An Interview with Jill Zevenbergen

Posted by on Dec 3, 2008 in Interviews

Jill Zevenbergen

Jill Zevenbergen earned a BFA from the University of Northern Iowa in 2001 with an emphasis in printmaking and photography. She then moved to Tampa and worked at the University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum and Graphicstudio. In 2005 she moved to Knoxville, TN to further study Printmaking at the University of Tennessee. Jill is currently enrolled at the Virginia Commonwealth University MFA program for Painting and Printmaking. She will graduate in May.

James Greene sat down to chat with Jill via instant messaging on November 30th: the eve of Jill’s Fall Graduate Review (or what I referred to as a Gang Crit when I was a grad.) We discussed her latest work, being an artist and academic, and the influence of Nintendo Wii games on art.

JG: I know you from way back. Has it been 8 years? 7 years?

JZ: When did we first have classes together? It could be 8 or 9 years.

JG: So a lot has happened since then. It is always interesting talking to people you started off with who have gone on in a similar vein as you. Grad school, etc. getting married, having an artist spouse and balancing all that. How the hell did we get caught up in making a career of art?

JZ: Yeah, and within all that we have somehow ended up it a lot of the same places – Tennessee, Florida. About a career in art – it just happened.

JG: But you made it happen.

JZ: Nothing else seemed right, as exciting.

When did you start thinking that?

Actually, thinking back to the beginning of making art was in high school. Art was the only thing that actually kept me in school. I used to skip other classes to work on my painting. I think all the teachers knew too. I used to skip school a lot, and my art projects are what kept me going. I went to college to basically leave my hometown, I wanted to live in a city – I grew up a tiny town. When I applied to undergrad I thought I would be a graphic designer.

Graphic design has the tendency to shed students into printmaking.

JZ: Yes, My husband John was in design too and he helped convince me not to pursue that, as did working in an office and finding out I hate desk jobs.

JG: Now you’re graduating from VCU’s MFA program in the spring. Have you started the academic job hunt crapshoot or are you looking elsewhere?

When John graduated he went all out on the CAA job application thing, and got burned. I decided to focus on my thesis, maybe do some of the second rounds. I would like to adjunct next year, but with the economy… I just have to find the adjucting, VCU is drying up.

JG: Adjuncting is good in a recession. Schools need adjuncts. It’s good to be needed at least.

JZ: They are pushing me to move to New York. VCU has a pipeline to the city. But it’s not for me. I want things like a house and family. I’m thinking maybe Chicago or Minneapolis right now. I need to go north where there is winter.

JG: Wherever I get a job is where we’ll go.

JZ: The job leads it.

JG: For now. It has to, when you put all this work into it! Right? I’d live in Oklahoma if it meant I had a decent teaching job.

JZ: Isn’t that part of why we did all this schooling? I don’t know about Oklahoma.

JG: Me neither. I take it back. I meant Alabama.

JZ: There are limits to where I would go, after moving around so much lately, I want to be somewhere that makes me happy.

Did we have to go through all this schooling to be where we are?

For me yes. I have gained a ton besides education. Things like confidence, self-reliance. I imagine who and where I would be without all the school and I like my current self better. Each place I’ve been – Tampa, Tennessee, now VCU, I’ve left a better person.

Crystal Wagner presented a paper this year at SECAC on the topic of “Artedemia” or art that is really more schoolwork than artwork. The top schools are producing artedemics who snatch up all the jobs. What do you make of that?

Yeah, You have to talk the talk. Where are all the real people anymore? Everyone has their schtick.

JG: How do you react to rumors that in 8-10 years most studio programs will require professors to have a PhD in studio art?

The MFA isn’t so special anymore. Its pretty accessible to get an MFA if you work hard. Is it just that so many graduates want to teach? Or that so many find hot shot artist in NYC is a long shot and teaching is the runner up? Got to get a leg up somehow. But I don’t want anymore schooling for me.

JG: Are art departments weakened when more and more instructors see teaching as a fallback job?

JZ: Not all artists are good teachers. And not all teachers are good artists. It’s amazing to find a teacher who is truly passionate about both teaching and their professional practice.

