Identity in Art: Zoe Walsh’s Experience As a Studio Art Major

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Author: Claire Diggins

If you made it into the Weingart Art Gallery within the last few months, you would have undoubtedly seen the compelling artwork of senior Zoe Walsh. Walsh is one of two Studio Art majors in this year’s graduating class. Her senior comprehensive works were on display in the Weingart Gallery from early December to February, along with the paintings of fellow senior and Studio Art major Seth Hansen.  

For her senior comprehensive project, Walsh painted a series entitled “Tom Boy.” This series is a collection of three colorful 5-by-6 paintings depicting her desires as a young girl to assume the identities of Indiana Jones, Michael Jordan and Kocoum from Pocahontas. Walsh told me that the photo-realistic style, in which her paintings in Wiengart are done, really captivates her.

“It is very interesting to me. It is fascinating to me how people do that with such accuracy. Few of my paintings capture that, but I love grappling with that failure,” Walsh said.

The project is an exploration of gender perceptions. Art professor Linda Besemer and Walsh’s advisor explained, “Her current work, which includes her recent senior comps exhibition, is a reflection on gender, and specifically the construction and contradictions of queer and self identifications as a ‘Tom Boy,’ or, as Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam would say, with ‘female masculinity.'”

Walsh said, “I think it raised the question of what is out there for a girl who is a tomboy to look at, because there aren’t a lot of images out there for a woman who identifies more as masculine.”

The paintings are beautifully composed, life-size representations of a young Walsh and the men whom she identified with as a child. These vibrant paintings each transition smoothly between the images of Walsh and the three idyllic men, as if they seamlessly fade into one another. Walsh said she has always loved photo-realistic paintings and wanted to paint as realistically as possible. She worked from photographs of herself as a young girl and used images of the three men she admired growing up. “It was a fun project, and I got to explore my own gender identity,” Walsh said.

Walsh’s art career began in high school, when she started taking art classes at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. Her talent has truly evolved since attending Occidental. “I dabbled in painting in high school, but I never knew how to paint until Oxy. I still don’t know how to paint,” she stated. Her eye-catching works, though, are effective testaments to both her talent and modesty.  

Walsh said she has always been compelled to study art, but in high school she primarily identified with basketball. Walsh, who came to Occidental to be a Studio Art major, says Occidental has given her the space to grow into an artistic identity, rather than an athletic one.

“Oxy’s art department has been really great,” said Walsh. “You can get as deep into the art as any student would want to. I’ve sought a lot of guidance from my advisor, Professor Besemer, and that’s served me really well. I’ve also really benefited from having only two students in my class. I’ve been able to do big independent projects, but it would be a different story if there were bigger classes. The department is really supportive. There is a lot of freedom and you aren’t pushed into doing certain things.”

Walsh says she feels lucky to have been assigned to Besemer for advising. “It’s great to have an advisor who is so well-read and is such a scholar of queer studies. I’m interested in that as well, so she’s been able to guide me a lot in that way. Studio-wise, Besemer’s classes have influenced me the most,” she stated. Walsh has taken several studio classes with Besemer and worked closely with her on her senior comprehensive paintings.

Besemer, who is currently on sabbatical, speaks very highly of Walsh’s work. “Since my first class with her, Zoe distinguished herself as someone with the rare capacity to re-contextualize classroom assignments into work that is personal, insightful and keenly critical,” she said.

In her junior year, Walsh participated in Besemer’s junior studio art seminar, along with only two other students, Hansen and former Studio Art major Gisele Goldwater-Feldman (’10). The three students were allowed to chose their own topics and were required to create a final painting related to that topic.

Walsh chose to explore the representation of lesbians and lesbianism within the context of Proposition 8.  Her final piece “Battlegrounds” was a sizable 6-by-15 acrylic painting that incorporated mixed-media methods, including text and images. The center image of the black-and-white painting was of two women embracing, their bodies physically merging into one another. The women’s images mirror that of an anti-equality male religious leader at his pulpit. Above his pulpit is the quote, “Every girl should be married,” from the 1948 Cary Grant film of the same title.  Walsh said of the piece, “It was extremely literal, but I learned a lot from it.”

Besemer described the works well, stating, “The imaginary worlds that are generated from her thoughtful juxtapositions become a powerful tool for deconstructing gender norms, while simultaneously affirming a unique personal path of queer-lesbian subjectivity.”

Other art classes Walsh has taken within the art department include drawing and painting fundamentals and printmaking with professor Linda Stark. Walsh said, “I’ve really enjoyed every painting class I’ve taken here. I have really enjoyed my independent projects.”

Currently, Walsh is enrolled in a special six-person art history course on street art. The class is taught in conjunction with the graffiti and street art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) slated to premier this April. Although the class has thus far been predominately research-oriented, Walsh says she and the other students will be in dialogue with people involved in the MOCA show. She said of the class, “It is a little more free than regular art history classes.”

Walsh, who finished her comps paintings last semester, is not currently enrolled in a studio art class. “I miss having a space to paint,” she said. “There is so much freedom.” She will get that space and freedom back soon, though, as she will begin an independent study project this spring with Professor Stark. The details of the project remain undetermined.

One of her greatest joys with regard to painting is the way paint works with the canvas. “I love the way the paint lays against the canvas,” she said. “I use oil paints now, and I really enjoy that. Even though they are more toxic, they are richer and more flexible than acrylic.”

Walsh plans to apply to graduate programs in studio art next year. She is looking into programs in Los Angeles because of the city’s strong queer arts scene and general plethora of arts programs. Besemer has high hopes for Zoe’s artistic future and said, “Zoe is definitely one-of-a-kind, and I expect I will continue to hear of her artistic accomplishments long after she leaves Occidental.”

Currently, Walsh is preparing her portfolio for graduate school and, because there are only two studio art majors graduating this year, Hansen and Walsh were both able to showcase their paintings in their own rooms of the Weingart Gallery. Their works were displayed from early Dec. to Feb. 6. 

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