Mapping History Through Objects: Hannah Zimmerman Traces One Generation of Women to the Next
"Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order," goes the famous opening line from Maurice Denis’ 1890 essay, “The Definition of Neo-traditionalism.”
Denis, along with his more famous peers, Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, was a member of Les Nabis, a group of French artists who valued symbolism and metaphor over naturalism. With her flat patterns, planes of pure color, and mosaic-style interiors, Cincinnati-based artist and educator Hannah Zimmerman could be an honorary member of the early Modernist movement.
A longtime-fan of Vuillard, who quietly painted domestic spaces while his peers fell into mysticism, Zimmerman explores the intimacy of her own home through the objects filling it. “Through playful patterns, furniture, and an ever-evolving collection of plants, these paintings engage with internalized expectations of traditional feminine roles as I consider my life in comparison to the women in my family who came before me,” she notes in her artist statement. A contemporary update to the traditional still life, Zimmerman’s cozy but clustered work allows room for both contemplation and confusion.
Using vintage and contemporary source material, Zimmerman traces generational history through objects, “in the same way that an oft-used end table passes from one generation to the next, eventually finding its home next to a couch ordered off the internet.” Leaving figures out of the equation, Zimmerman observes that objects often outlive their owners—and their surrounding plant companions.
Thoughtfully composed and overflowing with cherished trinkets, Zimmerman’s work is a chaotic map of personal memories, stitched together with the artist's favorite objects.
In Today's Q+Art Interview…
Hannah Zimmerman discusses the impact of women who came before her, having dinner in a 19th-century Paris apartment, and how forming authentic connections with her students propelled the painter’s artistic journey forward.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
Hannah Zimmerman: My work is largely informed by introspection, so I am always interested in learning more about psychology, memory, and relationships. I really enjoy the process of unpacking my own personal history and examining it through the contexts of both societal expectations and family history. Working in the traditional genre of still life, art history is also hugely influential to me, as I consider how this form of representation can be used to deconstruct and reflect on contemporary life.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
HZ: One of my favorite artists is Édouard Vuillard. The way that he uses pattern to completely engulf an environment is so compelling to me. I would love to have dinner with him in his 19th-century Paris apartment (along with his mother and sister). I would like to be able to move through the vibrant, chaotic, interior environments he depicted and hear him talk about what that domestic space meant to him and to his family members.
What are you trying to express with your art?
HZ: My work is an ever-evolving process of asking questions of myself and exploring answers through environments and imagery. Though my work deals mostly with understanding my own experiences and identity, I am also investigating what it means to be a woman existing in the contemporary world. How has my life been shaped not only by my decisions, but also the decisions and experiences of the women who came before me? I used to have a lot of anxiety related to how I was fitting into specific existing molds of femininity, but now I am constantly looking to expand my own parameters of who I can be and what I choose to value. What does it mean to be playful, inquisitive, and compassionate? How can I honor my own doubts, insecurities, and shortcomings? Where in my life have I found joy, comfort, and a sense of belonging? These questions (and many others) help inform the direction of my work.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
HZ: Time! Working full-time as an art educator means that I have little spare time to make artwork. Taking advantage of breaks in the school year—especially summer—helps me maintain a studio practice, even if I cannot work as consistently as I would like.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
HZ: My favorite part about being an educator is having the opportunity to talk to students about their ideas. I think generosity means forming authentic connections, listening to others, and honoring their experiences. The most meaningful moments I have had in my own artistic journey have been the instances when someone has taken the time to really listen to and understand what I was trying to say. Knowing that someone else values your thoughts and ideas is crucial to having the confidence to create the work that you are meant to create. As much as possible, I try to be this person for my students.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
HZ: Success for me involves making connections with other people. I create work that is deeply personal, but I think that specificity opens the door for others to bring their own memories and experiences to the work as well.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
HZ: I would much rather be commercially successful than historically significant. If I can share my work with others and bring color and pattern and joy into their lives, even on a small scale, then I am happy. Creating artwork is a valuable contribution to society and artists should be compensated for the visual ideas they share with the world. In order to be historically significant, one has to look back to the past. I am more concerned with the visual connections I can make in the present and the relationships I can establish with others through my artwork.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
HZ: Throughout the past year, I have been taking steps to be able to sell my work to a wider audience. I opened an online shop on my website and have begun to sell prints of my artwork, as well as some greeting cards based on original hand-painted designs. The prints, which are available at a more accessible price point, create an opportunity for my domestic environments to become a part of the homes of others.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
HZ: Being active is really important to me. I love to run and go for walks so I try to spend time outside whenever I can. I also have a strong support group of friends and family who remind me to prioritize relationships and take on new experiences outside of the studio. With a full-time job and lofty goals for my studio practice, it can be difficult to not get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that needs to be done. This is why I think it's imperative to show kindness to yourself. Sometimes this means lowering my expectations for how much time I can spend in the studio or seeing the value in other types of experiences. Other times, it means taking a nap after work with my cat, Greta.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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