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In the Studio: Zoey Frank

by Allison Malafronte

Zoey Frank at work in her Fort Collins, Colorado studio.

Fort Collins, Colorado-based painter Zoey Frank is starting the new year and decade off right with a little of the old, some of the new, and a dash of the unexpected. She’ll continue her large-scale figurative paintings undoubtedly, but she also has several concepts up her sleeve for other projects and paintings—including her current fifteen-panel series exploring a single subject under different seasonal and light conditions—as well as remaining open to new discoveries. Frank is also settling in to a steady studio and teaching rhythm as the new year begins, and plans to stick to her 10/90 rule (10% teaching, 90% painting), which allows her to learn and grow alongside her local student community while also protecting her studio time. Stylistically, Frank continues to evolve and experiment, with an ongoing interest in the relationship between representation and abstraction and a curious eye opened to additional possibilities. Most of all, you can expect that Frank’s work in 2020 will continue to offer both aesthetic and technical accomplishments, artistic leaps of faith and risk-taking, and some of the types of groundbreaking “firsts” she experienced in 2019. In this Q+A, Frank discusses all of this and more in further detail. 

Bathing Suit, 2017, oil on panel, 20 x 20 in. Private collection.

AM: What painting is on the easel at the moment, and is it a painting for a deadline or is it a painting you are working on for your own exploration/enjoyment?

ZF: I’m working on a series of large paintings. I have a show at Danese/Corey Gallery in New York City in October that I’m working toward. The paintings are all based on summer—groups of figures packed around swimming pools, girls sprawled in a sunlit living room, a picnic blanket, a giant overgrown grape vine. 

Last summer I began painting the grapevine outside in my yard, working on two panels in different light conditions. I’ve now decided to expand the painting to fifteen panels to capture the entire overgrown vine: each composed at a different time of day, under different light conditions, in different seasons, and making use of different approaches to painting them, from more representational to more abstract. I want to combine them into a single painting, made up of fifteen panels, that shows every possible way this grapevine can be, in every stage of growth. The finished painting will be more than twelve feet wide and almost nine feet tall. At the moment, I’m doing one panel of the grapevine in its dead winter state and will continue with the next panels over the coming summer. 

AM: Where is your studio located? What made you choose that town/city, and do you feel connected to a community of other creatives where you currently live?

ZF: My studio is in Fort Collins, Colorado. I grew up an hour south of here in Boulder, and moved back to the area after finishing my studies. It’s a beautiful and spacious area, which I appreciate. Having a community of painters is really important to me. I wish there were more of us here, but there are some great painters in the area. I’ve been particularly appreciating Jordan Wolfson, Haley Hasler, Daniel Sprick, and Scott Fraser, among others, and the community of students that I’ve been working with in my studio. 

Swimming Pool, 2019, oil on linen, 66 x 72 in. Available through Danese/Corey Gallery (New York City).

AM: You seem to be doing more teaching in recent years, now that you have reached a high level of artist maturity and confidence. Do you think there’s any danger in artists starting to instruct others at a young age before they have had enough education and life experiences, or really had a chance to develop who they are as an artist?

Bathroom Window, 2019, oil on linen on panel, 35 x 30 in. Private collection.  ZF: I’ve really enjoyed teaching in the last few years, but I’m also trying to hold it at bay to preserve my own studio time. I’m currently at about 10% teaching time, 90% studio time, which feels good. I’ve tried to link up my teaching with my studio practice. For example, I worked through William Dunning’s Changing Images of Pictorial Space with a group of students, working on still lifes based on the approach to space in each chapter of the book. I like when we are all learning together, it feels very alive that way. 

I think there is a danger in beginning to teach exactly how you were taught right after you finish studying, especially if you studied at an atelier, as I did. You can end up going deeper and deeper into that method, rather than feeling free to experiment and find your own approach to painting. But we all have to make a living! And teaching can be a way to help clarify your thinking.

When I’m not teaching, I often find myself missing the feeling of camaraderie and the stimulation of being surrounded by other artists. It’s nice to be able to build a community centered around my studio.

AM: Would you say that the style you are painting in now is your true voice, or does the way you paint change in different seasons/stages of your life?

