An interview with artist Donna Zenz


California native Donna Zenz has worked as many things over the years from a psychiatric technician to an artist. She currently produces vibrant art working with acrylic on canvas, collage, murals, cards, envelopes, lunch bags, and admittedly will paint on just about anything. Boling Associates is presenting Donna Zenz and the 10 painted violins exhibit April 18, 2013 from 5-8 p.m. at the Boling Fine Arts Gallery, featuring the acrylics of Donna alongside the violins commissioned for the Fresno-Madera Youth Orchestra.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? What was it like growing up in California?

My parents were divorced when I was very young and my mom remarried when I was about 5 years old. My stepfather was a farmer so we grew up with fruit trees all around and the ever-constant smell of wine being made at the nearby wineries. Favorite memories are of me and my younger sister sneaking out our bedroom window early in the morning to go tromping through the muddy orchards to find the most “heavenly” plum or peach. My mom would throw a fit when we’d show back up at home covered in mud and still in our pajamas.


What were you like as a child? How do you think you have changed most since then?

As great as some of my memories are, there are bad ones too…my parents were young when they married and really didn’t know how to be parents. I was the oldest and I think it’s always hardest for the oldest. I was quiet and shy and very introverted. Back in the 60’s it was common to treat children as possessions and as far as I know, there wasn’t really anything like child protective services today. My mom struggled with bouts of substance abuse and depression and as a result, my siblings and I were often neglected and sometimes physically abused.  I think over the years, I have changed the most in just being able to be more outspoken and be less of a victim. I’ve been through years of mental health treatment and my own struggles are probably what contributed most to me ending up working in the mental health field.

Did you have a love of art early on?

Yes….I was constantly doodling or coloring on something. My very favorite site was of a blank piece of paper. I often got in trouble at school for drawing in the margins of assignments or doodling while the class was supposed to be watching a film or listening to a lecture. I was never allowed to pursue art in school, though. My mom had a definite plan for me and it was NOT to be an artist (“They don’t make any money”)…she insisted I take typing classes so that I could get a “real job” as a secretary or a nurse. She made sure to remind me that if I was going to find a rich husband, I would need be “in the right place at the right time”…


What led you to first try your hand at painting?

I always considered myself “artsy”…and as the mother of three children, there were lots of school projects to help the kids with. Besides that, I used to buy those plain white lunch bags and sit up every night with markers and make beautiful masterpieces for my kids to take their lunch to school in and then to end up in the cafeteria trash bin at the end of the day. I got so good at it that my kids’ friends would ask for them as well. One day the kids and I were at a local street art faire and the kids saw some art on large canvasses that looked like my doodles. The artist was there…his name was Joe Vargas, and when he saw how excited the kids were about it, he took me aside and said that I should just go out and buy some acrylic paint and a canvas and “take a shot at it”. I told him that I had never taken a class and didn’t even know what the difference between acrylic and oil paints was. I was also encouraged by coworkers who were getting tired of my doodling in the margins of work papers. Everyone agreed that I should just get out there and try it. That was in 1998. I was 42 years old! It took off pretty fast from there. I had my first one person art show “About Face” in 2000 and I’ve been painting since then.

Who are some of your favorite living artists?

I think my earliest influence was Peter Max. I grew up in the psychedelic 60’s and 70’s and there was a lot of that “peace, love, dove” kind of art everywhere. I also love Michael Parks, Fred Babb, Frank Arnold, Mboko Lagriffe, Tracy Lee Stum, Audrey Kawasaki, Laura Fraedrich, Ramiro Martinez and a ton of others…way too many to try and remember now…


What do you love most about creating in general?

I’m always amazed when I’m finally finished and happy with a project. Lots of times, I look at something and wonder how that came out of me. I guess that’s a kind of pride…that feeling of being able to do something that no one else could do. Feeling “special”. I think that’s an old  craving from childhood…never feeling unique and now in some ways I am…

Why do you think society has always been so fascinated with the art world?

I think artists, in general, are regarded as kind of weird or “different” and always kind of living on the edge…something that lots of people would love to do but don’t feel brave enough or whatever…the whole “starving artist” thing…not working “a real job” because you can’t stand to NOT be creative in some way…we’re the “bums” of society, I think…all those “fascinated” folks living vicariously I guess.


