Student of the Week: SWIC student finds success in art world

SWIC student puts art into everything he does

Southwestern Illinois College student Christopher Zaken talks about his passion for art. Zaken will be part of the prestigious Varsity Art XX exhibition
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Southwestern Illinois College student Christopher Zaken talks about his passion for art. Zaken will be part of the prestigious Varsity Art XX exhibition

Southwestern Illinois College student Christopher Zaken has always wanted art to be a part of his life.

He’s taken the long way to get his formal education, returning to college to get his degree after a several years long break from school. But things are starting to come together quickly for the 28-year-old Belleville native.

“People have always told me that I put art in everything I do,” Zaken said. “It could be cooking a meal. It’s the same process: You have a collection of ingredients that you try to find a way to assemble in a way that makes something that’s interesting to look at — or taste.”

Zaken is one of two SWIC students — along with classmate Ryan Kemp — to be invited to show his work at the prestigious Varsity Art XX show in St. Louis. Only 37 students total from schools across the region will participate in the show put on by Art St. Louis.

“It’s great to get noticed for something like the Varsity show,” Zaken said. “It’s inspiring.”

Early in his art career, Zaken had concentrated on drawing. But now his passion is painting with spray paint.

“It’s inspired by street art,” Zaken said.

But it doesn’t look anything like graffiti on the side of a building.

With the aid of stencils to create shapes and lines and markers to create highlights, borders and edges, Zaken’s work is fine tuned to look almost like animation.

“One of my instructors saw a piece of my spray paint art and said ‘I thought you said I didn’t do oil painting,’” Zaken said. “She was shocked when I told her it was spray paint.”

People have always told me that I put art in everything I do.

Christopher Zaken, student at Southwestern Illinois College

Zaken said he finds unusual subjects for his art. He recently did a few pieces in connection with the St. Louis Cardinals Major League Baseball team.

Instead of the traditional team logo of a red-feathered bird, Zaken created a more menacing imagine of a bird’s skull over a pair of crossed bats. It was more of a baseball-related Jolly Roger flag.

Zaken sold two of his three Cardinals-related paintings already. He’s steadily building a fan base.

Zaken’s future interest includes doing landscapes and still life paintings — but with a twist.

“Wayne White is a big inspiration,” Zaken said of an artist known for creating a genre of painting called Thrift Store Landscapes. It’s exactly what it sounds like — he buys landscape paintings in thrift stores and then paints over the top of them.

“He makes the things he paints a part of the scene with shadows and highlights,” Zaken explained, that make the additions seem like they were there all along.

Many of the paintings have three-dimensional words and phrases added over the top of forest, beach or country life scenes.

It’s basically recycling old artwork that might otherwise be destined for a dumpster somewhere.

Zaken said he’s proud of the fact that he’s designed logos for a couple of area businesses and designs for some T-shirts. But his goal isn’t to become a graphic artist in the marketing department of someone else’s business.

“I just want to keep producing art, entering shows and hopefully selling my work,” Zaken said. “I’m also into fashion, and I’d like to create my own designs and see where that takes me.”

Q: How were you inspired to become an artist?

A: “My dad has always liked to draw, so I think that played a part in it. Art has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.”

Q: What is your favorite work of art that you’ve made?

A: “I did something that is sort of a self portrait that I really like. Like a lot of things, I didn’t have any idea what I was trying to paint when I started. I sort of push and scrape paint around until abstract shapes start to look like things to me. I saw a face in this one and took it from there.”

Q: For a lot of people, painting is a hobby. For you it’s your career. What are your hobbies?

A: “I really like to be outdoors — in the woods or on a trail. It’s my goal this summer to travel as much of the Katy Trail as possible, camping out along the way.”

Q: What are your favorite subjects to paint?

A: “I don’t really have a favorite subject. I try to see the art in everything. So it’s whatever inspires me at that particular moment.”

Meet Christopher Zaken

  • Age: 28
  • Education: Graduated from Belleville West in 2006, currently attends Southwestern Illinois College
  • Parents: Sonya Edmondson of Mascoutah and Matthew Zaken of Highland
  • Hobbies: Outdoor activities including hiking and camping
  • Career goals: To be an independent artist and fashion designer
  • Honors: Selected to participate in the Varsity St. Louis XX Art Show, SWIC honor roll