Aggie Zed


VEER Magazine
ART REVIEW: A Bleep Nevertheless
August 19, 2018


Make no mistake: Aggie Zed’s animal-based drawings and sculpture are not about animals.  That’s right.  Her menagerie of horses, donkeys, dogs, rabbits, and more are about people.  It’s the circus parade of the human condition, but not in any explicit, overwrought way.

Working in both 2-D—soft pastels and acrylic inks—and 3-D—ceramic and metal—Zed’s stream of consciousness approach to image- and object-making filters the external world through her highly idiosyncratic lens.  What results in the drawings is a layered, stacked, and compartmentalized—yet fluid—shape-shifting realm of perplexing and quite political narratives.  

Tables, benches, platforms, boxes, televisions, windows, walls, doorways, and rugs frame, highlight, and enclose anthropomorphized animals and human figures.  But, just as much as them, her protagonists are magnificent lines, translucent and opaque veils of tone, and drips of color.  

Though Zed asserts that “MSNBC is the background of my studio,” she doesn’t feel the need “to be in people’s faces about politics,” noting that “I draw well enough to be overt if I wanted to.”  Instead, she works with undercurrents and what she describes as “energy” that she draws out to “help her heal.”

And she does it with immediacy, usually a day, noting that “If the drawings don’t happen quickly, they die.”  In contrast, the sculptures or “scrap floats,” while still intuitive, are slow to emerge in part because of the technical challenges involved in “getting something to balance and stand.”  Pounded, punched, and soldered, the pseudo-electrical looking connections of levers, gears, traps, and snares are, on one level, a commentary on our “uses and misuses” of technology.

Be seduced by the colors of the drawings, the complexity of the scrap floats, and by the animals in both, but don’t assume the work is “cute, darling, or dear.  Even whimsical misses the point.”  This work is “deadly dark.”

In compatible contrast to Zed’s loose line, ambiguous spaces, and complex thickets of metal and ceramic, Wade Mickley’s highly recognizable, highly formal work possesses a kind of visual clarity.  Admitting to loving “kids’ stuff,” Mickley’s conscious influences are alternative comics and children’s literature, especially Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, along with folk and outsider art.

That is not to say, however, that there is anything childish or simple—and definitely not simplistic—about Mickley’s colorful world of whacky abstract figures composed of both found and purchased objects.  Though his figures, with their wide mouths and often hyper-symmetrical balance, may not walk on Zed’s dark side, they are not little rays of sunshine.  Clouds, teardrops and other frequently used motifs are clues to the “personal angst” that Mickley says drives the creation of these assemblages.  That and a need to create, to let ideas evolve, and to “dance around” objects for a while.  

The term “maker” is on the verge of becoming cliché—not unlike “curate” (as in curated meals, closets, and more); but people have always had a need to make thing with their hands.  And for many artists, the process trumps the product.  Mickley—who jokingly asks, “Why do I do this to myself?”—relishes the learning involved in each piece.  “I enjoy figuring things out,” he says.  “I have this and I have this.  How do I put these things together?,” e.g. rusted metal and “busted” plastic or one of his favorites: vinyl records.  

Though his mad-cap world is brightly colored and playful, especially in its rhythms, Mickley’s work is societal.  Sometimes he starts with detritus, noting that the objects “have a story to tell.”  And sometimes he starts with an idea, especially one shaped by language.  Words and phrases that he hears people say mash up with song lyrics in an app that he keeps on his phone.  

With all of that floating in his mind, after a walk in the woods—or some kayaking or paddle boarding—which Mickley finds clears his head, this self-described introvert goes home and makes things.  

For her part, Zed finds walking “magical.”  Maybe we should all be walking, whether on the dark or the wild side.

photos, Jay Westcott

The News & Advance
The Wild Art of Aggie Zed
​Mar 31, 2016

As a child, multidisciplinary artist Aggie Zed would often watch her late father repair televisions at the dining room table.​​

“He worked at a television station. He was like an assistant engineer,” she says. “He was an inventor type. He was always bringing junk home from the television station and trying to figure out how to put it to use.”

Those moments have constantly influenced Zed’s work.