Do you think colors can play a role on affecting ones moods, outlook, etc.?

Absolutely. I have always been a person who hears in color. I can listen to music and close my eyes and see what color the notes are. I know it sounds strange, but that’s how it is for me. In my head, certain things just HAVE to be certain colors…when I say the words, I see the colors and so I think with moods, it’s the same. A lot of that is also socially ingrained, so who knows if it’s my own unique thing or if it’s just that I learned that springtime colors are “happy” and dark colors are “sad”…you know? But for sure, colors have an influence on a person’s metabolism and the way we react in certain situations…fast food restaurants are a perfect example…bright, vivid colors get your metabolism racing and you tend to eat your food faster and get out of the way for the next customer…same goes with color in any environment.


Are there any little known things about you that you’d not mind sharing with our readers?

Hmmm…not sure. I have the typical story of the abused child…I grew up, was rebellious in my late teens and early twenties…did lots of drugs in the wild 70’s and did a lot of experimenting with social mores. I was an extra in the movie Hardcore with George C. Scott and Season Hubley because I was working in a massage parlor in San Diego when the film crew came around and I made friends with Season. That was pretty exciting and fun. I’ve been a prostitute, a topless dancer, an ambulance dispatcher, a bartender, a psychiatric technician, a crisis worker…and now an artist…lots of experience to draw from!


I understand you knew Ian Ayres, the creator of The Original Van Gogh’s Ear Anthology when he was younger? What was he like back then if you don’t mind my asking?

Well, he had a different name back then. He was about 16 or 17 when I worked in one of his mom’s massage parlors here in Fresno. He was only a couple years younger than I was but I considered him “a cute kid”…VERY CUTE!  He was also really responsible and sweet. He helped his mom with her businesses and he knew everyone by their first names. I think all the girls considered him like a little brother…and a couple of them might have had less platonic feelings toward him! He was funny and fun to hang out with.


Do you think creative minds tend to gravitate towards one another regardless of their medium of work?

I do. I think we all identify with that “weirdo” image I was talking about earlier. I think early in life we know we’re different and we live with that knowledge and generally seek out others who mesh with our weirdness…there’s something like that in one of the Dr. Seuss quotes I’ve been seeing around lately and I definitely agree!

Do you have any one subject that you enjoy working with most?

I almost always want to draw faces on every painting I do. Not really sure why but I sometimes feel like the painting isn’t finished unless I’ve painted a big old pair of eyes and lips on the front of it. You can see it in lots of my art. I also like hands…not really sure why.


Do you have a dream project?

Not really a project. My dream would be to be able to make a living as an artist and just be me…not having to wear any other hats to pay bills, you know?

Can you tell us a little about the exhibit coming up at Boling Fine Arts?

I’m really excited about this show! I met Brad and Jan Boling last summer at one of their monthly shows and we made “friends” on Facebook. My art is on my profile there and about a month or so ago, I got a message from Brad saying that he was going to be showing these violins that have been painted and donated to the Children’s Orchestra here, locally, and he said when he saw them, he thought of my art and asked if I’d be interested in showing! I love that he thought of me and I agree, after seeing the violins, that they are a lot like my own creations! Also exciting is that I recently made friends with Jonathan Napoles from the local band Before Perils. Their band features a really awesome violin player and they will be performing for us! I couldn’t be more excited and happy about this show!


What advice would you offer the women of today and tomorrow in regards to self image and such?

Wow! I have to say that the best thing you can ever do for yourself is to follow your heart. I knew from a really young age that I was an artist and because of what other people told me about myself, I never thought I could attain my goals or be anyone of value. Now I know that just because someone else dressed you when you were a kid, that doesn’t mean you can’t take off those old clothes and find what fits you now! I’m still working on it, but it IS working!

What was the best advice anyone ever offered you?

Joe P. Vargas when he said, “Just do it!”

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What projects are you currently working on?

There’s a local juried show next month that I just decided to try and enter a piece for. Just started working on it today, in fact.

Is there anything you’d like to say before you go? 

Just thanks for giving me this opportunity and it’s been fun!

2 thoughts on “An interview with artist Donna Zenz

  1. Ian Ayres says:

    Reblogged this on Voyeur and commented:
    The radiant talent of Donna Zenz…

  2. Roy Franks says:

    Proud of you Donna. Thanks for being my friend. God Bless

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