At the Capitol Hill Block Party in July, musicians on the main stage had special accompaniment: a tiger, a dragon and several lime green, bat-like imps. The creatures, drawn in a vivid folk style and emblazoned on 23-foot-tall scrims flanking the stage, added a bit of reverence and danger to the proceedings—an aura of myth that hinted at age-old knowledge. That’s what work by Stacey Rozich does: exerts an atavistic pull toward the subconscious stories that still thrum deep in our lizard brains.
Walking the line between fine art and illustration, Rozich, 25, employs watercolor and gouache to create folkloric mash-ups of sorts, blending imagery and legend from a global mix of cultures—from Slavic to Pacific Northwest native. She’s interested in how long-held stories and traditions intersect and echo each other. “Folk tales have a common thread,” Rozich says, “tales of morality and cultural history told through fantastical beasts.”
Or as she calls them, “super-augmented humans.” In Rozich’s world, the beasts often have human hands, and sometimes a human face peeks out from behind a disguise. Huge curly manes are prominent, as are antelope horns, bird heads and cloven hooves. The creatures wear an explosion of multicolored traditional garb—Balkan headscarves, long Russian vests, Bulgarian Koukeri costumes, Native American textiles—and almost always, animal masks. They wield bows and arrows, they commingle with skulls, they fight each other. Like the best fairy tales, the images are both childlike and sinister.
Rozich’s interest in folklore began in her own backyard. The daughter of a teacher and a chalkboard artist—her father’s murals can be seen on countless menu boards at local coffee shops and restaurants—she grew up in Magnolia. Her paternal background is Croatian, and after that country’s war for independence, Rozich began to take more interest in her heritage, asking her father about Yugoslavian traditions. Her curiosity soon expanded into traditional lore from all over.
Folk tales are often passed on via the centuries-old practice of illustration, a tradition that meshed with Rozich’s early aptitude for drawing. “I was so enamored with the idea of drawings as a mode of expression,” she says, “that I went into illustration and got the foundation I needed.” She jokes that she did it backward—first going to the prestigious California College of the Arts, then dropping out, spending intensive time drawing in her studio, and eventually attending Seattle Central Community College, where she graduated from the Creative Academy last June. It may have been an unconventional route, but all evidence suggests Rozich is moving forward.
In addition to showing her work in galleries, Rozich has gained acclaim for her book and album covers, and especially for the beastly illustrations she created for the Fleet Foxes’ 2011 music video, “The Shrine/An Argument,” which has inspired her to find more ways to translate her work into different dimensions, such as sculpture and digital media. Last spring, she received the Neddy award (for a Puget Sound‒area painter of distinction), which granted her $25,000 and a heap of prestige. She’s using the money to fund a months-long journey through Croatia, Bulgaria and Poland—and possibly beyond—to explore local culture, spirituality and lore.
Recently, Rozich has incorporated a new culture to her drawings: American pop culture. Feeling like she’s laid the groundwork of her aesthetic, she says, “Now I want to have fun with it. Make it more modern and loosen it with humor.” Hence the beasts wearing Converse high tops, carrying shotguns and drinking a lot of Rainier beer. “It’s still dark and menacing, but funny,” she says. “That’s kind of my personality.”