Meet Zoe Keller. Zoe is a freelance illustrator known for her realistic, intricate, and nature-inspired illustrations. Zoe is originally from Upstate, New York, attended school at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, and is now living and working in Portland, OR. In 2015, we have had the opportunity to work with Zoe on multiple occasions including the Guts exhibition, the upcoming COSMOS exhibition and tarot deck, and traveled together during the Light Grey Art Camp to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park!
It is always a pleasure to work with Zoe, and we have the honor of presenting some of her work and process in the interview below. You can read about her inspirations, workspace, artistic practice, and thoughts on making!. You can also look at all of Zoe's work on her website, blog and Instagram. Be sure to also keep an eye out for her work in the COSMOS Tarot & Oracle Deck later this month too!
Hey Zoe! Could you tell us a little about your workspace? Any studio necessities, rituals, collections or best practices?
Over the past three years I’ve been moving every few months and have carved out studio space from whatever was at hand. Usually I had a desk, but there were definitely periods of holding a drawing board in my lap on the floor. I just moved to Portland, OR, a couple of months ago, with the plan of staying put for at least a year and putting down some tentative roots, so I’m also being more intentional with my studio space than I have been in a long time. I have a big desk that’s all mine, and my reference books (for drawing), maps (to look at while I listen to the news) and collection of rocks and feathers and flotsam and jetsam (for general nerdery) are all close at hand. My studio space is in my bedroom, though, I would love to move my work space out of my living space soon!
Would you mind sharing a bit of your process with us- I’m curious how you work from initial ideas to these incredibly detailed illustrations? What research goes into your work?
Research is a big part of my process. I like having some constraints when I go into a drawing; or example, I might only draw animals and plants that are endangered in the state of Oregon or stick to drawing flowers that grow on this one tract of prairie in the north-eastern corner of the state. These boundaries make a blank page more approachable, and also mean that I can step away from a finished drawing with a deeper understanding of the natural world, which is really the biggest reward. I go from research to small sketches to light under-drawings, then work from top left to bottom right finishing the drawing, and finally go back and adjust lights and darks across the whole thing.
Your work is clearly inspired by the natural world, what brought about that fascination? What keeps that fascination going?
I have a lot of memories of being outside with my parents, looking at salamanders, frog eggs, and bugs. That fascination never went away. I also think that this moment in time - as our planet faces a man-made mass extinction - is an especially important one to explore how incredible the natural world is. I hope that my work can do a little to make people realize how fantastically, fragilely diverse the life on our planet is.
For the Cosmos Exhibition you were given the Moon. Can you give us some insight as to how you approached this subject?
I wanted to know how, if at all, the moon impacted other species. Through some Googling I found a couple of articles linking the reproductive habits of particular amphibians to the full moon. How cool is that?
In your career, do you ever run into major obstacles? (Artist's block, lull in clients, bad work / life balance) Do you have tricks for overcoming any of these things?
All the time! As a pretty anxiety-riddled, pessimistic person, I definitely don’t have a temperament that naturally lends itself to this constant-leap-of-faith, feast-or-famine sort of working life. There were lots of times over the past few years when I questioned whether or not all the stress and instability was worth it. The answer just kept being yes. Having friends who know how to be supportive because they are doing the same sort of thing has been super important, and learning to take breaks and recharge has also helped. Also, shout-out to my family for being the best and nerding out about everything that I do.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that are your go-to’s? Books? Online Sources? Exploring outside?
Nothing matches being outside. When we were living in Michigan and working on Intricacies, my friend Christina Mrozik and I liked to joke that the little field in front of our studio had just as much to tell us as the whole of the internet. Field guides are important too; I have a growing collection.
Do you have advice for other young illustrators?
I don’t really feel like I should be giving other illustrators advice yet! But if I could go back and give myself advice, I would tell myself to be more fearless about tackling big, unmanageable projects. They have the biggest pay-off.
What is your idea of a “dream project”? How would you want that work to be displayed? How would it challenge you as an artist?
I day dream a bunch about working directly with scientists botanists, entomologists, ornithologists…pretty much any “-ologist” working with the natural world. I got my first taste of this as a resident artist at the Hurricane Island Foundation off the coast of Maine. There, I got to work with science educators on a series of illustrations that can be used in their programs with middle and high school students - It was so incredible! They could explain natural relationships that would take me hours or days of field-guide-reading to figure out on my own, and also made connections and raised questions that I would never have thought of. Making work that is easily reproducible is really important to me - so making work that ultimately ends up as zines, books and posters is what I usually aim for.
What projects do you have in the works?
I’m busy with a big freelance project I can’t talk about quite yet! I’m also getting ready for a show that Christina Mrozik and I are having at Antler Gallery in Portland in late November, and for the release of a coloring book called Color the Natural World that I worked on with Portland’s Timber Press! I also have a big personal project about Oregon birds that I’m preparing to dig into at the beginning of next year.
Thanks so much, Zoe!
Again, be sure to check out her work here on her website and don't miss her piece in the upcoming COSMOS exhibition!