Artist Profile

I recently completed an email exchange with Essi Zimm, whose exhibition Upon the Sleeve runs until March 15 at Prohibition Gallery. (I previously reviewed Michael Gittes' Prohibition Gallery show here and interviewed him here.)  Zimm is a local multimedia artist who creates dazzlingly vivid images of folklore and stories, merging the mundane with the whimsical.   Her images have a dynamism and chaos to them that immediately catches your eye.  She works in collage, painting, illustration, and is also an architectural designer.

Artist Interview

I On the Arts: How did you get started making art?  What is your background and training?

Essi Zimm: I started making art—especially collage—at an early age.  The destruction of paper and its elements has followed me through being influenced in the bookstore (a place I grew up in), to traveling the world and seeing the remnants of dilapidated paraphernalia. 

Essi Zimm, The White Rabbit. 2014.
Oil/surface wreckage collage on archival paper.
Courtesy of Prohibition Gallery.

One of the most defining moments for me in regards to this [idea of art-making] was the coming-down of the Berlin Wall. My family is German and we had family on both sides and we were finally able to go to the East side. There were just so many torn relics of propaganda hanging around.  There was a beauty to this, a meaning that was at one point so prolific, and then became nothing more than a torn story. I became obsessed with this ideology of the importance that paper plays in revealing, concealing, and communicating meaning. When I was little, these things heavily influenced my psyche, but I found I began to stray from the creation of art, because like most kids we are taught in school to do things "right": meaning to do things through the eyes of the program set forth by a societal standard, or through the eyes of what they deemed to be "accurate" versus, per se, being taught to develop our personal "eye".  

Don't get me wrong: I think it is incredibly important that people are taught the fundamentals, but this can also be very destructive to children at a young age, because they begin to doubt their own ability when they cannot accurately portray something. That doesn't mean they are a bad artist, it just means they have a different way of viewing the world. Like with most kids, I fell into the pitfalls of "I can't draw this apple accurately, so why do it?" It was not until high-school where I really came back into the idea of drawing. I was working in a comic book store at the time (geek central right here) and I found I was often drawing and redrawing a lot of these elements. 

When I went to college for a bachelor's degree in architecture, my sketchbooks would be filled with comic book characters rather than architectural buildings. The real linchpin was going to Savannah College of Art and Design, where I received my Masters in Architecture. The school was great in the sense that you could explore a variety of different fields very easily. So I took as many "art" classes as my schedule could muster, and of course one of my primary focuses, at the time, was comic book illustration. There is a fantastical nature about these stories, that is very similar to the old world folk lore that I grew up on, and that is a predominate focus of my current body of work. 

I didn't actually get into oil painting until much later in my life, I was working a lot of hours at Frank Gehry's firm, and when that stint ended, I decided I would really dive back into doing what I love the most, and that is creating art through stories... collaging... etc. I took some painting classes at Otis College of art and design, and apprenticed under some well known artists in town, and began to develop my personal style. I would say my art education is a hodge-podge of different styles, and different mediums. 

IOtA:  What subjects most inspire you in your practice?

EZ: The subject matter that mostly influences me has been, and will always be, folklore. We are a society filled with tall tales, from how we describe people, e.g. "Prince Charming"/ "The Big Bad Wolf",  to our religious canons,  to even our "reality shows" that are visually fabricated stories. We create these stories to explain the moralities, desires, and fears of a society. I currently focus on folklore from the German, Native American, and Japanese cultures: three cultures that I have been privy to, and been surrounded and influenced by. 
Essi Zimm, Ka : Ma : So. 2014.
Oil/surface wreckage collage on archival paper.
Courtesy of Prohibition Gallery.

IOtA: What artists or teachers have been most influential to you?

EZ: I would say, one of the largest influences of my life was Jesse Mckean. He was this hippie that ran the bookstore I was raised in, called Mt. Books. He was just this encyclopedia of knowledge, I could ask him about anything and he would give me every single facet of information on that subject. He was one of the reasons I probably have an over-analytical mind, and why I strongly believe in connections. Everything I do has to have some form of meaning, from the materials I use, to the stories I tell, it all has to relate.  That was the importance of knowledge: the more you knew, the more you could see the connections that run throughout the world. 