Both of her parents encouraged her artistic nature, but her father, especially, fostered that creativity by buying her books of cartoons and art supplies. That bond was so strong that she legally took her father’s first name, Zed, as her surname when she began to show her art more widely.

“A lot of how I work is exactly that way [he worked],” says Zed, who now lives in Gordonsville. “I’m sitting at my little work table with my soldering iron and my bits of metal and junk. Just sitting there trying to figure out how to use it, how to make it work, how to build it into something, where I’m saying something about people and humanity and the environment.”
Zed — who has exhibited from New York to California, with plenty of stops in Virginia — is most known for her ceramic figurines, though she also sketches and paints with pastels and ink.

“The truth is, I use so many mediums and combine them, it would be hard for me to say what’s primary,” she says. “Increasingly, all of those mediums are growing together in my work. When I’m working in ceramic, I’m often thinking in the other mediums.”

A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Zed grew up on Sullivan’s Island in a little brick rancher surrounded by animals.

“We had so many animals, our neighbors wished we had grown up on a farm somewhere else, probably,” she jokes. “Our house was furnished with a lot of those inventions. All these little kids running around and these falling-down contraptions that my dad had made … with all of these animals running around outside. Does it sound like my work?”

It really does.

Oranges and teals mix with greens and browns on acrylic paper in her paintings of stiff, toy cowboys stuck in posed positions. Horses with metal bodies, frayed, copper wire tails and gentle eyes stare outward, searching. A man with a simple, placid face plays with a colored puppet on each hand — sometimes it’s a bunny or a horse, other times it’s a cat or an even smaller version of himself.

“I think there's kind of a mystery about her work,” says John Morgan, who runs Rivermont Studio. “It’s not just cute. It has an edge to it and that’s one of the reasons it holds the mystery for me.”

Morgan first met Zed when he bought a piece from her while the two of them were living in Richmond. They’ve been friends ever since and over the years, have exhibited together five times, two of which were in Lynchburg.

Now, Zed’s work will make a third appearance at Rivermont Studio, this time with book artist Ginna Cullen, opening Friday.

“The way [Zed] uses material is fantastic,” he says. “She draws with wire. You can be talking to her and she’ll just be fiddling with her finger and hand you something she’s made while she’s not even looking at it. She’s one of those people that thinks three-dimensionally.”

Zed never limits her creative work to a moment in her past or a sketch in her notebook, nor does she shape it with a set idea of what the finished piece should look like in her mind.

Instead, she pulls from anything and everything that pops into her head and allows those ideas to transform as she works.

“Whatever medium I'm in, I’m always poking around in it and exploring, and trying to solve something at the moment,” she says. “It makes a lot of my work clumsy and goofy, but it also gives my work a lot of the energy and wonder that's in it. It doesn’t look like I’m executing something I already know how to do, it looks like I’m trying to find something and discover something in each piece, I think."

While she may not envision each work from a drawing in her notebook, Zed has a ritual of sketching almost every morning in bed, after fetching her cup of coffee.

"If I get my cup of coffee and go back to bed and just sit there, it's almost like the dream part of myself is still hanging out with me and this kind of mysterious aspect comes into the sketches."

Both Zed’s paintings and her sculptural work have a surreal quality, like you’ve stepped into a madcap hallucination. Examining each piece offers the feeling of walking through a series of tableaux within an intense dream without knowing how it begins or ends.

The meaning seems just on the edge of understanding but once the vision has passed and wakefulness has returned, it still cannot be explained as the memory begins to fade.

All that remains is an intense guttural feeling.

“You see her work and you've never seen anything like it,” Morgan says. “Every one has its own character about it, it’s own kind of mystery about it.”

After graduating from The University of South Carolina with a fine arts degree, Zed moved to Richmond and supported herself by designing ceramic chess sets, something that led right into developing the human-animal hybrid figurines that have intrigued audiences up and down the East Coast.

“One of the first ones I remember doing was putting a horse’s head on a human figure,” she says of the figurine, which developed from repeatedly molding knight pieces for her chess sets.

