. I realized the need to sustain myself. It’s funny how those young girls live such a grown-up life, but if you look closer, they are actually helpless. They don’t even have a bank account. So I got a bank account.
Is being independent something that you would advise young girls who are starting their careers in modeling?
Yes, and also – don’t try to be like anyone else. Just take your time and discover who you really are. Don’t compare yourself to others; compare yourself to an ideal of the woman you want to be.
What was the most important job of your career?
My first Prada show. Things were going pretty slow for me at that time, and I started focusing on my art. For the very first time, I relaxed and let the universe take me. As soon as I let go and stopped clinging to a vision of being on the top, I actually had my biggest success. It’s funny that life works this way. But like they say: “Success is when preparation meets opportunity. Just be prepared – luck will come.”
Tell me more about your art. How did it come to life?
I used to draw or scribble on the side of my notebook for as long as I remember. I think, on a subconscious level, I always wanted to be a painter, even if I didn’t fully realize it. Four years ago, my boyfriend gave me a sketching notebook. It was a small gesture, but it pushed me into exploring myself and drawing became a permanent part of my life.
What inspires your drawings?
I call it my time of containment. I go to museums; I read a lot about psychology and art. I love Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, and Salvadore Dalí. Being in close proximity with their work releases a certain energy that feeds and inspires me. Modeling as well. Being around fashion designers and other creative people in the industry creates an extremely inspirational ground. I also observe everyday social interactions between people, but in the end, it’s just an inspiration – not a clear idea. When I’m drawing, I just sit down and it happens. I believe an artist is a vessel, a person in-between.
What are you a vessel to?
Everything is made out of energy, and that energy doesn’t just disappear. It creates a beautiful balance in the universe. The fact that people even make art comes from a need to worship something. I believe in a higher, more complex, supreme energy. Call it whatever you want, but you are connected to it no matter if you’re an artist, a designer, or a dentist. A lot of people who are creative in any way feel it, and it’s what drives them.
What is your art about?
In life, so many things constrict us. When I draw, I’m free. My art is a play with fantasies, symbols, and darkness. It’s fun to be able to do whatever you want to do, to have no rules. Art is a direct stream from your subconscious to your consciousness. It shows your feelings and emotions. It’s like drawing your soul into a piece of paper.
Your art has macabre elements to it. Where does that come from?
When things [are] bottle up in my head, drawing is a release for my soul. I noticed [that] I create the best pieces when something negative happens in my life – conflict or rejection. That’s when I make the strongest art. Since I work in an industry that focuses so much on what’s visible and touchable, the macabre shows that in reality, we are frail. We all age and die. It’s important for me to stay real and show others [that] there is more to me than what you see. I think that the fashion industry is changing that way as well. People want to see the truth behind the image. They want to see what’s behind Photoshop [process] and compare fiction to reality. I think imperfections are what make us perfect, and I want to express that with my art.
Nude women are also a reoccurring motif in your art.
It’s my social comment about the position of women in the industry… Portraying them naked is portraying our vulnerabilities. Women are the connection that brings love to our world. The nudity symbolizes openness and nurturing. I think accepting who you are is very important, on the outside physically, but also on the inside with our vulnerabilities.
How do you see women in the fashion industry and in society?
Even if fashion objectifies women, it also emancipates them. It’s what you make out of it. The general statement of fashion objectifying women is not entirely true. Fashion itself doesn’t do that, but some people who work in it do. Fashion, among other things, was an important step to our emancipation. It gave women an opportunity to dress themselves, and to express their needs on a very basic level.
When it comes to women in society, I think we need to find a new balance. With the big shift of women taking on masculine jobs, and men staying home, we need some kind of golden middle. Although it’s amazing how women improved their position historically, it’s important not to forget they are nurturers. I don’t think it’s right to give up motherhood for [a] career. We shouldn’t have to choose between being a mother and a worker.
Do you think you will be able to find that kind of balance in your future?
Ideally. I have a lot of plans and dreams. Right now, I’m getting ready for my first art show. There are enough of completed pieces, and I’m still working on new ones. Sharing my art with a bigger audience is exciting. Beyond art, I’ve been passionate about blending essential oils. I’m planning to join forces with a good friend of mine and start a line of natural products. The challenge will be to balance my work and art with a family life, but I’m hopeful. My grandmother is my icon; she is a very selfless, yet very caring and loving woman. I’m hoping to be like her: happy, free, and able to express myself. I want to give equal love to my family and [to] other people.
Portrait by Nocholas Ong,
All art works by Zen Sevastyanova,
Styling by Megan Ahern,
Makeup by Junko Kioka at Joe Management,
Hair by Hiroya Watase at Bryan Bantry,
Model: Zen Sevastyanova at IMG New York.
Retouching by Petteri Lamula.
Special Thanks to Glenn Valentine and Steven Bermudez.