Faculty Spotlight: Z Behl

Z Behl started at CSSMA as a student, but now works as an educator in the Creative Arts Club and 72 Teens programs, as well as adult figure drawing. In this interview with Jason Hoffman (JH), Z shares her art making process along with some incites on teaching art.


Photo by Derek Van Oss

JH) When did you first get interested in art? Who got you interested, or if it wasn’t a single person what was the situation that first got you interested in making art?
Z) My parents are both very artistic. They often would roll out giant sheets of paper on the floor when I was really young and encourage me to paint in order to get me to entertain myself.

JH) Tell me about you arts education.
Z) While I was at Stuyvesant High School, I started working backstage in the student theater. I became the scenic designer, and learned how to think very large. At Wesleyan University, while majoring in Art, I also art directed a lot of student films. That creative community and spirit of collaboration moved me to New Orleans, where I worked on the Academy Award Winning film Beasts of the Southern Wild. I find all of this formative, much more so than attending a prescribed MFA program and being subjected to a specific pedagogy.

JH) What is the biggest challenge of being an art teacher? What is the biggest reward in being an art teacher?
Z) Not dictating too much of the project is a challenge…knowing how to be open and at the same time challenge a kid’s ability. How much to push them and when versus a directionless project is always a delicate balance. The reward is in seeing the joy and pride a kid has in themselves and in their work, especially when they make something they did not feel capable of doing prior. The key is getting them to learn how to teach themselves, and to enjoy it.

JH) In your opinion, what is the best way to get a child interested in art?
Z) Children are all interested in art. It is hard for them to conceive of the idea of “value” but the idea of “play” or an experience in exploring a new tactile material is naturally fun. The key is to allow them to find what interests them, to notice what they are trying to do, and assist them in their ability to transform the materials at hand and understand their potential. Some children are now afraid of being “dirty” and I think its very important to make space in their lives to feel they cannot make a mistake. There is nothing specific to learn. The more they are engaged, the more beautiful their work will be.

JH) Some parents feel they don’t know how to support their artistic child if they themselves are “not artistic”. What piece of advice would you give to a “non-artistic” parent when it comes to supporting their growing artist child?
Z) Practice drawing yourself! Have zero expectation of result, and allow yourself to enjoy the process and share that joy and exploration. Try to have confidence in your own ability to create! Or if you are more musical, play music, or share images and sounds of what you enjoy- the joy of art is the important part to impart.

JH) Who is your favorite living visual artist? Who is favorite visual artist from all time? Who is the most inspirational non-visual artist to you?
Z) I really like the work of Andrea Zittel, I don’t have a favorite artist of all time. There are many types of work that interest me, from different periods – I am often inspired by literature- greek mythology, shakespeare…

JH) What inspires your work? Is it a process, a subject matter, or something else?
Z) Play inspires me a lot– I try to make decisions that feel very fun and low stakes, over and over again, until I have built something ambitious and risky.

JH) What do you do when you don’t feel inspired? How do you motivate yourself to produce work?
Z) I always find new materials that interest me– a type of paint I haven’t explored, a new tool that enables quicker sculptural attachments, or a piece of fabric that interests me in its innate characteristics. The materials speak.

JH) What one piece of advice would you give your 8 year old self?
Z) I don’t think 8 year old children need advice! They need stability, and room to grow, and lots of attention. At 8 years old I was testing all sorts of social boundaries, and I am grateful for the patience and understanding of the adults around me as I learned how to behave ethically and independently.

JH) Where can we see your work?
Z) Either at my studio at Mana Contemporary, or currently in the “Experior” show at 19 Hope St in Brooklyn, which closes October 9th, where I am exhibiting along side teaching artist Azikiwe Mohammed.

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