“Once I saw those two things together and the magic of that, I started trying to get good enough at doing other animal heads.”

photos, Bob Brown

Richmond Times Dispatch
Prominent and popular regional artist got her start in Richmond
​Apr 13, 2013

​​Her work defies easy description. Tiny creatures both animal and human populate the world of her imagination. Elephants grow wings, fish live out of water and horses have intricate metal frameworks for bodies. Some of Aggie Zed’s creatures are on wheels. She calls them her “scrap floats” and sees them as entries in a futuristic parade.​​

Zed breaks out into frequent, infectious laughter when she talks about her work. She has an obvious affection for her characters and their foibles, which are a common theme. Others are the earnest attempt of the impossible, the misuse of technology, the abuse of the Earth, and the development of weaponry meant to do harm rather than the use of our resources for good.

Richmonders may enter Zed’s dream world in the just-opened “Aggie Zed: Keeper’s Keep” at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. “The exhibit represents a tremendous body of work that shows her skill as a painter, sculptor and ceramicist,” said Caroline Wright, the center’s gallery director. “It also gives the viewer a chance to see the creative process of an artist who developed her career in Richmond.”

“Aggie Zed is one of the most extraordinary artists I have worked with in my 27 years as a curator,” said Mark Sloan of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, where the show originated.

“She is the rare artist who supports herself solely through her studio practice,” said Zed’s longtime friend and peer Amie Oliver, who teaches art at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She’s quite humble about this, yet she’s been recognized with both National Endowment of the Arts and Virginia Commission for the Arts fellowships in her career.”

Zed’s large family first encouraged her artistic identity, which Oliver characterized as “an amazing work ethic combined with a sense of playful courage.” Zed grew up in a family of eight kids on South Carolina’s Sullivan’s Island. “There was always a crazy permission to be zany within my family,” she said. Zed’s father, who died when she was 11, was a television repairman. Seeing him dismantle TV sets on the family’s dining room table was critical to the way she works today, with needle-nosed pliers and soldering iron. “For me, it’s a natural homage to him to work that way,” she said.

Zed’s adopted family of fellow artists in Richmond helped shape her artistic direction. Zed moved to Richmond in 1976 after graduating from the University of South Carolina. Almost immediately, she again paid homage to her dad. She legally changed her last name from White to his first name, Zed, simply because she liked it so much.

“It was a very free kind of life with only myself to answer to,” said Zed. She was working as a professional artist for the first time, hanging out with other artists and taking her dog nearly everywhere she went. “I hadn’t had much exposure to art and certainly not to modern art. This was a time to see how people were thinking and what they were trying.

Cudahy’s Gallery, which opened in Shockoe Slip in the early ’80s, quickly championed Zed’s art. “People really responded to her work,” said Helen Levinson, then the gallery’s director. “It was extremely skilled and full of emotion. You knew even as a young artist that she would never compromise her work in any way. That made her really special.”

Zed went on to spend the next 22 years in Richmond. Today, she lives in Gordonsville with her husband, a menagerie of animals and a dream life that is still very active, indeed.

Style Weekly
Not Just Kids' Toys 
​Apr 16, 2013

Upon visiting the exhibition "Aggie Zed: Keeper's Keep" at the Visual Arts Center, I unexpectedly walk in on a classroom of rambunctious kids. This seems fitting, because my understanding of Zed's work is couched within a context of childhood, whimsical narratives and poetic poignancy. That's partly because of the inescapable reference the sculptures have to Alexander Calder's metal toy circuses, which he performed for close family and friends.

I'm drawn to the small ceramic and metal objects, what Zed calls "scrap floats." Though physically dwarfed by the larger paintings, which hang around the perimeter of the room, the sculptures activate the space in a way the paintings don't. Assembled on waist-level shelves and wide pedestals, the scrap floats feature ceramic male figures, horses, coyotes, elephants or fish — both winged and not — suspended, encased or operating copper, machinelike armatures. At times it's unclear where machine ends and figure begins.

