Profiles in Art: Diana Zeng/Zen She

Diana Zeng, also known as Zen She, is an artist based in St. Louis. On May 21st, she left her job to start her own painting studio. This is a story about cancer and painting and don’t worry! It has a happy ending. But Diana’s journey is about what really matters, in the end.

Interview conducted by Tiffany Chan

Edited by Tiffany Chan

All Photography provided by Zen She, taken by Jennifer Korman Photography

Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with painting/studio art?

I grew up creating all the time; always drawing, sketching, or collaging and even using my entire bedroom as a space and canvas to add color and textures. I didn’t believe that being an artist was an actual possibility for me so I kept my art on the side. I went to college at Washington University in St. Louis for business but felt the need to explore art openly and decided to add it as a minor. My first studio was a painting one, and I made murky painting after murky painting up until almost the end of the class. I was completely unsure of how to hold the brush and apply oil paint. For our final, we were introduced to a nude figure model and the colors and lines of the body freed me in my painting. It was like I was paying attention for the first time, painting not what I thought should be there but painting what I actually saw and felt. In a way, that brought me back to feeling like a child again, unencumbered by expectations and seeing things for the first time.


Q: What led you to start your own studio and what was the process like?

My husband and I began a tradition while we were dating of asking ourselves ‘What would you do if you had one year to live?’ He had been diagnosed with stage four lymphoma at the time so this was our way of keeping ourselves honest in our pursuits in life. After graduation, I started working in startups and experienced how much drive, rigor, and serendipity was needed in creating your own business. During that time, I always had my easel set up in a corner but didn’t make much time for it. On New Year’s Day of this year, my husband and I asked each other that question, and to my surprise, I blurted out that I’d paint. For the next five months, I painted nearly every day after work. I began unraveling a lot of self-doubt, and this was my way of proving to myself that I could do it. I started introducing myself as an artist and got my first few commissions. I gave a two month notice so that I could finish my project at work while building up my portfolio and website. My studio is in our house and within a month of diving into art full-time, my husband suggested we transformed the entire living room into my studio space. It’s been a continuous learning process both in what I’m capable of and what I’m drawn to create.

In the week leading up to my last day at my former job, I wrote about the small steps that led to this leap here for those who want the details.


Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?

Delivering a piece to a client! It feels as though I’m giving a part of myself to someone else to enjoy and cherish. For my very first commission, a husband and wife came to pick up a nude of the wife in her first trimester of pregnancy. They were overcome by emotion and so we sat down with the piece just to be in each other’s presence with it for a while. When my work makes people feel alive, I’m completely humbled and thrilled.


Q: What are the biggest challenges in starting your own studio/small business?

Establishing structure. I work alone at home so it’s been extremely important for me to find a routine that works for me. I’m working on developing habits that ease the friction between thought and action because I’ve learned that progress requires the doing of the work. Connecting with other artists and finding mentorship in classes and the community gives me not only inspiration but also a sense of focus.


Q: What is one unexpected skill that you’ve had to learn “on the job”?

How to safely wrap up a piece for shipping and how to keep track of my accounting! I now own huge rolls of bubble wrap and am finally putting those business accounting classes to use. I consulted the internet, other artists, and a wonderful accountant to help me figure out the foundations.


Q: What advice would you give to your younger self/someone just starting in the field? Or, what is the best piece of advice someone has ever given you?

I’d tell myself to listen to the teachers and professors who told you that you were meant to pursue art. Move aside the doubt and start furiously creating. It may start with painting but then lead to pottery and then lead to design. Who knows! But everything’s connected, and there’s no way of knowing unless you’re continuously trying and putting in the time and effort. It’s not going to be easy, but few things worth pursuing are. This is going to be worth the struggles.


Q: Can you describe your creative process to us? Where and how do you start?

I start by paying attention to what’s around me, whether that’s myself sitting nude in front of the mirror or the swathe of mountains before me while on a road trip. From my morning one line nudes or outdoor color sketches, there are always shapes or colors that stand out because of the mood or emotion they convey. That becomes the basis for a new piece of work. Right now, I’m working on a self portrait series inspired by these moments and feelings.


Q: What does a normal day look like for you?

I’ve always been an early bird so I wake up at around 6:30 with my husband. Recently, we’ve been reading on the couch together before he heads out to work at 7:30, and then I start my morning yoga routine before going for a run or doing a workout at home. I make myself breakfast before a quick shower and then sit down in front of the full-length mirror to begin drawing my morning one line nudes. It’s a ritual that helps free my mind because I’m only looking at my reflection and not down at what I’m drawing. Then I start my first studio session, either painting or illustrating. I work and then take a late lunch before getting to orders, emails, and other business details. Then I leave the house either to pick up art supplies, ship a batch of orders, catch up with friends, meet new artists, or go to a museum or gallery. Afterwards, I’ll have another studio session and wrap up at around 6. My husband and I spend time together when he gets home, and he catches me up on his day. If we’re together for the evening, we’ll have dinner and go for a walk. We spend time with our friends either together or separate during the week as well before getting ready for bed at around 9:30. I turn into a chatter box right before I fall asleep so this is usually when I fill my husband in on my day before dozing off.


Q: What inspires you? What motivates you to continue painting?

I love celebrating being alive and all of the experiences that come with it. When I’m paying attention, anything can inspire me – flicker of light and shadow, the colors of a newly experienced landscape, the line from my own shoulder to neck. So I try to pay attention quite a bit, it makes life a lot more exciting too.

And I paint to see where it’ll take me both through the piece and in life. When I’m painting, I’m not consciously thinking so what ends up on the canvas is always unexpected. It tells me a lot about what I’m working through, where I’ve been, where I am, and a glimmer of where I’m going.


Q: Is there a contentious issue in the art world that you are very passionate about?

No, actually! I’m still new enough that my sole focus is on the work. Perhaps in a year or two I’ll look up from the easel and throw an opinion out there.


Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability and now perhaps because of political opposition to the arts. How would you address those parents/their concerns?

Nothing in life is a guarantee. Teach your kids that they can make a living and a life doing what they love but that it’s not going to be easy. Empower your kids to feel and be capable of facing challenges, finding solutions, and always questioning what’s possible. With that mindset, they will find their way no matter what path they take. For many of us, the biggest barrier to our potential is ourselves. Why make that the case, when there are so many other barriers out there we can be taking down?


Q: What is one (or two) things you would like the general public to know about being an artist/painter/business owner?

No one does it alone. Even the greatest artists and leaders had a mix of friends, family, mentors, strangers and peers who helped open doorways, give feedback, and inspire confidence. Humans need each other, and that’s how we’re all the same.   

Just for fun…

Q: What do you do for self-care?

I take bubble baths to give myself time to be alone with my mind and body. I loved them as a kid and had this mermaid palace bath toy that suction cupped to the side of the tub. You could press a shell-shaped button to make bubbles and run the waterfall. I created worlds with that toy. I don’t have that anymore but I’ve made my bathtub a new kind of palace, a sanctuary with candles, ferns, succulents, and a spa bench. It feels like such a treat. I recently took a handful of bubbles and gently pressed it together. There was such a fun, surprising bounce to it!


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