Natalia Zukerman has taken a “long and winding road,” to where she is now, she says on the phone. Primarily known as a piercing singer-songwriter and stalwart touring musician, Zukerman is also an artist and illustrator. This year, when she makes the annual lesbian pilgrimage to Provincetown for Memorial Day weekend festivities, she won’t be playing a formal show — which she’s done many times before, gigging with friends like Zoë Lewis and Melissa Ferrick — but instead will lead a workshop called “Inviting Joy: Rewriting and Rerouting Our Stories” at Womencrafts on Sunday at 9 a.m.
Michelle Axelson, the store’s owner, has been a fan of Zukerman’s music for 20 years, and the two know each other through the “small world of lesbian artists/performers/authors and lesbian bookshop owners,” Axelson wrote to the Independent. “We agreed that the program she is interested in having was suited for people who will be up and fresh in the morning!”
After nearly two decades of dipping in and out of Provincetown — her first visit was in the summer of 2005 with an ex-girlfriend — the bookstore event “will be such a good way to meet people and spend time with them, not just 15 minutes at the merch table,” Zukerman says. It also marks an exciting new phase in her career.
Zukerman, who turns 48 next month, grew up in New York City in a renowned musical family. Her parents are the flutist and journalist Eugenia Zukerman and the violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman. She went to the conservatory at Oberlin but switched to studio art as an undergraduate. After working for a few years as a muralist in San Francisco, she took up life as a professional musician in earnest in 2003, which turned into 12 years of being on the road, driving to gigs in her Prius. Her bluesy style, distinctive jazz phrasings, and virtuosic guitar playing made her a fixture in the folk scene.
The touring life, she says, “was beautiful and amazing, and I do not regret it at all.” But the grueling schedule could get in the way of her connection to the songs and the audience. On a tour with Garnet Rogers in 2006, he asked Zukerman if she felt as if she were working at a Ford factory. She didn’t get it at the time. “But a couple of years into it, I knew exactly what he was talking about,” she says.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Zukerman returned seriously to making visual art again. “The word diversification started to float around in my singer-songwriter world around the same time I was starting to get real tired of touring,” she says. Her return to painting happened accidentally, when she gave a friend a portrait of her dog as a baby shower gift. Her pet portrait business took off from there.
The origins of her Womencrafts workshop are in the pandemic, when Zukerman and her friend Lisa Ferraro turned their conversations into a book called Signs and Symbols of Our Ancestors.
“We were talking so much about the ways that our loved ones, ones we’ve known about and ones we don’t, send us signs that they are still in the universe,” Zukerman says. The resulting volume, with stories of ancestral encounters from 26 different authors and intricate nature-inflected illustrations by Zukerman, “came at a time when the world was undergoing so much shift and so much grief, collective and private,” she says. “It felt healing to be able to offer this hopeful, whimsical little book.”
When Ferraro and Zukerman performed at the National Women’s Music Festival last year, they offered an all-day workshop about the book, which is the basis for this weekend’s shorter event.
“Whether they’re about loss or some other area of difficulty in our lives, we get really stuck in the telling of these stories,” she says. Zukerman has long been fascinated by neuroplasticity and the retraining of neural pathways. The workshop, which will include a mix of different movements, meditation, and creativity practices plus “some magic up my sleeve,” she says, aims to help participants locate and tune in to those sticky feelings. The goal is explicitly not to gather people’s stories of loss but rather to share “little tips and tricks that people can take and practice on their own,” she says.
Turning to this illustration and facilitation work has unlocked further creative efforts for Zukerman. Music, now technically on the back burner, has poured out of her anew: she used to write 10 songs a year; now it’s a song a week. She also spent some time as the program director and a teaching artist for the youth arts organization Kid Pan Alley.
“Like in that old game of ‘Are you smarter than a fifth grader,’ I often say, ‘Is your songwriting better than a second grader?’ No,” Zukerman laughs. “They’re so much better at it, and melodically, they’re just free.”
Fresh out of that 9-to-5 role, Zukerman is back to being “a jack of all trades. Or maybe I should say master of many trades,” she says. She’s been working with a metal sculptor at her home base in the Hudson River Valley and getting paid to learn how to weld. “I just get to live this really creative life,” she says. “I’ve done a little bit of many things and am only recently starting to see that as a superpower. I feel like it’s capitalism and misogyny that makes me feel like there’s something wrong with that.”
After two decades of women’s weekends in Provincetown, which tend to bring in a more “second-wave feminist, lesbian separatist type vibe,” she says, and having spent time on the women’s festivals circuit and Olivia cruises, Zukerman is fascinated and energized by the shifting conversation around lesbian and queer spaces. “My hope is we can have really open and expansive conversations around all of it,” she says. “I certainly have more questions than I have answers.”
In a sense, she’s fought hard throughout her career, and as a queer artist, both for this expansiveness and to reclaim her own specificity. After chafing against the idea of being a lesbian artist — I’m just an artist,” she says emphatically — she’s come to a place of joyful acceptance. “I love the word lesbian; I love the word queer; I love the word folk,” she says. “I love a lot of things that used to get stuck in the back of my throat because I felt like it kept me away or separate. And now I feel like I belong in myself. God, it’s about time.”
The event: A workshop with musician and artist Natalia Zukerman
The time: Sunday, May 28, 9 to 11 a.m.
The place: Womencrafts, 376 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: $10 to $20 sliding scale donation; register at armaturepublishing.com