Zoe Schein is a teacher and artist from Urbana, Illinois. She’s been working at MCA as a teaching artist for almost four years, and she’s taught classes in comics, drawing, art appreciation, memoir writing, and animation. When she’s not teaching, she’s working as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator, checking out library books, and bothering her beloved cat, Marbles.
What’s your earliest memory of the arts?
My childhood social scene was made up of artistic collaborations: My theatrical older sister conscripted me into supporting roles as soon as I could hold up my head. My next-door neighbor and I sold drawings from a front-yard stand well before we knew how to make change (a fact that boosted our profit margins considerably).
Upon receiving the gift of a used camcorder at age 10, my ambitions expanded. Soon, I was filming complete movie productions with a cast and crew of neighborhood kids. (The first of these movies, Attack of the Furbies, was screened in a local film festival and features a childhood cameo from neighborhood kid and future drag superstar Sasha Velour. Their character’s death at the beak of a poisonous furby is a highlight of the film).
Do you have a favorite memory or story about MCA?
There are so many to choose from! One moment that comes to mind was from a middle-school drawing class. We’d been discussing still life composition—how and why artists decide to place certain objects in an image. When the students returned the next week for class, one of them bounded up to me and excitedly recounted a day spent with still lives at the MFA. She told me how she’d explained to her parents what we’d learned in class—she’d identified leading lines and focal points, and speculated about what the artists may have wanted to communicate with their images. I felt a great swell of teacherly pride realizing I’d gotten an 11-year-old to be excited to look at paintings of lemons and old cups.
How have you stayed connected to the arts this past year?
For me, the arts have always been a buoy—something to cling to through loneliness and grief. As a young adult, I took a number of years off from art to focus instead on my academic studies. I attended a small, close-knit college, and so, after graduation I felt very lost and isolated from my now-dispersed community. Soon after that, a dear and cherished friend from that community was killed. I started making comics as a way to process my grief and stay connected to my now far-flung friends, who were also grieving alone. In some horrible way, that experience prepared me for this one: this time, when the sudden isolation and overwhelming wave of grief and despair arrived, I knew what tool I could reach for to keep myself afloat.
More so than my own art practice, though, teaching has helped me stay connected to this sanity-preserving function of the arts. Through teaching, I’ve tried to help students find their own artistic buoys, but teaching is also a reliable reminder that the arts are a fundamentally connective activity.
During regular times, I often felt like I could never find enough time alone with my art. It was the primary tool by which I carved out space for myself. Now, that pattern feels reversed: the social function of artmaking now feels paramount, and bonding with students over our shared interest in art has been a consistent source of joy and connection.
Who’s your favorite artist (of any form—visual arts, theater, music, dance)?
Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, is a lifelong artistic idol of mine. To me, Calvin and Hobbes is a peerless work of both art and literature, and one of the few things I can mention that brings delight to the face of nearly everyone who’s encountered it—whether they’re aged 6 or 86.
Do you have a favorite artwork?
First of all, this is a really mean question. I will answer, despite its cruelty.
Fairly soon before the pandemic, someone dear to me introduced me to The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson when it was installed at Boston’s ICA. It’s a full-room video piece, lasting around an hour, that shows a group of musician friends playing a beautiful, haunting song together, each from a different room in a large country estate. It was moving when I saw it then, but during this year of social distance, the piece has taken on an additional layer of meaning and emotion for me. Watching these friends collaborate from their individual, solitary spaces, playing a piece that is in turns melancholy, joyful, despairing, and soft, speaks to the intense, varied, and irreversibly entangled emotional experiences of this past year.
Do you have a favorite quote about the arts or one you’d like to share?
I’ll leave you with a link to my favorite poem about art, written by one of my favorite writers on art, Mark Doty. (Incidentally, Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is what first got me excited about paintings of lemons and old cups). This is “Heaven for Helen,” by Mark Doty.
Pictured: A 2020 comic drawing by Zoe shows the artist and her cat Marbels washing their hands.