With their miniature-soldered bolts, lifelike ceramic wheels and intricately arranged metal frames, it's easy to imagine each kinetic object frozen in place, waiting to be activated. Narrative lends itself naturally as well. "Fully-Funded Rover" (2011), an amalgamated bird-machine-man perched atop a flight of stairs leading nowhere, seems both helpless and hopeful. Are the wings at his feet ones he has discarded in order to fly away? Or has he become distracted by the painting and trapped at the top of the stairs? Do the wheels allow him to move forward or do they keep him spinning in circles?

Zed acknowledges this feeling of sorrow and longing within her work in a short film produced by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, which accompanies the exhibition. The South Carolina native claims her sculptures have a dark humor — under the broader heading of what she refers to as a Southern thing, akin to that found in the stories of Flannery O'Conner.

Like O'Conner, who frequently created physically disfigured characters, Zed's figures exist on the fringes of the grotesque and the absurd. In O'Conner's writing, the deformed characters force the reader to find good amid those unwanted by society. Such implications apply to Zed's sculptures as well. We might call them a form of redemption — an action of saving from something. From our stereotypes. From our inability to see past deformities. Perhaps saving us from our failure to accept.

Maybe this redeeming quality is indeed a Southern thing, an ability to showcase the absurd in order to question the status quo and rethink accepted norms. Recently I read an article about Southern contemporary art. The author says that it's just now beginning to catch up to art being exhibited in New York or London. The implication being that art made in the South — with a Southern sensibility — somehow lags behind that of more mature work made elsewhere. Only by mimicking these art forms, such as performance or community-based engagements, might Southern artists hope to amend the situation.

For that writer, Southern art is akin to a four-letter word. But Zed's sculptures reclaim it as something positive. Because for Zed, a Southern thing is a way of thinking about art that encourages and allows for dialogue that points to the human condition. It highlights the strangeness of life. It reminds us of those things we want to forget. And it allows for redemption.

In a deceptively small sculpture, "Another Heaven" (2011), Zed places a ceramic, winged elephant on top of a copper machinelike apparatus with three wheels. On the back is a crank mechanism. At first glance, it seems like the elephant might take flight. But on closer inspection, it's clear he can't fly because a weight has replaced one wheel. Paradoxically stuck between flight and restriction, the elephant exists between two worlds, held by a small weight. But he just might break free. 

​​Nashville Arts Magazine
​Feb. 2, 2014

Exaggerated Bee, Pastel and acrylic ink on paper, 26” x 20”

In 1980, Aggie Zed sat cross-legged in the back seat of a New York taxi and watched as scenes of the Bowery blur passed her. Below skyscrapers and neon lights, Zed observed the littered streets where ragged men and women, cold and homeless, made beds in cardboard boxes. She read her surroundings like a storybook as these worn personalities made a strong and lasting impression that would eventually inspire her work.

“I was interested in these box people. What was it like to live in a box?” Zed asked. “I made a little figure with nothing but a man and a box with clay. It was magical and beautiful, and I started exploring these creatures. Then the whole gang started adding up.”

A seasoned artist with a BFA from the University of South Carolina in painting and sculpture, Zed today divides her time between painting, drawing, and sculpting in her Virginia studio. The view from her studio window is a picturesque farm scene with rolling hills and red barns—a far cry from her New York experiences—but her work reflects her relationships and interactions just the same.

Forming man, woman, animal, and creature, Zed develops characters with paint, pastel, and clay—encouraging viewers to engage with the implied narrative. “The mediums of soft pastel, inks, water, and acrylic are difficult to manage. I actually enjoy the difficult nature of the medium because I am constantly held off-balance by the struggle to keep the image from becoming a total mess. And I am not bored.”

Her latest series of dry pastel and ink on paper works offers commentary on the idiosyncrasies of cubical work in an office setting. In Specifically Do Not Practice Your Kicks from your Seat, for example, Zed tells a witty tale of co-workers’ banter at the office.

“The woman in the background is being a little bitchy about what the other woman is doing at her desk,” Zed laughs, pointing to the character’s computer screen. “She’s just sitting there kicking her legs and staring at the screen, and her co-worker is reprimanding her.”

Zed’s office imagery pokes fun at cubical-working, computer-staring, drone-like lifestyles. She blends a critique of the human condition with playful humor, while mixing pastel, ink, and acrylic.

