Of the many friends I’ve made in the years we’ve lived in Prescott, Warren Zager and his wife Karen are among the most fascinating. They’ve scarcely ventured out from their two-acre compound since the pandemic started, but they lead active, creative lives in the beautiful space they’ve built on the east side of town. Karen, a weaver, sewer, knitter and trained professional baker, warrants an article just about her, but for this issue I’ll focus on Warren.
Many artists work in more than one medium, but Warren seems to be active in many simultaneously. Brains like his aren’t quite like yours or mine. Since he was small Warren has been able to see a project in his mind in its finished manifestation. It makes for a sometimes chaotic environment when he as many projects going at once.
Entering his home is a joy I always look forward to. Every corner reflects creative intent and invites you in. His art is on the walls, sculptures stand on many tables, and the architecture leads you through one flowing space to the next. His two enormous dogs are always there to nudge you if you pause too long.
Born in 1951 in west Los Angeles, Warren enjoyed what he considers a pretty good childhood riding his bike safely everywhere. West LA at that time was surrounded by bean fields, and was a great place to be a kid until the freeway cut the neighborhood in half. Raised by very intuitive parents, he marvels that when his two siblings would attend Hebrew school every week, his mother would take Warren to art lessons instead. Those lessons, plus having a close aunt who was a prolific acrylics artist, led him into a life in the arts.
Warren started out at Cal State Sonoma but eventually did the bulk of his art education at Cal State Long Beach. Its art studios were open 24-7 and materials were cheap. Like a kid in a candy shop, he dove into glassblowing, sculpture and metalwork. Jacked up on espresso, he would work all night.
On graduation he had no clue what he wanted to do for employment, till two opportunities came up. LA is known for the lavish parties of celebrities, often involving elaborate sets and props. Warren found himself suited to that work, having acquired both the design and practical technical skills to create party events that quickly made him a sought-after artisan.
After moving to Dallas looking for greener (or at least different) pastures, he worked on a museum renovation project in preparation to host a big China exhibit that would become the largest traveling exhibit in the country, and he was one of those responsible for setting up the show. Pedestals and cabinets were custom-made to display the ancient pieces. When one of the cabinets collapsed, resulting in the loss of a very old and valuable ceramic vase, the museum director fired the exhibit director on the spot and appointed Warren as director.
His previous experience building sets for parties proved highly useful. “I learned (in the party business) that there is a show date that you need to be ready for. It’s the same at museums. I developed permanent and traveling exhibits, and had a staff of 20 at one point, in addition to farming out jobs. There were so many topics, like deep space and dinosaurs.” Every show was different, so Warren’s creative skills were constantly working and growing. He continued this work after moving to the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry in Florida.
Warren’s parents were at that time living between Phoenix and Prescott, so Warren became familiar with the area. When their two boys were still in school he and Karen bought two acres of land and began plans to build a house, and one of their sons drew out the design. Building the house has been an ongoing labor of love, with much attention to detail. It has three stories, high ceilings, ample studio space for both Warren and Karen, and a to-die-for kitchen which has a hammered copper four-foot lazy susan and a wood-fired pizza oven, all designed and made by Warren. Both are excellent cooks (they have shelves of cookbooks), and Warren is an accomplished craft cocktail artist. I imagine it hasn’t been a bad space to be stuck in during the pandemic.
While the house is a live-in art project, Warren’s other work is equally notable. His sculptures incorporate metal, glass, epoxy and found objects, frequently lit from within. Warren has spent much time in Mexico and is fascinated with Aztec and Mayan mythology and imagery. He created stained-glass pieces in his studio depicting images of Aztec deities, and his human forms sometimes evoke how bodies and heads were shaped in pieces from these cultures.
Once when they were visiting the unique mummy museum in Guanajuato, Warren was struck by how in photos he had taken the glass cabinets around the mummies seemed to be glowing. It made a strong impression, and since then mummies and glowing lights from within recur frequently in his work.
Warren’s large mazelike studio holds many projects, both finished and in-process. He created a rolling float that the couple took to Tucson several years in a row for the Day of the Dead All Souls Procession. Incorporating part of an antique baby buggy, it has a rotating circle of frames into which photos of deceased loved ones can be displayed. There is a large madonna sculpture made from automotive leaf springs in a lovely lenticular shape, inspired by a pea pod.
He is currently working on a pair of tall steel gates to replace the chain-link ones at the entrance to their compound. They feature ravens flying and resting, and many feathers. Everywhere you turn there is something that has come out of Warren’s brain and through his hands.
Warren doesn’t make art to sell. He pours creative energy into anything he does. He just can’t help it. “I think that artwork, to be successful, can’t be denied. It has to evoke emotion of some sort, or else it’s just decorative.” I look forward to my next visit to see Warren and Karen. And not just for the great cocktail!