The scene is quintessential New Jersey: criss-crossing ribbons of highway, graffiti-enhanced concrete pillars, coils of barbed wire atop a brick building in the distance, pizza boxes spilling out of metal barrels, and bears roaming wild. Eating the pizza, in fact — their new favorite snack.
When we hear a news report that a bear was spotted in the parking lot at, say, Wal-Mart, we think it has invaded our territory, but in fact our human activity has destroyed the habitat for the bear.
Tricia Zimic’s realistic painting of the above scene greets visitors to “Essential Life: Painting and Sculpture by Tricia Zimic,” on view at the New Jersey State Museum through Sunday, February 19.
“The Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is listed as ‘least concern status’ and is currently living at 95 percent of its former range,” writes Zimic in an artist’s statement. “Black bears usually eat grasses, roots, berries, and fish, but they’re highly adaptable. This adventurous family of black bears has roamed into the Meadowlands under I-95 to munch on garbage, finding the local pizza more delectable than grass.”
Zimic describes herself as a conservation artist. She uses her art to help get the message out there about how our way of living and urban sprawl are destroying habitats for native plants and animals.
“In addition to the message found within the pieces,” says Margaret O’Reilly, curator of fine art at the museum, “these are also fully realized works of art, continuing the tradition of artists depicting the natural world dating back thousands of years. Like the artists who preceded her, Zimic is using art to impart knowledge while also providing an extraordinary aesthetic experience.”
Indeed, when you look at a painting like “Lost-n-Found,” you want to rescue those beautiful animals from the rusted cans and other trash.
From Zimic, who lives in Maplewood, we learn there are only two populations of packrats left in New Jersey, in the Palisades region. Yes, there really is an animal called a “packrat” — the Alleghany woodrat — a small mammal that looks like a cross between a rabbit and a chipmunk. It likes to hoard bones, feathers, foil, coins, nails, rubber bands, shotgun shells, and even dung, as well as attic treasure to build its nest, and is particularly fond of shiny objects. In their dens, they also keep piles of material they have rejected for the nest. These piles can last up to 50,000 years and scientists study them to help understand ancient life forms. The piles of packrat savings are like time capsules of natural life millennia after they occurred. The packrat is endangered because of habitat loss.
Zimic has always been an animal lover, and living on the edge of South Mountain Preserve, she would walk her dog there. First, she became aware of the silence — there were no insect or bird sounds. Soon she noticed the lack of understory due to over browsing by deer. Four years ago she joined the board of the South Mountain Conservancy and worked to rebuild the forest, fencing in areas on 14 acres where native plants could be regrown. “Other parks are using it as a template,” says Zimic. “We’ve developed 42 regeneration sites.” Now, in the meadow, there are bees, dragonflies, and hummingbird moths.
White tail deer are opportunists, with no predators, that eat native plants, she points out. In Essex County, where she lives, deer are culled and the venison provided to feed to the homeless.
In New Jersey, three-quarters of the land is taken up with urban sprawl, she says. “There is only one-quarter left for plants and animals. So I want to show where the plants and animals end up. Each piece in this exhibit tells a story about conservation and the lack of habitat.”
“Fight or Flight” tells about the battle for food among native and invasive birds. The battle in the painting takes place over the Meadowlands, with the skyline of Secaucus in the background. It is a beautiful painting, in the style of Audubon, but telling the modern day horror story. On the left are the non-native invasives — the starling and the sparrow — and on the right are the endangered bluebird and bobolink.
In the late 19th century, according to the text panel, 80 starlings were brought from Europe to New York City for a Shakespeare festival. The starling has done very well nesting in cities and suburbs, eating tons of crops each year all the while ousting the native birds from their homes. At over 200 million, there are more European starlings than any other bird in North America.
The house sparrow is known for battling with bluebirds for their nests to steal and destroy the eggs. With a population of 150 million, the house sparrow is the most common songbird in America.