This [idea] was compounded by the people that frequented the book store, from everyone from the local psychic, the religious zealot, the UFO hunters, the philosopher, the mountain folk... they all had stories of connection and of energy. 

Another major influence would have to be my grandmother and my mother. I grew up in a family that believed you could find these connections all around you: they called them "signs". If you could find the right sign, you could understand the way the world runs. This connectivity is an obsession of mine, and a complete juxtaposition with the fragility of the medium I use to explain these connections.

IOtA: What has been your proudest moment as an artist?

EZ: Oh man, there are so many moments I am proud of, but I would say I am one of those people that always feels they can do better, do more, improve.  I'm never truly satisfied. It's a creator curse. But I will say one [example] that sticks out to me was [when] I was teaching art to children under a program called "Young at Arts", which is a program that a lot of schools have begun to implement, where a local artist will come and teach docents (primarily over 300 parents) a program that they can then teach the children in their schools. I came up with a program that showcased how music can help unleash the inner artist in kids who have begun to feel the pressure of being "accurate", allowing them to freely draw with the music without over thinking about if they were doing it right. I had to originally try it out on 10 different children, all aged differently, to show that it could work before passing it on to the docents; needless to say, it was a wild success, and to see them all be initially hesitant and then to just let go and create these beautiful pieces of self expression, was just so amazing. More than anything, having some of them walk away more confident about their personal abilities was really great for me. It was being able to give the "ah-ha" moment. I strongly believe that the success of an artistic culture stems from the full circle mentality, and that starts with fostering an environment of critical thinking and self expression. 

IOtA: What has been your most challenging or frustrating moment as an artist?

EZ: Oh, there are so many individual frustrating moments; art is all about falling down and getting back up. But I would say the number one for me would be time.  I work 8 hours a day (at least) being an architectural designer, and then I go to studio afterwards. I am not complaining, but I do often wish I had more time. I would love to explore more, get into paper sculptures, pick up my violin again, but I find I have to focus now on certain avenues, due to not having enough time to do it all. That just makes me itchy. 
Essi Zimm, 13 Kitsune. 2014.
Oil/surface wreckage collage on panel board
Courtesy of Prohibition Gallery.

IOtA: What media do you use?  How did you pick the media you use now?

EZ: I primarily use collage and oil paint. I have been doing collage for as long as I can remember, my first piece being when I was six (a butterfly). I strayed from collage for awhile because I was critiqued on that it was too "decorative" or that my philosophy of why I chose it as a medium was not "acceptable in the art world" and it was most definitely not "sellable."

I tried for a time using pure paint medium, and it wasn't until I took a class with the late Franklyn Liegel, who saw my need to use paper, (and who really fostered in me to follow my instincts and thumb my nose at naysayers) did I really blossom in its exploration, especially its destruction. Franklyn coined it "surface wreckage".  I then began to explore making my own paper from pulp (though I am still exploring this avenue, as it is a lot of stinky messy work), or trekking down paper from all over the world, or from places I go, or artists I trade with, old books I find,  worn down posters, etc, etc. I have become a hoarder of paper. 

Oils came along much later, simply because it was a medium that I was intimidated by;  they are expensive, they require a lot of foreknowledge in what you should mix with what, to speed up drying time, to slow it down... acrylics are a lot simpler, but in the end, acrylics will just never hold the same beautiful body that oils can give me. Oils retain their bright colors both wet and that is what won me over into swearing by them.  I also am a Williamsburg paint lover. I've used them for years, and rarely stray from their palette. What really got me into oils in the first place was seeing one of Rebecca Campbell's oil paintings.  I loved the flesh colors she used--it just felt so anti-traditional to me, and I instantly fell in love with the color scheme. She later became an influential mentor to me. She pushed me to get my own studio, which also was a huge turning point for me, as I could create five paintings at one time, versus one at a time, which allows one to stand back and really begin to critique their own work. 

IOtA:  What do you hope people who see your work take away from it?

EZ:  The premise of collage, and folklore, is that it is often a story within a story, and I want people to always walk away with something different they found in my pieces, whether that be a hand made piece of paper that has scribbles on it from a lost love letter, or a painted face that sings to their own personal memories. I get such satisfaction to hear people say they see something new every time they look at my pieces. I feel then like I have succeeded in passing along the mystique.  


  1. What a great interview! I really like her work!

  2. Wonderful, in-depth interview on Essi ZImm!


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