Zoë Kimball, or Zokay, is a 24-year-old artist armed with colored pencils, markers, and watercolors. She uses them to draw whimsical, otherworldly portraits of creative women she admires on Instagram. We recently chatted about eyes as a window to the soul, the trials and tribulations of art school, and cartoons as a source of inspiration.
MINNA GILLIGAN: Hi! Where are you currently based, and what do you like most about your town?
ZOË KIMBALL: I live in Portland, Oregon. Unlike most people here, I love the weather! I love getting snuggly and doing creative things while a mini rainstorm is happening outside. I also love the landscape and native plant life. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for my whole life, and I know if I ever moved away I’d miss all my native Oregon trees terribly.
I came across your work because of a portrait you’d drawn of a Rookie contributor, Erica Segovia. It was at once recognizable as Erica—your ability to caricature someone’s likeness while still working with your own unique style is incredible. How you do approach drawing someone? Do you have to know a lot about them and their personality, or is it purely a visual exercise?
First of all, thank you! It is more of a visual exercise for me. I find most of my references on Instagram, where I follow tons of inspiring women. I love when women I find interesting post selfies! I’ll normally save a photo to my phone for a reference if there is fun makeup, hair, clothing, or patterns involved.
Your portraits of people are reminiscent of the work of 1960s artist Margaret Keane, in that they’re slightly disconcerting and exaggerated. Traditionally feminine-associated features like eyes and lips are enlarged in your work, as in Keane’s. What do these decisions communicate?
Growing up, I had a love affair with Brian Froud’s books, and I believe his work influenced a certain part of the way I now approach making art. The lightness of his work mixed with the darkness is something I’ve always been drawn to—the beauty hidden in the dark. Eyes are definitely my favorite feature to draw. I love exaggerating features to really show expression and emotion through eyes.
At the same time, your work is underscored by contemporary elements that are reminiscent of anime and comic book styles. Do you cite these genres as inspiration?
I’ve never really been into comic books or anime until the last couple years. They are inspiring to me but aren’t a main source of inspiration. I watch tons of cartoons—Regular Show, Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Rick and Morty, The Simpsons—and would say those are more of an inspiration to me for color palette, character development, and environments.
Have you studied at art school? If you have, how has your work developed during your studies, and what has been good or bad about the experience?
Yes! I am in my final semester of senior year! Attending art school was a great decision for me. I struggled badly during my first two years at a university. I was studying art but the classes were kind of across the board, and I felt like my technical skills weren’t being pushed. Then I very reluctantly applied to art school and was accepted! I went into this new chapter being very stubborn, thinking I already knew everything. It took me about a year to fully accept the idea that I had a lot to learn. This was a really hard but awesome step for me. My art has grown and evolved sooo much since I began attending art school and putting my ego and stubbornness aside. I probably learned more in a month at art school than I did in two years at the university. Art school hasn’t been all peaches and cream for me, though. I’ve struggled with making friends and comparing my work and progress to my very talented peers. Though I’ve started to learn how to just focus on my own progress and growth.
Do you ever draw self-portraits, directly or indirectly? Can you identify where you insert parts of yourself into your work?
If I’m not using a reference for a drawing, I feel like they always end up looking like me in some sort of way. I change my hair a lot, and I’ve noticed that I tend to draw the haircut I have at that time, lol. I love drawing myself. It’s an awesome exercise to just stare at yourself and really get to know this shell you inhabit.
Your color palette is psychedelic, to say the least. Is the fearless use of color in 1960s and 1970s psychedelia an influence?
Color has been a new exploration for me over the past couple years. I used to be fearful of color until one day I said “fuck it” and got my hands dirty with colored pencils, markers, and watercolors—my weapons of choice! I let myself play with color without feeling like the drawing was something too precious that could possibly be destroyed if I messed up. Since then, I can’t seem to stop playing with color. I’ve gone overboard on some pieces but continue to love this newish method of play. I love looking at color palettes from artists I admire and using those as inspiration and reference.
Are the people you draw alien or human? Or perhaps a bit of both?
They can be whatever you want them to be! To me they are probably otherworldly fairies or sprites.
Is your family supportive of your artistic endeavors?
I was born into a creative family and a creative community. I was urged from an early age to make art and to use it as a form of play. Ever since I realized crayons made marks, my parents have been supplying recycled paper from their office and other mediums to explore. It’s always been a part of my life, and I am so glad that I’ve been able to artistically express myself and get positive feedback from the people who matter most to me. I am very lucky!
Do you have a studio where you make your art? Could you describe it for me? And if you don’t have a studio, just describe the place where you make most of your work.
I do not have a studio, though I would love to have one! I work in my studio apartment. I have a huge desk with all my supplies and plenty of artwork on the wall in front of me to keep me inspired. I love my creative little den, but I’ll forever be dreaming of the day I can have a studio separate from my home.
Are you working toward any specific projects or exhibitions at the moment?
Yes, many! For a class we got to make a hashtag to post weekly onto our art social media. I created #weeklycrush—I pick someone on social media that I admire, know, or think looks interesting and draw them. I draw someone new every week. This is where my Erica drawing came from! I am also working on my senior thesis project, and Rookie has been a huge source of inspiration! My project is a guidebook/zine about the journey between adolescence to adulthood titled Growing Pains. It will work as positive reinforcement, and give the reader advice on how to navigate the complexities and responsibilities of being an “adult.” The overarching point I want to communicate with the viewer is that “it is OK to feel nervous and afraid about where you are in life right now, you are not alone.” My target audience is young, creative women.
What are your aims for your art practice and yourself?
I would love to continue this artistic adventure and hope to get a job involving the making of art. Right this second, I have no idea what that will be. There are plenty of things I am open to trying and exploring.
What are three words that describe your artwork?
Soft, feminine, sexy, sleepy, bold, strange, dark, colorful. ♦