“All of my office-worker imagery evolves out of an eternal gratefulness for not having to work in an office,” she laughs. “I can’t even begin to imagine what people do when other people are always looking over their shoulders.”

She watches her narratives unfold with each brush or pencil stroke. Her process is organic. She begins each day with a cup of coffee and a blank sketchbook page. She draws from stream of consciousness then pins the images on her wall as opposed to easel. When sketches become drawings and mixed-media works, Zed uses a spray bottle to build and destroy her images, slowly getting to know her characters throughout the process.

“I might start drawing a person’s head, then ‘scumble’ it up with a nasty brush and come at it again with acrylic ink,” she said. “A blob or something happens near a woman that I’ve drawn, and I develop it into a bottle or an animal. Then I’ll start watching the relationship between the characters unfold. A good day is when something gets written on these drawings that is an interaction between these characters that makes me laugh.”

Zed’s visual poetry weaves zany characters and illogicality with non-fiction webs and social commentary to leave the viewer sometimes puzzled, perplexed, or amused.

Her small sculptures and works on paper are currently on view at The Arts Company, and an exhibition of her work is planned for October.

​​Island Eye News
Aggie Zed Speaks on Sullivan’s
February 1, 2012


​​​​A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Aggie Zed grew up in a large family on Sullivan's Island riding ponies and donkeys on the beach. As a child she watched her father repair television sets and played for hours with cheap plastic horses and cowboys which had no moving parts. She could always draw.​​

Living in Richmond, Virginia, after graduating from The University of South Carolina with a degree in Fine Arts, she supported her painting by designing and building ceramic chess sets. Her work in clay evolved to become a widely-collected series of human-animal hybrid figures with which she has made a living.

She divides her working life between sculpture and drawing and painting.

Aggie Zed's sculpture ranges from intimately-scaled ceramic figures of people and human-animal hybrids to copper wire and ceramic horses to ceramic and mixed-metals contrivances she calls "scrap floats". Her scrap floats are intended as entries in a parade of the future.​

Her drawings and painting are informed by a lifelong celebration of the beauty and strangeness of dreams posed against the absurdity and poignancy of supposedly rational human activity. Her mediums are dry pastel and various inks with water on paper.

She currently lives with her husband in Gordonsville,Virginia where she keeps animals in her life, especially chickens, which defy anthropomorphism.

Charleston City Paper
Aggie Zed lets your imagination run wild A to Z

January 12, 2012


Imagine you're reading a story filled with quiet women surrounded by animals, little men with human bodies and elephant heads, and copper-and-ceramic horses that look a little steampunk, a little classical.

That, in a sense, is what looking at the work of Virginia-based painter and sculptor Aggie Zed is like. She seems to have tapped into some element of art-making that allows her to spark her viewers' imaginations, igniting their own creativity. Zed has concrete proof of this, although she would never go so far as to call it that: A collector of Zed's ceramic figures once sent Zed a story she had written using the little figures as characters.

But instead of calling herself a storyteller, Zed thinks of herself and her work as a catalyst. "I'm like the person who shows you one page of a story and lets you guess the rest. I see my paintings that way, like you're opening a book at one page, and hopefully you think there's a whole story there, and you'd like to know what it is," she says. "I think it's great to just come into the middle and be provoked to think about it."

Zed grew up on Sullivan's Island in a big family made even bigger by the many pets they cared for. Dogs, cats, chickens, donkeys, goats, horses, and ponies accompanied Zed and her seven siblings at different times during their childhoods, and animals continue to play a large part in both her life and art now. "There were always animals around, animals with names. I loved them and loved taking care of them ... It's a natural thing that they would be material for my work. You work out of what you know, and in order to reach other people, you really have to work out of what you know." As a child, Zed drew constantly, especially horses, and she wasn't all that long into her young life when she knew that she would be an artist. After that, she says, there wasn't anything else she wanted to become.