ZF: My work is very much still developing, and I think it will continue to change as I go along. As I look at and think about new things, it affects the work. I want painting to be an exploration, to be able to learn from each new project. At the moment I’m interested in the relationship between abstraction and representation. I’ve recently done some experiments, such as starting with the same composition and trying out different approaches in a series of paintings. I’ve mostly moved away from surrealism in my current work. 

AM: What movements or particular people (it can be historical or present) have been some of your greatest stylistic influences that have helped shape the way you paint today? 

ZF: There are so many things that I like, I’m trying to figure out how it all fits into the kind of work I want to make. My initial love was for Renaissance and Baroque painting, and they have continued to be a significant influence, but in the last few years I’ve been looking farther back to Roman frescos, painters of the early Renaissance such as Piero della Francesca, Giotto, as well as forward to the modernists, such as Morandi, Braque, and De Kooning. I like the flattened space of these paintings, the strange jumps in perspective, and the feeling that the painters are searching for something in the work. 

I’ve been trying to find my way to an approach to painting that acknowledges the full history of painting, but at the same time feels modern and rooted in the current moment. 

Wedding, 2018, oil on linen, 96 x 140 in. Private collection.

AM: In a painting such as Wedding, what is your process for composing numerous figures in one space? Are you working collage-like in the sense of creating multiple images separately and compositing them together? Are there any digital aids that you are using (PhotoShop, etc.) either in the preparatory of final stages? 

ZF: For Wedding, I used Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa as an underlying armature for the composition. I took photos of the figures alone or in small groups and then pieced them together. I tried making a digital collage, but I didn’t actually end up using it. I preferred working from the individual photos and building the relationships together more intuitively on the surface. A digital collage seemed to lock me in too much, as it was harder to shift elements and make necessary changes.     

I did find gouache studies really useful, first to organize all the photos into a simplified, coherent whole, and later on as a way to step back from the painting and rethink it in fundamental ways.

Sonya, 2016, oil on panel, 36 x 36 in. Private collection.

AM: In your painting Sonya there is such a beautiful balance between the interior design and the figure. It seems every shape, pattern, and color was thoroughly thought through and intentionally composed to harmonize. What was your process as both a painter and designer for this painting?

ZF: It’s been important to me to think about the figure and the environment together right from the beginning. I want the whole painting to develop as one integrated unit. In this case, I started with a relatively open-ended initial idea and then let the painting develop unexpectedly. I liked how the light streamed onto the wall of that studio space, and I had been interested in painting Sonya—who worked in the studio next to mine—for a while. I loved her profile, it reminded me of pictures of my mom when she was young. I pinned patterned cloth up on the wall to give the feeling of wallpaper, and I had the lemon tree in my studio from another painting, so I added that in. 

I worked on it steadily, and then I let it sit for a few months, as it did not feel quite finished. There’s a lot of empty space behind her and a lot of activity in front of her, it was a bit odd. I added the wainscoting to anchor the space behind her and the upside-down leaves on the upper right to balance the wainscoting. That was enough for it to settle in and feel finished to me. 

Lemon Tree, 2016, oil on linen, 36 x 36 in. Private collection.

AM: Looking back on 2019, what was your greatest artistic achievement or what you feel most proud of? Were there any unexpected setbacks or struggles you had to work through?

ZF: I feel proud about making my first abstract painting ever last year [Swimming Pool #2.] I’m not sure if viewers would think that painting was my biggest achievement, but it felt like I broke new ground.  

I’ve been experimenting more in the last couple years and making some paintings that aren’t as readily pleasing to the eye as the ones I had made before. Some of these new paintings haven’t sold as quickly, and it’s hard not to be affected by that feedback loop. I feel like I’m on my way toward something, and it feels really important to keep going wherever the work takes me, even if it’s a bit unsettling at first.

AM: What are you most looking forward to as we enter a new decade in 2020?

ZF: The last decade was about learning, traveling, and collecting as much information as I could. I’m looking forward to settling in more, perhaps working on a series of paintings I want to investigate more deeply, over a longer period of time than I’ve done before. 

Swimming Pool # 2, Oil on linen, 64x 72”, 2019 Available through Danese/Corey Gallery