PUSH ← → PULL
Story by Seth Putnam Photography by Jesse Lenz
"The splotches on Zeb Love’s sneakers, plum-colored from the spilled ink of his printing projects, seem as permanent as the tattoos that mark his forearms."
Those illustrated arms are folded as he stands in his Pittsburgh studio a few months after his artist’s residency in the Mad River with The Collective Quarterly. He surveys three giant screen prints he created in response to his time in Vermont: a reinterpretation of the state seal, an imaginative narrative about a family of foxes, and a comment about humans’ impact on nature.
If he’s being honest, the 26-year-old will tell you he hates them—and that he loves them. “I would never hang up any of my own stuff because I see all the faults,” he explains. “They’re going to live permanently on the Internet or wherever they’re printed, and that means you can’t fix your mistakes.”
But those mistakes also serve as landmarks to show him how far he’s come. To recognize the shortcomings in old work inherently requires growth, and that’s some form of comfort.
Behind him, canisters of pigment line the wall: yellows, oranges, greens, blues stacked eight shelves high. Like his tattoos, they’re signposts in an unfolding journey. Zeb’s story begins in Dixon, the small town in northern Illinois where Ronald Reagan lived as a boy. In 2007, after finishing high school, he abandoned academia and got a job as a cashier at McDonald’s while he played guitar in a rock band.
A friend gave him a copy of Photoshop, and Zeb began to experiment. On a whim, he messaged bands on the social-networking site MySpace. “Hey! I do art,” he wrote and offered them free designs as a way to teach himself the program.
Eventually, he began to reconsider his scholastic future, and was on the verge of moving to Chicago to continue his education when a band offered him his first paid gig. The night before a meeting with his college recruiter, he made his decision. “The guy called me and said, ‘Hey, are we still on for tomorrow?’ ” Zeb remembers. “I said, ‘Well, this band just paid me 50 bucks for a T-shirt design. I think I’m just going to try to do this instead.’ And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Such apparent flippancy left the recruiter spluttering. But it has paid off for Zeb, who moved with friends to Pittsburgh in search of an environment that would give them more freedom to explore their creative inclinations. “I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing in my hometown, because there was no one around to push me,” he says.
But he found those motivating souls in Pittsburgh, a town not known as an artistic haven. They were stop-motion filmmakers, set builders, and painters. “Here, people are pursuing something. Being around that is contagious.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Zeb got into screen printing, which represents the latest step in his progression as an artist. A friend invited him to submit work for an art show about painting and printing. I can’t paint, he thought, so I guess I’ll try a screen print.
He produced three portraits—of Nikola Tesla, Abraham Lincoln, and Amelia Earhart. “They were horrendous, but people bought ’em anyway,” he says. It was a refreshing departure from the digital work he had been doing up to that point because, at last, he could lay hands on the final product instead of sending it off to live in the world of 1s and 0s.
Over time, his hard work and knack for self-improvement caught the attention of a Nashville concert organizer, who offered him a chance to design a poster for the 1960s German rock band, The Scorpions. Zeb happily accepted, and eventually his contact at the company connected him with folk-rock powerhouse The Avett Brothers, who, through word of mouth, had put out a call for new artists. Since 2012, he’s produced 17 posters for them, while adding posters for musicians such as the Black Keys, Ray LaMontagne, Neil Young, and the Dave Matthews Band to his portfolio.
Still, the path to commercial success hasn’t been straightforward. In the concert world, bands don’t buy designs. Instead, they offer artists the opportunities to make their profits through poster sales. That lack of job security has the tendency to light a fire. “I’m constantly striving to be better in my craftsmanship,” Zeb says. “I feel like the harder you work on something—it bleeds into your personal life, too.”
So his pen will go on sketching. His squeegee will continue pressing ink through his the mesh of his screens. And new ink stains will keep appearing on his shoes.
Zeb Reveals the Meaning Behind His Ink
When you do work for yourself, you never know who will see it. It’s like putting hooks in the water. Maybe you’ll catch fish and feed each other.
That’s why I went to Vermont: Being around a bunch of other creative people to absorb their experiences and insights, that’s a payment in itself. Those kinds of people are so hard to find, and it’s rewarding to be part of that. If something comes as a result, it’s a bonus.
Freedom and Unity
Vermont’s seal was designed by Ira Allen (brother of Revolutionary War patriot Ethan Allen) in the 1700s, and its age shows. I thought it would be interesting to reinterpret it. Not only is “freedom and unity” the state’s motto, it was also a running theme I gathered from talking to Vermonters. The idea is that we’re all in the same boat of working and pursuing knowledge together—hence, the book. The sun and the moon represent life-giving influences, and the tree growing from the pages is the natural manifestation of what we’ve learned from what we’ve read or written in the book.
In the High Isolating Air
Many of the things I took notes on didn’t come to fruition. Originally, I thought this image might include a girl and a car by the lake. But I tried 10 compositions and hated them all. Over time, I moved to the black bear, an animal common in Vermont, which I used to illustrate the intersection of humanity and nature—how often man infringes upon the environment even without being present.
Save those that the oak is keeping
This is a recreation of an actual truck I saw with a tree growing out of the engine compartment. I wanted to add a story line to it, so I introduced a family of foxes. Maybe the kit ran off, and the parents are looking for it. Developing that theme of the human effect on nature, the idea is that somebody abandoned this truck, and it became a shelter and a playground for animals.
What I Learned
I worked on these images for maybe two months, finished them, and thought, Ah. This is good. Then I got busy with client work, learned some new techniques in composition and realism, and thought they looked terrible when I came back to them.
So I threw them out and started over. That’s kind of what this whole process has been about: making something new, throwing it out. It’s a tough thing to figure out your own limitations (knowing that they’re temporary according to your ever-improving ability).
It sucks to swallow your pride and trash that much work, but you want to put out the best possible you can for where you are. I could have sat on these three pieces for the rest of my life. Luckily, The Collective gave me a deadline so I didn’t have to do that to myself.