Who would you say is a professor who is passionate about both? Name names.

The first that come to mind, immediately are Tim Dooley and Aaron Wilson. They are role models for how to balance all: art, teaching, and family. Last semester we had Virgil Marti as a visiting artist. He lives in Philly but would come down every other week to lead seminar and have studio visits. He was very thoughtful.

JG: You talk about alternate reality in your work a lot. Is your art a kind of alternate dimension?

JZ: Yeah I think so. For me, I started making art because it allowed me to escape my life. A lot of my work is still about escapism. Art can allow viewers to escape their lives as well. But, it also is a reflection of culture. So what I’m trying to say is that while it is an alternate version of reality, it is rooted in reality. But what is reality anyways?

JG: You explore the role of the artist in a reality where we fill our heads with delusions and temporary happiness. If we are so distracted, how can we care enough to pay attention to Art with a capital A?

JZ: Art with a capital A makes me want to vomit.

JG: So what is it that you do, if not Art with a Capital A?

I make things that some would call art. When I set out to make “art” it feels hokey, maybe pretentious. Who am I to comment on culture? I am a part of it. I enjoy pop culture, so am I in a position to be above it. That is saying that “Masters” are assumed to be above pop culture. I see things everyday that are so much more beautiful than art. As an artist I could never compete. Things like trees, like candy wrappers, television. I always point to something and say, I could never make art as good as that.

JG: So where does that leave the artist?

JZ: In the everyday? Where art and life are combined? I would say the artist is somewhat of an intellectual, because an artist examines and is able to see that beauty and point it out, maybe call attention to it. Whereas a non-artist could as well, but would they call it art?

JG: Does having the ability to see beauty where others do not qualify you to be “above” the artifice pop culture? And does it extend to seeing ugliness where others see only beauty?

Is it possible to truly be both on the inside and the outside at the same time? I think I wrote a theory paper about this last year. My thesis was no, it is not truly possible. Because to be aware of the existence of the other, puts you on the outside. That was the extremely short version of the argument.

JG: You discuss how different realities manifest themselves in the virtual world of video games, blogs, and internet applications that allow us to become someone else or live another life. As a kid, did you long for a Holodec like on Star Trek?

JZ: I’ve never actually watched Star Trek, but a Holodec sounds amazing.

JG: Why make art when you could be playing video games?

That is a dilemma, let me tell you. I struggle with that often. I haven’t actually played games for months. I tend to focus energy on one or the other. Lately, games have to be awesome to grab my attention. If they are mediocre then I just feel like I’m wasting my time because I’m not producing anything. Which makes me sad, Am I growing up? Becoming lame?

JG: Of course not. But I guess the crucial question is Why LOOK at art when you could be playing video games? I have a hard time getting my students to understand this.

When you say something about games there are certain people who just stop listening. Maybe making art appeals to a different audience. Gaming is more of a solo experience, except the social games like Wii Sports or Guitar Hero.

Those people are over 55. Those are the old timers who don’t have the Wii.

JZ: Looking at art is more like reading a book. It lets you into another’s head. Lets you see something from a different perspective and it makes you think. Playing games, one can more often walk away and not have any new thoughts. Gaming for me is entertainment, frivolous activity. Some people view art as a frivolous activity.

JG: Is gaming the future? Are we headed to a future that is mostly virtual and barely primary?

JZ: That future is sort of scary.

JG: What would happen if the artists of tomorrow were mostly game creators?

The games would be beautiful.

JG: How beautiful?

JZ: You would get lost in them.

JG: What would a virtual world that you created look like?

JZ: Have you played Mario galaxy or Paper Mario for the Wii. There are moments of beauty. My virtual world would be made of grey and pink. Lots of it would be white as well. The colors would be muted or super intense. Space and perspective would constantly shift.

JG: Would it be a meditation chamber where you could go and just be surrounded by these colors?

JZ: That chamber would be lovely.

JG: What would you have to do in that world?

JZ: Just sit there and look. Things would look so beautiful, like when you rub your eyes and close them.

JG: So what about a culture whose gaming fantasy world involves killing scores of people?

