Chicago native Jeff Zimmermann has exhibited and created large scale murals internationally. Commissioned artwork includes Fortune 500 companies, the E.P.A, museums and universities. His work has been featured on the Today Show and in the New York Times.
Have you always been an artist? What compelled you to create your work in the form of murals, as opposed to other types of 2D art?
I'm a self taught artist. Back in the late 90s I was a graphic designer, and was bored out of my mind. A friend asked me to be the volunteer art teacher at his youth center and I thought, "Sounds fun. How hard could it be?” We're talking young kids: crayons, popsicle sticks, googley eyes, etc. One day I bumped into the pastor of the local church, and he explained he could not find anyone to produce a mural for them. There was this cool, old four story building that was dying for some artwork. I said, "Sure, I'll do that. How hard can it be?” I went and took a painting class in the Winter, and come Spring/Summer I figured it all out. I asked around. Heard about using primer. Was informed I should use "true tone" paint. I literally had one painting class under my belt. So pretty much the first thing I ever painted was a mural. I'm still at it today.
I love your pop references in your work—both to pop-culture and to pop art. Who or what influences your distinct style?
I think my style comes from my education as a graphic designer. I spend a lot of time on the architecture of my bigger murals. If you squint you can find my grid or trace the path I'm trying to get the viewers eye to follow. I like pop culture as much as the next guy, but it's tricky. I painted a cell phone in a mural once and it made the piece totally dated like a year later. Pop Art is cool. I'm into it. I'm into Basquiat. But for my money, gimme Rauschenberg.
The people in your murals are so realistic. Are they based on people in real life? Who are they?
I get off painting portraits and the public loves it when they're done really well. I create a sketch/design in the studio before I put any paint up. I'll draw some floating heads with a sharpie where I think I want them. Just place holders. Day one at the job site while I'm priming or setting up, I go "prospecting" around the neighborhood. I stop people and try to get to know them - and try to get them to pose for me. It's these locals I encounter who end up in my murals. Regular people. I like to say that these locals are what give my murals "soul".
What do you think is the most challenging part of creating work at such a large scale? Many of your murals are quite long—do you see them as a visual narrative?
Being able to conceive of and then execute big murals is all about experience. It takes a while to get the "feel" for how a design will read when it's 100 feet in the air or 200 feet long. I treat my murals as art not as billboards. You wanna get it done, sure, especially when there's thousands of square feet to be painted. But I try hard to not let it become simple production. This is public art and needs to be treated like artwork. If something needs to go away after a week of painting, get gone. If the work needs something somewhere that you only now notice when the artwork is to scale, then you figure it out. A 13,000 ft2 mural takes a long time. It takes as long as it takes, I guess. Things tend to slow down when you're 160 feet off the ground. I should mention that it's also helpful to not be afraid of heights.
I really like when I get to create a mural on a very long building. It's a challenging orientation. We are taught to go left to right and to try and "read" an artwork. My practice is to make work that is a non-linear narrative. Please look up and down, left and right, and then try and take it all in. If you're feeling puzzled and only coming up with more questions - then I'm successful. In the end, there should be some sort of "gestalt" moment. Not one where you finally get it, but where you start to feel the whole.
In what ways do your murals connect with the neighborhoods they are located in?
I always search for the ethos of the area where I'm working. The locals are literally included in the artwork, but if I can sniff out some of the vibe (what the streets are saying) I follow that lead. The artwork should be edifying and often times serious. My work is un-ironic. If it's schmaltzy, well, I mean it. Let's not be afraid to risk or be vulnerable.
I have to ask about a specific mural of yours, because I see it everyday next to my building. Can you tell me a bit about your mural on Cortez & California in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago as well as the imagery within it?
I created "The Party" during the previous election cycle. It's about the Red vs. Blue, yes, but also the fact that the party is over for so many. The zeitgeist is there but at the same time, I want these public art pieces to stand on their own. They need to continue to speak to us into the future. At best, a mural has a 20 year life span. This allows for repeated viewing, and therefore we should never be able to decipher it - but instead ponder or ask another person, "Hey, what the heck does that symbolize"?
“The Party” just keeps on being relevant. The last thing I did when I finished was spray paint over the mouths of the three female figures. It was 2016. People freaked out that my mural had been vandalized. There's spray paint added all over, actually. And I used metallic and fluorescent spray paint to cover their mouths. These colors fade away to nothing after a short time.
You'll find the idea of the "hanging Party" in there; immigration, gambling, disposable culture, yadda yadda. I don't explain. And honestly, all of my work has elements included in the artwork that even I can't explain - aside from the feeling that it needed to be in there.
These are serious times. It's a good time right now for public art because it's outdoors. Get out there and check some out. Pause for a while at the next piece of public art you come across. Hopefully it's about something.