We had the good fortune of connecting with Zoë Papini and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Zoë, what’s one piece of conventional advice that you disagree with?
This notion that you must be, and must have always been, dedicated completely to your practice your whole life in order to reach certain heights in your field has always been troubling for me. I believe this idea is discouraging and raises doubts in people entering into a new field from an unrelated background. I don’t agree with the idea that everything that came before should be looked at as a deviation from your intended path. Instead, they should be seen as assets that can give you unique point of view. Every experience, no matter how trivial, adds to an individual’s character. The goal should never be to strive to be like your heroes, but instead to strive to be the most authentic version of yourself and that means pulling from every part of you. We should not discount things in their lives that seem disconnected from our passions because the truth is that everything is connected. We are all complex beings who are multifaceted and that only makes what we have to offer more valuable.

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I came to art somewhat accidentally. I took a painting class in college and fell in love. My practice extends to printmaking, drawing, and photography, and my subject matter is almost exclusively portraiture. I come from a family of Italian artists and artisans. I was born in Florence and brought to New York as a toddler. I grew up in the public school system in Brooklyn, where I came to believe that my two defining characteristics were being an empath and an extrovert. I thought of pursuing a career as an event planner, because all I really wanted to do was bring people together in a curated way, creating bonds and friendships among people who would not otherwise have met.
When I started taking art classes as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, it was like a revelation. The act of painting portraits created an instant connection between me and my subjects, but also extended beyond the two of us to a larger circle of friends and acquaintances, and finally to a larger public.
Having grown up between Florence and New York, I had been exposed mainly to Renaissance portrait painting, which I always understood to be the highest form of esthetic perfection. The discovery that I myself could produce art, rather than simply observe it, brought about a sort of inner revolution, that both combined and exploded the two parts of my being: the Italian and the American. This inner turmoil culminated in my BFA thesis project, my first real body of work, titled “False Idols,” which consisted of a group of portraits that borrowed many Italian Renaissance conventions: the accessories, the composition, the clothing. But the subjects, rather than being white European nobles and royalty, were my own closest friends, almost all of whom were people of color. In my naivete, having had little exposure to art history at that point, I was rebelling against the underrepresentation of minorities in fine art. Having grown up between Florence and New York, I had been exposed mainly to Renaissance portrait painting, which I always understood to be the highest form of esthetic perfection. The discovery that I myself could produce art, rather than simply observe it, brought about a sort of inner revolution, that both combined and exploded the two parts of my being: the Italian and the American. This inner turmoil culminated in my BFA thesis project, my first real body of work, titled “False Idols,” which consisted of a group of portraits that borrowed many Italian Renaissance conventions: the accessories, the composition, the color palette. But the subjects, rather than being white European nobles and royalty, were my own closest friends, almost all of whom were people of color. In my naivete, having had little exposure to art history at that point, I was rebelling against the underrepresentation of minorities in fine art. I also saw the color palette as an opportunity for rebellion and my unusual and vivid color sense continues to be a signature of my style today.
In graduate school, at the New York Academy of Art, I of course broadened my horizons, and I received a much deeper, traditional and formal training. I now know, of course, that there many wonderful artists of color who celebrate people of all possible extractions, and I count among my strongest influences painters like Mickalene Thomas, Alice Neal, and Kehinde Wiley, but I have never lost my desire to challenge what I still feel is the dominant esthetic in “high art.” The people I truly wish to see represented, those who I want to be seen, are my friends, and I will continue to paint them, always.

In graduate school, at the New York Academy of Art, I of course broadened my horizons, and I received a much deeper, traditional and formal training. I now know, of course, that there many wonderful artists of color who celebrate people of all possible extractions, and I count among my strongest influences painters like Mickalene Thomas, Alice Neal, and Kehinde Wiley, but I have never lost my desire to challenge what I still feel is the dominant esthetic in “high art.” The people I truly wish to see represented, those who I want to be seen, are my friends, and I will continue to paint them, always.

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I would like to dedicate this shout out to my studio mate and dear friend Demo. Sharing a studio with her has undoubtedly made me a better painter and artist in general. Her painting style can be compared to that of the old masters, and her drive, discipline and dedication to her craft is truly an inspiration to me. Her ability to constantly grow, change and reinvent herself all while staying true to her own style is something I have the utmost admiration for. Not only are her paintings breathtaking, and her technique unmatched, but she has a talent for seamlessly embedding moments of humor and brilliant story telling into her works. Her constant feedback and encouragement have pushed me in directions I would have otherwise been afraid to go. She pushes me to think bigger and to experiment with new materials and techniques. She and I graduated from the same MFA program and having her as a studio mate has felt like a continuation of my education. Her belief in my abilities humbles me and gives me the motivation to keep pushing through times where I feel lost or stuck. Most of all I am in awe of the way she seems to make all of this look effortless. She doesn’t try too hard to be anything. She simply just is.

Website: https://www.zoepapiniart.com

Instagram: zowedaartist

Image Credits
Gil Gilbert (Scan.jpeg)

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