JZ: I’m not into those games. I’m tired of all the gloom and doom. I’m tired of thinking about the apocalypse.

JG: Can you believe how cynical we were back in 1999?

JZ: Incredibly.

JG: There is something post-apocalyptic about Knoxville in your piece entitled “Broadway.”  What is it about Broadway that made you want to make a virtual world out of it?

\"Broadway\" by Jill Zevenbergen

JZ: It could be any Broadway anywhere. Knoxville had a weird light that affected me. I didn’t realize it until I left and came back months later. It had to do with the pollution and eternal smog there. The light was softer and filtered — very different from the Florida sunshine of my previous residence. The sky in Knoxville was eternally grey. You had to drive everywhere and experience everything through a windshield.

JG: Why did you turn that rotten strip of pawnshops into a full-immersion world for your installation?

JZ: Why not? It was what I saw everyday first thing and last thing. Its what we all see all the time and don’t even notice it.

It looks abstracted, almost blasted, falling apart, radioactive. Have you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

Love that book. It’s a book that I keep thinking about over and over again. It was visual, matched my art at that time. If that book was a game I wouldn’t play it… too depressing. But what if that game was the same premise but looked spectacular? Could you forget about the story.  I’d say that Broadway is like that, horrible, ugly but I wanted to turn that ugliness into something fantastic.

JG: Your pink house piece brings back memories. Did you ever live in a pink house?

JZ: No, but when I was a kid there was a pink house that went insane with Christmas lights every year. I thought it was the best house in the whole town. My mom always commented on how ugly it was though.

What is your new artwork about?

If I knew that I could start writing my thesis. Seriously though – banality, pleasure.

JG: Hrm. What about drugs? Obviously with all the talk of pleasure, other realities, and videogames, I’m starting to think you need to put down the bong.

I was reading about how pleasure is the everyday experience, neither too high or low. I can’t decide if I want to make the everyday (pleasure) into a higher experience. Like when you trip? No drugs for me anymore. I want one to notice the banal and to find something more in it.

JG: banal: So lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.

Yes, and I’m becoming more and more OK with the banal.

JG: What would you like to be noticed in your upcoming banality?

JZ: The details that go unnoticed. emptiness that feels OK. I want one to get lost in it.

JG: Sounds like an opportunity for meditation, Do you do yoga or meditate or go to church or anything?

JZ: I have been going to yoga, that is the feeling I want

JG: The idea of getting lost sounds so enjoyable right now. That would be a great feeling.

JZ: I used to try to get lost when I first started driving. I would drive on random roads in the county hoping that I would never be able to find my way back to my shitty hometown. But I always made it back

JG: So you want to make something that is banal but has details that, once found, get you lost? Can we find something new once we’ve completely lost ourselves?

JZ: The true meaning of Christmas? You could find what really matters – forget all the crap, all the material crap and be real.

: Does reversing the polarity of lost and found somehow renew our idea of what is interesting?

JZ: You mean, does the banal become the exciting part? I hope so.

JG: What would you have accomplished, if you made banality exciting?

JZ: I would give meaning to the everyday life that usually means nothing. I think about what I remember most from years ago, and it is usually the monotony. What I did in general and not specific.

Have you ever had this feeling you’re describing while looking at someone else work?

Yes. A few years ago at the Whitney Biennial there was a room that Assume Vivid Astro Focus did. I could have stayed in that room forever. It made me so happy just to be there.

JG:  Would you like to start using digital media projections and sound?

I’ve tried working on some video stuff this semester and I feel like I get to impatient. This is weird because I’m a pretty techie person. When the tool gets cumbersome I don’t want to use it. I could spend a whole year working with video and get somewhere, but I think about all the other things I could make in that same amount of time. I see myself using more low-tech lights and projections. Maybe sounds from the surrounding outdoors, but nothing fancy. But, at the same time, I’m using the laser cutter to cut paper. I think about what I will do when I don’t have the VCU facilities. And I’m kind of excited about what the limitations will bring me. There’s something about relying on yourself to get something done and not a machine. What do you do when the computer crashes?

