Painting A Feeling: A Conversation with St. Louis-Based Artist Diana Zeng
“If you had a year to live, what would you do?” Those words altered St. Louis-based artist Diana Zeng’s path forever. Her husband had been diagnosed with cancer, and moments felt too precious to squander doing anything less than what she loved most: to paint. Now, three years after her graduation from Washington University in St. Louis, Zeng has blossomed into her identity as an artist. We sat down with Zeng over coffee to discuss her inspirations, the intimate nature of her work, and the terror—and thrill—of committing to a full-time creative career.
You have a fascinating story. Tell me more about your background as an artist.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t creating, but it was something I did for myself. When I was young, my parents signed me up for a Chinese ink painting class during Sunday school, but it didn’t register to me as a formal art class—it was more an opportunity to understand my Chinese culture. In Chinese calligraphy, characters are designed to distill a word into an image. That’s how I got used to creating things—how do I feel something should look? I took my first formal painting class in my freshman year of college. I felt like an anomaly. I remember painting a still life, a skull, and I looked around and saw only neutral colors. Mine was purple. I’m not concerned with what my subject “is” in reality. Everyone experiences reality differently.
I received an art minor, but I never took another painting studio after that. I actually majored in marketing in the business school at Washington University.
What drew you to marketing?
Marketing is as creative as you can be on the business side. And my dad gave me some advice: in college, take classes in the major that interests you but that also allows you to explore. In school, I ended up really delving into queer theory. I could only have done that because my major allowed me to explore other interests.
When you began your artistic career, you worked under the name Zen She. Can you talk a bit about your decision to transition back to Diana Zeng?
Zen She comes from my Chinese name, just spelled slightly differently. I was never intending to transition back to Diana Zeng. But after I hit the year mark of painting full time, I felt more comfortable identifying as an artist. I no longer wanted that separation between me and my art. I realized that I didn’t need a brand—this is my identity. It has been so freeing.
Your abstract “Seasons of Change” series draws inspiration from Chinese calligraphy and ink-wash painting. Why did those forms initially intrigue you?
When I was creating that series, spring was starting to hit St. Louis. That was also the period when I was realizing I wanted to return to Diana Zeng. I felt a sense of friction between my present and future self. I was blossoming into a new identity. In that series, a lot of the forms were inspired by how I felt on a particular day. There’s one painting that represents a plateau—on that day, I felt stuck. But then I realized that growth isn’t linear. Sometimes you plateau, sometimes you even backtrack. That’s how spring felt, too. One day it was spring, one day it would be winter again; flowers would die that had just bloomed. When shoots were pushing out of the ground, I would paint as if something were shooting dynamically upward. In a way, that series was a response to the volatile state of my environment.
What or who inspires you artistically?
For me, it’s the use of color and form. My inspirations aren’t limited to either abstract or representational art, or artwork that is similar to mine. Heather Day works abstractly with acrylics, which is very different, but I’m inspired by her practice. She focuses on going out into the world, spending time with nature and bringing it back into the studio. Henri Matisse was the first of the “masters” that I fell in love with. I didn’t know who he was—I think I even pronounced his name wrong. I saw a painting of his, and my jaw dropped. In terms of contemporary artists, I’m in awe of David Hockney’s use of color and the intimacy with his subjects that comes through. I only paint when I feel intimately connected to my subject.
You recently traveled to your mother’s hometown in China. How was that trip, and what did it mean to you to return there?
That trip was my first time returning to China since I moved to the United States at three years old. I had no expectations going in—a part of me thought I’d never go back. The experience was a gift I never thought I’d receive. I felt like I was back with family I’d known all my life, even though my aunts, uncles and cousins hadn’t seen me in twenty-two years.
While there, I visited both of my parents’ hometowns. We also went to the national park that inspired the floating mountains in the movie Avatar. I have definite plans to paint that particular landscape. It reminded me of the forms in traditional Chinese ink paintings whose name translates to “mountain water.” The philosophy of mountain-water paintings is not to represent an actual location, but to capture the feeling of the landscape. I plan on mixing the traditional paneled structure of mountain-water paintings with my own style.
In 2016, ALIVE wrote about your husband, Sam Coster, and his brothers’ creative work designing games at their St. Louis-based studio Butterscotch Shenanigans. You’ve spoken on your blog about your experience supporting Sam through his cancer treatment. For those unfamiliar with your story, how did Sam help influence your decision to pursue painting?
Before cancer, of the two of us, I was the more risk-averse one. Then cancer happened, and I realized that death is the only guarantee. And no amount of planning can prepare you for what life will throw at you. For a solid three years, I had no idea what I was doing. I was in limbo—I felt I couldn’t go back to following a path I didn’t want, but I couldn’t move forward either. Sam asked me, “If you had a year to live, what would you do?” And I blurted out, “I would paint.” I hadn’t painted in years. And he just said, “Then why aren’t you doing that?”
I was terrified to throw myself into something and fail at it. Financially, I had been saving up for the two years since I graduated with the idea that one day I would quit my job and do … something. Painting became that something. Sam really pushed me along and encouraged me to commit.
Forging a career in the arts comes with its fair share of challenges. How do you navigate the difficulties that come with being a professional artist?
I need to be painting even when I don’t want to be painting. That mentality has gotten me through moments of doubt or struggle. Waiting for inspiration sends me into a funk; it will never come when I’m away from my palette. That’s why I paint every day. I’ll have a day at the canvas that started poorly and ended with various pieces suddenly coming together.
How do you juggle commissions with pursuing your own work?
When I decided to pursue art full time, I focused on doing in a way that was financially viable. A lot of artists don’t talk about the commercial aspect, because we love creating. But your work has to support your work. I gave three months of notice at my job, and in those three months, I tasked myself to build my client list.
Taking commissions was incredible in the beginning, because I knew I liked the act of painting, but I didn’t know what subjects I was drawn to. I got paid to figure out what I liked to paint, to learn. Now, my work is more evenly split between original work and commissions inspired by what I’m already producing.
I also truly love working with clients. I love getting to see their response when they pick up a piece. You have to find the institutions and the people who value your creativity.
Moving forward, how do you see your work evolving?
Before, I built intimate experiences with people and landscapes in my art. You can be intimate without being personal—I’m working on sharing more of myself through my art. Now I’m starting to draw on my intimate experiences with myself, the moments and people from my personal life.
Sam is in two of the pieces I’m working on, inspired by snapshots I took of him picking flowers for our home. He’s entranced by flowers. It shows something so mundane, almost boring—a man and flowers—but when you consider our national conversation about the scourge of masculinity, it becomes interesting. In our current climate, here are moments that are real and beautiful.