In addition to painting, Zimic creates sculpture from ceramic, fiberglass, and found objects. Another animal Zimic is fond of is the Indiana bat, now in decline because of white nose fungus. She creates ceramic reliefs that are like paintings in clay. The colors are true to life, but richer. She adds oil paint on top of the glazes to achieve the color that is in her mind. We know bats are beneficial and consume inordinate quantities of mosquitoes, but they have never looked so cute and pettable as they do here.
Using fine porcelain, Zimic has sculpted piping plovers, evocative of the Boehm porcelain birds made in Trenton in the 1950s — and seen elsewhere in the museum — only these endangered birds are nesting on top of tires, rusted chains, refrigerator, and car parts and other flotsam and jetsam of Secaucus.
Zimic was born in Glen Cove, Long Island. Her father sold machines for department stores, and her mother was a fashion illustrator. Zimic earned a bachelor’s of fine arts from Parsons School of Design in 1978. She studied with Maurice Sendak and worked as an illustrator for children’s and young adult books for many years, including the Nancy Drew books. She took off 10 years to raise two daughters, and when she returned to the field found it had gone digital. “They were manipulating photographs to look like paintings,” Zimic says.
So she studied ceramics at Summit Art Center and found herself in clay, eager to get her hands into it for the next piece. Two years ago, she added fiberglass, mold making, and recycled objects to her sculpture.
In 2008 Zimic submitted artwork to an open call at the New Jersey State Museum. O’Reilly came to visit her studio and suggested the “Essential Life” show, which perfectly fits in with the museum’s mission of science, art, and history.
There is lots of humor and irony here too. In “Tired,” we see bobcats — native to New Jersey — that are tired of living in places they’re not supposed to be. They are wound up in shredded wire and bike tires.
In “Dining at Asbury Park” we see peregrine falcons against the carousel cupola eating a pigeon as blue feathers fall against a Van Gogh sky. In “Bud Buddies,” butterflies are living with detritus, including a Budweiser can.
Zimic’s painting studio is upstairs in her home, and her ceramic studio is in the basement. She recently bought a larger kiln for larger pieces, and some of them have been fired for a total of 68 hours. Zimic is afraid to calculate her electric bill.
It all begins with an animal Zimic learns is threatened. She does the research, finding their stories and their poetry, and makes sketches in her notebook before creating a diorama and rendering it in clay. “I may use paint to tell a bigger story,” she says. For example, “Uprising” is about a pack of wolves that have returned to the city where they are like a pack of hoodlums against graffitied walls, cans of trash and Japanese knotweed, another aggressively invasive plant.
“If we bring the wolves back, we have to find an appropriate place for them to live,” she says.
At present she is at work on a triptych, the center panel of which is on view in “Essential Life.” “As It Is” is a scene from Jersey City, a composite of salvage yard, rusted out cars, and the tree of heaven growing from a tower. The tree of heaven, or ailanthus altissima, was the metaphoric tree in the classic novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but the plant, a native of China, has become invasive in the U.S. A nest made from garbage sits on top of a tree. Bats, a bobcat, a grebe, screech owl, wolf, bobolink, peregrine falcon and packrat are pictured against an ominous sky. “Is it ominous, or is it clearing up,” asks Zimic. “It’s up to us.”
The other two paintings in the triptych will be “Eden” and “Doomsday.” In “Eden,” in a scene inspired by Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” all the animals are living in harmony, and a young woman is wrapped in green. In “Doomsday,” a woman is wearing a mask, and the world has been made liquid from melting ice caps. Manhattan’s buildings are emerging from water, and a masked woman is holding a pedigree white poodle.
“The only animals left are dogs and cats, the only animals humans felt were worth saving,” says Zimic. “I don’t know how to solve the problem, but I want to identify it with art and build awareness. This is the only way I know to get this out there.”
“Essential Life: Painting and Sculpture by Tricia Zimic,” on view through Sunday, February 19, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State St., Trenton. www.njstatemuseum.org
Work by Zimic can also be seen in “Textures and Trails” at the D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton, through Friday, February 10. www.drgreenway.org