JG: Exactly. Or what to do if there is a digital cataclysm where data is all lost. Then what?

JZ: Back to the apocalypse.

JG: That raises the question: Does art need to be permanent?

I’m going to have to say no because if it does I’ve been doing a lot of things wrong lately.

We have the art of other lost civilizations. Won’t we someday be one of them? What remains if not the art?

JZ: Even the art that is permanent, will sometimes degrade. We will have the documentation of the temporary art. The virtual, second hand version of the original. The copy.

JG: Sure. Or museums catch fire or are blown up or looted. But what does the temporary approach say about my culture or lack of one? That nothing is worth saving form this era?

Get it while you can, it won’t last. Things are made to be thrown away, cell phones only last two years, if even.

JG: But couldn’t artists be battling that artifice, that waste?

JZ: Probably. This gets back to the artist’s role. Is it their role to improve society or to reflect it? My ultimate answer would be both.

JG: Do you think it is the artist’s job to improve things, then? By making the world see itself differently?

JZ: Does art have a moral purpose? I am so very conflicted on this still. I’m going to say if art can bring happiness to somebody then it is doing a service. If art cannot change society, if even in just a little way, then why do it? Then it just becomes entertainment. Valueless. If art has no morality, than its on the same level as magazine ads

JG: So do you think artists are uniquely qualified to be morality generators?

JZ: That’s the problem. What qualifies me to say what is moral? Art can be used for evil.

JG: Isn’t pop culture essentially just that? Art used for evil.

JZ: Evil? But I am a true fan of pop culture. I love TV. I love the spectacle.

JG: But does that make us hypocrites?

JZ: Perhaps.

JG: You love the opportunity held within the banal. Can your work somehow be a banal spectacle?

: If you were so banal that you were no longer banal.

JG: And what would that look like? The answer is your thesis. Well my work here is done. I think we need to get into the video gaming industry.

JZ: Video games are the answer to most anything.

JG: Can you recommend some games that inspire you to not make art?

JZ: My fave games are Mario Galaxy, Paper Mario for the Wii – Paper Mario: Thousand Year Door, Galaga, Super Mario 3. I’m into the Mario games. But, they all inspire me to make art!

JG: I must start thinking about turning on that awesome virtual reality called Dream Time, where I go to sleep and dream all night. Really low tech. You stay classy Jill. Good luck on your upcoming grad reviews and have fun at Basel.

JZ: Thanks for entertaining me tonight.

JG: A pleasure to be a distraction.



  1. Byron King
    December 3, 2008

    Very nice JG and JZ. You guys sound like rappers with your initials. I enjoyed this a lot and this conversation had some similar themes from Akbar’s last thread, and my last post. Meditation, the end of the world, morality, artists as moral compasses?

    Man do we not beat ourselves up over all of this.

    Great first interview James. Looking forward to more of these. Thanks for sharing JZ. Good luck with your thesis.

  2. markcreegan
    December 3, 2008

    very the nice!i really like that pic of the illustrative landscape environment with the chair in the corner. It would seem that the chair is out of place but JZ made it fit nicely.

    JG, looks like you and I are the only ones not going to Miami!

  3. valuistics
    December 4, 2008

    Thanks all! Yeah Jill and her husband John are a couple folks I know from round about where I’m from who have gone on to do tremendous things with art. I’m more comfortable interviewing someone I know, and now I’m realizing there are several folks I could interview in this fashion. Thanks much to Jill for being game. I had a great time and I like the fact that we dug deep into what she’s doing. I remember grad school and believe me it’s hard to know what you’re doing all the time. I’m glad I was able to help her on her way to grad reviews, which are painful. Thanks and look for more interviews to come.

  4. markcreegan
    December 4, 2008

    Hey James, I am really interested in this topic of “artedemics” lets jibber-jabber bout that some day.

  5. » Archive » Interview with Jill Zevenbergen now on Globatron
    December 5, 2008

    […] right over to to read my recent interview with fellow Iowan and artist Jill Zevenbergen. It is a new day for art […]

    December 8, 2008

    New blog post: An Interview with Jill Zevenbergen

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