Zoe Keller's passion for the natural world is immediately evident when viewing the hyper-detailed, impeccably rendered, graphite drawings that make up her portfolio of original works. In late 2016 she opened Forty-four, a debut solo show at our sister location, Antler Gallery. It was received spectacularly well, culminating in two pieces being added to the permanent collection of the National Museum of Wildlife Art. We talked with her recently about the realities of life as an independent artist, art as activism and her newest series which explores the intense beauty that can be found in even the most minute species.
1. What do you love most about the place you live now? How do you think the environments you’ve lived in influence your work?
I’m in a bit of a rough patch with Portland right now because it is so expensive. But I love Portland because of how lush Northeast and Southeast feel: alleyways overgrown with raspberries, cactuses and Doug firs thriving side by side, sidewalks covered with crow feathers and the shimmery tracks of snails. I chipmunk-cheek these little observations away, and sometimes they show up in my work years later. Overall though, the cities I’ve lived in have left much less of a mark on my work than the rural places I’ve been. The most important place for me creatively was the Maine coast. That’s where I fell in love with lichen, and where I got to experience a sense of wilderness for the first time. Luckily it’s very easy to get to places that feel wild and remote from Portland.
2. Can you tell us a little bit about the influences and inspirations behind the series you made for this show and where you see them fitting into your larger body of work?
So much of my work right now is research driven, it was really cozy with this series to return to subject matter that I have a big personal visual vocabulary around; on any hike I’m the one lagging behind with their nose pointed at the ground, searching for mushrooms and snails. I allowed myself to be less tied to species-specific information in these drawings, and loosening up this side of the process allowed me to focus more on the pencils themselves. I’m trying to balance my desire to work exclusively with mechanical pencils with the limits of there only being so many hours in the day, and that means incorporating other forms of graphite into my process. With these drawings I used a lot of wood-body pencils (albeit ones that were sharpened as much as possible). I’m excited to return to the subject matter in these drawings every few years as a marker of how my technical skill set has grown.
3. Your work utilizes a finely honed skill to replicate aspects of the natural world, often blending various different flora and fauna into miniature ecosystems. What message are you looking to impart through this collaging of nature.
I think a lot about trying to put drawing to its best use. I’m rendering my subjects with the same level of detail that you would find in a photograph or a video, without the benefits of color or of motion. But for me drawing’s real strength is that it allows me to create surreal narrative moments; for example, in my last solo show “Forty-four,” I used the collaging of species to tell stories about predator-prey relationships, and the natural role of fire in woodland and prairie ecosystems. With this series that I am showing at Talon, the message is much simpler: that there is beauty to be found in even the most minute of species.
4. Your medium is one with a strong tradition underpinning it, how do you think the medium influences your creative output?
I appreciate graphite because it’s a really humble, approachable medium. Everyone has drawn with pencil at some point, even if it’s just scribbling in the margins of a notebook. That familiarity makes the level of detail that I work in kind of like a magic trick - and that’s a great, universal conversation starter. You start talking about how a drawing was made or how long it took to create, and that transitions really seamlessly into a discussion about the drawing’s subject matter. The education and conversations about nature that happen in front of my work is more important to me than the drawings themselves.
5. How do you imagine your work will change over the coming decades? Do you have any specific areas you want to move into or goals you wish to achieve?
Being an early-career artist trying to make rent means that I say yes to everything and have to sustain a pretty insane level of output. The light at the end of the tunnel for me is the hope that I will reach a point in a few years where I can start alternating longer stretches of input with periods of making. Ideally I would be alternating six to twelve month stretches of out-in-the-world research and observation with shorter, intense rounds of studio work. I would also really love to create work for and in collaboration with scientists and folks advocating for the protection of at-risk species and wild places; although it’s been really fascinating to just grab onto a subject and deep-dive into whatever interests me, especially at this moment in time I’m looking to be a little more intentional with what stories I take the time to tell.