Zed received a BFA in sculpture and painting from the University of South Carolina and has pursued her dream of working as an artist with a commitment that is inspiring. She moved to Richmond, Va., and set to work figuring out how to continue making art without having to get a "regular job." Having had some success with designing and building chess sets in the past, she decided to make a living doing that. "That's [the part of my work] that people found accessible at the time, and I wanted my other work to be free to be whatever — polite or impolite, or too weird to understand, or whatever." The chess sets are what led her to work with ceramics and create the small ceramic and mixed-media figures that she is most known for today.

Those figures are striking in both their surrealism and their humility; somehow, despite their strangeness, they are deeply sympathetic. Zed, of course, says it best, speaking about the figures she creates that have human bodies but animal heads. "I started by combining a horse's head with the people, and it was so poignant seeing that beautiful horse's head on that pathetic human body." Perhaps that is what is so affecting. Zed's human figures, molded out of pale clay that looks soft and pliable even after firing, are so vulnerable, so naked, that they seem to show us at our most ridiculous. But instead of being laughable, they're endearing. After making a few of her first figures, Zed says, "I just fell in love with these people. They're a little strange, a little pathetic, but also a little funny."

The Halsey Institute will be showing sculpture, paintings, and installations by Zed, who is thrilled about the exhibit. The pieces that will be on view are almost all new, created with an absolute freedom that was encouraged by the Halsey team. "Mark [Sloan, the Institute's director and senior curator] said, 'I just hope you surprise you and me,'" Zed says. "The thing that's really different about this show is that I doubled the scale of my work almost overnight ... It's absolutely wonderful to be able to have a show in a space like the Halsey, with the team that's working [there], and in my hometown. I'm so excited to share this work that I really love."

The Hook
Mechanic of anatomy: Zed springs into future fantasies
Nov 15th, 2010 


In Aggie Zed's world, elephants nudge abandoned stairs for boarding planes through desert sand, rats perch on befuddled figures' heads, and wires emerge from horse-machine hybrids to lift metal-winged characters into midair. The sculptor and painter's surreal visions are part Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, part Kirsten Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs, mixed with dashes of Mad Max 2, The City of Lost Children and Tank Girl, all stirred together to yield a post-apocalyptic dystopia that's troubling but also fun.

One of three artists showcased in Chroma Projects' current exhibit, "Miraculous," Zed's controlled chaos provides a counterpoint to the refinement of John D. Morgan's wall assemblages and Ellen Hill's carved-wood paintings. Zed's 13 mixed-media sculptures, 11 paintings, and numerous ceramic figures pulse with energy and reward viewers' attention with constant surprises. The longer one looks, the more secrets unfold and narrative possibilities expand.

Working with ceramics and reclaimed scrap metal, Zed creates sculptures that suggest a story in progress. In "loom," for example, a horse, with a body constructed of intertwined copper wire and grey metal bolts and straps, punctuated by a ceramic head and four hooves, does not walk, but instead rides high above a wheeled vehicle. This strange situation prods the viewer to ask, "What's happening here? How did that horse-or is it a machine-get up there? And where's it going?"

Although Zed embraces an intentionally rough-edged aesthetic, which finds beauty in the scrapheap, she is an accomplished student of anatomy. Her understanding of animals' biological structure, whether horses or large cats, enables her to create persuasive gestures in her ceramic figures, ranging from the dip of a head to the sideways flick of a tail. Especially beautiful is the way she combines off-white clay, tinged with grey and rust, with metal pieces, stitching wires through and around the ceramic elements. A horse with a perfectly sculpted ceramic hoof might also have another of coiled copper.

A parallel aesthetic of spontaneous energy runs through Zed's works on paper, but with the addition of vivid colors and a few cursive words. Her strange and amusing scenes, which often involve animals, feature areas of translucent acrylic color that bleed into each other and drip down the page. As with Zed's sculptures, her paintings suggest the viewer has arrived mid-event and must fill in the blanks.

Disturbing and delightful, Zed's artwork invites the imagination to come out and play.

The exhibition, "Miraculous," featuring Aggie Zed's sculptures and paintings, along with work by John D. Morgan and Ellen Hill, is on view through November 27 at Chroma Projects Art Laboratory, 418 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 202-0269.