On the Edge
A new breed of young urban artists takes center stage in Marin.
An Ian Ross mural.
WALK INTO ZIO Ziegler’s studio — a Mill Valley hillside house that could most politely be described as a “fixer”— and your first thought is, “Why is this guy here and not in some loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn?” Huge, colorful canvases populate the home like dinner guests. Sayings scribbled in pencil and crayon —“Sight is a museum of things seen” — adorn the walls. An empty pool in the backyard has been turned into a blackand- white mural of an angst-ridden humanoid.
It’s all so edgy that you wonder, for a moment, if you’re still in Marin, a county better known for landscape artists than for any kind of street cred. But Ziegler is one of several emerging artists more urban in style who are currently residing in Marin. “They’re the new guard of artists,” says Tara Schon, co-owner of the Zener Schon Gallery in Mill Valley. “Urban art is coming to the forefront now, and these artists are young and gaining visibility.”
They’re also finding sanctuary in Marin as a place where they can pursue their own visions, far from the influences of the “scene” in New York and Los Angeles. “The peace of Marin,” says Schon, “gives them the space to dig into their creative energy and come out with clarity as to what they want to manifest.”
Zio Ziegler, 27, creates art with the urgency of a man who’s done the math and realized the 60 or 70 years he has left are barely enough. He often works 14 hours a day, seven days a week, creating 600 drawings, 250 paintings and 30 murals a year. “I make a lot of paintings because I don’t want to do anything in this world that is not absolute,” says Ziegler, standing in front of a half-finished painting based on Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter in his Mill Valley studio. “I don’t want to be an OK painter. I don’t want to make an OK painting.”
Ziegler runs little risk of that. “There’s nobody like Zio,” says Torrey Cook, owner of Artists Republic 4 Tomorrow Gallery in Laguna Beach. “He’s hyper-intelligent and has a different process from some artists. Zio just lets the emotion pour out. He looks at the canvas, feels something, and lets it go.”
His large canvases (6 by 8 feet, usually) are filled with primitivistic and cubist images that echo pop art, Picasso and Dubuffet. They also make oblique references to Ziegler’s widely ranging intellectual interests, from Byzantine art to Schrödinger’s cat to the novels of Don DeLillo, knowledge he often absorbs through the audiobooks he listens to while painting.
His murals — where he really “lets it go,” preferring, he says, “to be told what to paint by the wall” — are also exuberant testaments to his rich mind. He paints these black-and-white works, which can be found in Tokyo, Milan and the headquarters of Facebook, in a matter of hours, always without a plan. His art can also be found on sneakers — just this year, Vans came out with a shoe that is covered in one of Ziegler’s mural-like designs. One of his favorite murals resides on a wall of the gym at the Branson School — where, ironically, Ziegler attended high school and was kicked out of his only art class.
Ziegler has tried to live in New York, doing the urban artist gig. “But I keep coming back to Marin to be grounded and close to nature,” says the Mill Valley native, whose parents — successful in both business and the arts — encouraged his creativity. “I paint from a larger inspiration, which is the natural world and the human condition. Those are two things that populate me thoroughly here.”
If there were a road map through multimedia artist Laura Kimpton’s soul, it would be paved with words and birds. The Fairfax-based artist, best known for Burning Man’s “Monumental Word” series, has filled the playa with enormous words, including LOVE, BELIEVE and EGO, since 2009.
But for every word that Kimpton — who is severely dyslexic — has burned, there’s also been an element of flight. Kimpton covered her first word, MOM, with hundreds of cutouts of birds, a motif she’s explored in her work since 2002, when her father, the hotelier Bill Kimpton, died. “All my work is about the heaviness of words or the heaviness of your thoughts,” says Kimpton, who received a master’s degree in psychology from the University of San Francisco. “The birds represent living free from those thoughts.”
While Kimpton is best known for her Burner work, the 52-yearold single mom is also a gifted painter and collage artist. She recently created a series of stunning self-portraits, featuring images of herself in bird costumes, held in frames that feel almost altar-like, composed of crown-molding fragments, candles, books and birds. She’s also working on an eight-foot-high multimedia obelisk covered with sports trophies and videos of “EGO” burning.
“What sets Laura apart is how soulful her work is, and how edgy too,” says Schon, whose gallery will be hosting Kimpton’s onewoman show Buck Shot starting November 10. “It’s a little gritty and messy, but it’s very conceptual and has a lot of depth.”
Her words “BELIEVE” and “LOVE” and “DREAM” have been installed everywhere from China to Virginia to a winery in Santa Rosa. At places like Burning Man and concerts for Widespread Panic, a band she follows regularly, Kimpton is something of a celebrity. But in Fairfax, she enjoys anonymity. “That’s one thing I love about Fairfax,” says Kimpton. “I’ve been living here since I was 26 and nobody knows who I am.”
An Ian Ross mural is a thing of beauty. Walk by one in SoMa or Silicon Valley, and you’re drawn to the black-and-white lines of street art and the way they drape across, or border, bricks, doors, windows and concrete. Ponder one for a while, however, and you see how deeply rooted they are in nature. “Any time there’s a vertical,” says Ross, 37, “that’s referencing a tree. The horizontals are referencing the surface of the ocean.”
It’s this interplay between the natural world — Ross is a Larkspur native and lifelong surfer who comes from three generations of artists — and the street art he fell in love with in Europe as a teenager that fuels Ross’ work. “I thrive on the juxtaposition between open space and nature,” he says, “and the dense urban sprawl that creates an art form like graffiti.”
As Ross straddles these worlds, he’s equally planted in the tech one. He was the artist-in-residence at Facebook for several years, starting in 2010, and has created murals or paintings for Google, Lyft and LinkedIn. But he also makes lush, neon-hued paintings on canvas, many of which can be seen at the Rocha Art Gallery in SoMa, which he started with his wife, Daniele Rocha, in 2013.
“What I love about Ian is the way he can transition from creating these huge gorgeous murals to doing beautiful canvas work inside,” says Sara Gough, owner of Project Gallery in L.A. “No matter what surface he’s working on, it’s 100 percent pure. He’s just a true artist at heart.”
Ross, who started his career as a ceramicist, now longs to return to clay and more earthy materials, including constructing Andy Goldsworthy–style installations on beaches and in forests. He’s already created a number of dramatic sand murals along California’s coast — all of which have been swept away.
“It’s just about the pure experience,” says Ross. “When I do something on sand, there’s no way it can be bought or sold. It’s such a departure from the rhythm of making a living as an artist and selling yourself. It’s all about the ephemeral experience.”