I’m also really curious to understand how much the use of color impacts reaction to and engagement with a piece. I’m starting to feel a sneaky bit of regret that I can’t communicate the incredible colors of the natural world in the work that I make. I was so frustrated with my inability to communicate the red, jewel-like quality of the claws of a Tooth cave pseudoscorpion last year that I had to take a break from the graphite drawing I was making to run out and buy a set of colored pencils. I spent an afternoon making my first ever colored pencil drawing, just to get that out of my system. I’m curious to see if and how color shows up in my work in years to come.
6. In terms of politics the world around us has changed significantly over the last six months. Do you see the current political climate as something that might influence either the message or subject matter of your work over the coming months?
So many of the most vulnerable in this country, and so many of our institutions are under attack right now, I feel like it can be easy to loose sight of how important environmental protection and conservation is to human health, and joy, and to a well-functioning society; we can’t put climate change and biodiversity loss and the protection of wild lands on the back burner. That’s why I think it’s important in this moment to keep speaking for plants and for non-human animals. I’m scrambling to figure out how to make work faster in response to the actions of this administration, and how to make direct, obvious connections between the themes of the large, long-term drawings that I have in process with daily events as they unfold.
7. Your work has been growing in popularity over the last few years, gaining you new collectors, a museum presence and critical acclaim. How has this changed your approach to your work? Can you identify a couple of main pros and cons of increased notoriety?
The little successes that I’ve had over the past couple of years have been such great, disorienting surprises. I think the biggest difference is that I spend a lot less time in my perma-20-something “what the fuck am I doing” mode, and more time just making the things that I want to make. I think the biggest con is maybe a bit of a tangent: that working as hard as a I have for the past few years - drawing 8 - 12 hours per day almost every day, mostly in a room by myself - has been at times very isolating.
8. Do you listen to/watch any form of media while working? If so, what is it and how does it influence your process?
I do! What I listen to depends on what part of the drawing process I’m in. If I’m in research mode or if I’m planning out a composition I put on music that I’m really familiar with. Because I tend to do my researching and composition planning in big batches, this usually means that there are a couple months out of the year where I’m just down under a rock listening to a couple of albums on an endless loop. (This past winter it was Maggie Rogers and Hazel English.) If I’m at the point where the drawings are planned and I’m laying in textures, then I switch to news and podcasts and binge-listen to everything I missed while under the previously mentioned tunes/research rock. Lately I’ve been listening to Embedded and Radiolab’s More Perfect and have really enjoyed the first couple episodes of Pod Save the People. (Also, bonus to being locked alone in a studio for 12 hours a day is that I can always listen to Congressional hearings live.) I’ve noticed lately that the more stressful the news is that I’m listening to, the tighter and more repetitive my marks become.
9. Finally, which three people would you recognize as influential artists in terms of your own work and how would you say each of them has impacted you?
I’ve been really inspired by Zaria Forman for the past few years. She creates large pastel paintings of melting glaciers to raise awareness about climate change. In her TED talk, she explains: “I choose to convey the beauty as opposed to the devastation. If you can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps you'll be inspired to protect and preserve them. Behavioral psychology tells us that we take action and make decisions based on our emotions above all else. And studies have shown that art impacts our emotions more effectively than a scary news report.” When I have little bits of doubt about the value art making in this moment in history, these words help me stay on track. I also borrow pretty heavily from the Beehive Design Collective, an ever-changing group of volunteer artists and activists who collaborate on large scale graphics dealing with social and environmental justice issues. I lived and worked with them for eleven months pretty soon after graduating from college (doing all admin stuff, not drawing), and some elements of their process and ideas around image making are core to how I work now. My biggest hero is a journalist named Amy Goodman who reports for Democracy Now! Her voice has been present in my studio for over a decade, and I’ve seen her speak in person four times. Her bravery in pursuit of truth is so inspiring to me. If someday I do work worthy of a chat with Amy, that would make my life.