High Art: Marijuana Inspires Chicago Artist’s Vivid Triptych
By Mark Taylor
Jeff Zimmermann eats only once daily — at bedtime — and frequently logs 12-hour workdays.
That Spartan aesthetic is emblematic of the Chicago artist’s fierce work ethic.
“I’m always sketching, painting, planning or organizing my next project,” said Zimmermann, 48, an internationally renowned painter and public muralist whose massive wall paintings inspire conversation throughout Chicago’s downtown and neighborhoods and whose works are sold worldwide.
The artist’s latest exhibition at Chicago’s prestigious Zhou B Art Center includes a six-foot by 12- foot acrylic triptych, “Gold Meat Weed,” one of which features a giant, vibrantly colored marijuana flower.
“These I see as our visceral desires,” Zimmermann said. “It’s that deep.”
Though there is interest from buyers, the $35,000 nug painting has not yet sold. Though Zimmermann doesn’t smoke marijuana routinely as part of his creative process, the self-taught painter said cannabis has inspired him.
“This was my first marijuana painting,” he said. “I may do another, just not so huge.”
He explained that the giant marijuana flower is a nod to the role of the plant in popular culture and its growing acceptance in society.
“It’s always had recreational use, but now it’s medicine. It’s gone legit. It’s a business and it’s a political issue,” he said.
Painted with vibrant, richly textured colors, the bud looks almost appetizing, like some south of the border vegetable dish, aromatic with spicy peppers. Zimmermann calls himself “old school” on smoking grass.
“I prefer a joint. My assistants are much younger and for them it’s all about the pens and dabs, the gadgets and electronic chargers,” he said. “Rolling a joint and passing it around seems normal and natural, compared to the pens. I prefer the old-fashioned way. That flower I painted in ‘Weed,’ that’s like an old man’s statement to my assistants in the studio: this is what you should be smoking.”
His First Time
Zimmermann said he first smoked marijuana at a friend’s place in high school.
“I felt peer-pressured into it. I was afraid I’d get into trouble and get caught. I don’t even know if I got high. When I came back home to dinner I tried to mask the smell of grass on me and sprayed Windex in my hair,” he said.
He said he limits his cannabis use to evenings.
“My productivity would go to hell otherwise,” he admitted. “I’ve never been a daytime smoker. But sometimes when I smoke I get some great ideas. Also, smoking pot rejuvenates me when I’m working late at night. I turn on loud music, light a joint and can get back to painting.”
His show, which ran from Oct. 19 to Nov. 10, 2018, is a retrospective that represents 15 years of work.
“I hadn’t had a gallery show since 2003. I had many finished works gathered in my studio when the Zhou Brothers asked me to put together this show,” he recalled. “I gave them everything I had. So I called the show ‘Everything.’ ”
Zimmermann’s work spans a broad spectrum of subjects, from Chicago street people to symbols such as guns, chains, and detritus. He’s created engaging monochromatic landscapes, sculptures, and 16-story-high public murals.
Inspired by the Everyday
A lean, energetic man with denim-blue eyes and a movie star grin, Zimmermann is decidedly down-to-earth when describing his work and his process.
Once while working on a mural, he noticed empty crumpled potato chip bags and crushed soda cans littering the ground. That motivated him to paint a series on detritus and discarded garbage items, calling them “Urban Tumbleweeds.”
Zimmermann, a divorced father of a 10-year-old boy, said providing for his son motivates him to work constantly.
“Tomorrow I’ll be taking portraits of people for a mural I’m planning. Sometimes I’ll take notes on my cell phone or sketch on napkins. I’m moving from one piece to another, working on three or four paintings simultaneously. Most artists say that their work is never finished. Not me. I finish, sell it and move on to the next one.”
Zimmermann is probably best known for his public murals, large, pulsating pieces, colorful snapshots that tell the story of Chicago and its people. His 15 to 20 existing murals —10 have disappeared over the last decade as the buildings they adorned have been demolished — have become part of the city’s landscape, a visual fabric of its diversity and character.
Zimmermann was born and raised in Chicago and studied graphic design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I didn’t do any painting courses, but took some drawing classes,” he said.
After college, he volunteered to teach English at a high school in Peru and worked with street children there for several years. He returned to the U.S. in 1996 and worked as an assistant art director for a university alumni magazine.
He also volunteered to teach art at a Chicago neighborhood community center, where he painted a garage with the help of some at-risk teens.
“That was the first thing I painted in my life,” he said.
The pastor of a nearby church assumed Zimmermann was an artist and asked him to paint the likeness of the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, on a neighborhood building.
Because he’d never tackled a project of that size, over the winter he took a painting class and the following spring, painted his first commissioned mural. It was an unlikely path for an acclaimed artist.
“It took 2 ½ months to do what now I can do in a few weeks. But I got paid for that. I had so much fun painting that mural, I quit my job. I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. I became an artist. And the struggle began.”