A Chat with the Speaker

Zach Brown reflects on the meaning of his time at the Academy. 
By Maggie Mead

Painting student Zach Brown was nominated by his fellow classmates to deliver the student speech on commencement day, Friday, May 24. Such an assignment might have struck fear in the hearts of some students. (How do you sum up the experience of your class? How do you get the words out without fainting?) But this jovial native of Mars, Pennsylvania—the set of Night of the Living Dead, by the way—exhibited no nerves at all when I spoke to him the day after he’d finished writing his speech. And he had only warm things to say about the Academy and all of the artists here.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” he said. “Everyone here is excited, and they’re motivated to do their own work. I don’t know if it’s because it’s figurative, and that creates a certain empathy when you’re working with the human body – if it just creates a certain breed of person who’s maybe not as cold as a minimalist!”

Check out the rest of the interview below.

How long did it take you to write the speech?
It was pretty easy to write. … I didn’t have to force thinking that everyone’s gonna do awesome. I really do think everyone’s gonna do awesome. 

Are there some good jokes in it?
I don’t know if they are good jokes, but there are jokes! I think it will be more about the delivery than anything.

Did you practice it in front of the mirror?
Yeah, and I practiced it in front of my girlfriend. She’s normally my go-to to make sure I’m being appropriate. 

Did she laugh?

No, but she smiled. It was one of these: <<puts his hands over his face and shakes his head>> 

Sounds like it will be good. Why do you think you were voted to speak?
I think it’s because I sing and dance in class a lot. … One of the questions [on the email we received] was "If you get selected, would you like to speak?" So I said, "Well, I’ve got a big mouth and I love attention, so I’d be happy to speak!" Then people were asking me if I’d be interested in doing it, and I said "Yeah, sure, that’d be great!’”

What kinds of things were you thinking about when you were writing the speech?
Honestly, the best thing I’m taking away from this school is the student body. Of course you learn a lot of things. There’s a lot of classes. … This is going to sound terrible, but I think if they just put all the students that they accepted in a room for a long enough time, everyone was going to learn something really quickly. They orchestrate an amazing environment just by the students they accept into the program. … Everyone brings a different skill set and background, and it creates a lot of energy – it’s fun. 

(From left to right): "Rectangle Mask," "Blue Dog," and "Feather Mask"

What made you come to the Academy?
I knew I wanted to teach. It seemed like a sweet gig. But I wanted to work more. I did my undergraduate degree [at RISD] in illustration, but I mostly just painted. … A professor of mine told me about the New York Academy. I was applying to other places, and my girlfriend looked at this school and was like, "Zach this is perfect for you." And I was like, "Yeah, but it’s in New York City. I don’t know if I want to be in New York…"

That's a strange reaction. Why didn’t you want to be in New York?
It has tons of great stuff, but it doesn’t have what I really like. It’s a great place for museums and all that stuff, but not as far as abandoned warehouses and field parties and dirty garages and bars that you can smoke in and all that fun Pittsburgh stuff.

So do you plan to go back to Pittsburgh?
Definitely. There’s a lot of exciting things going on the Rustbelt right now. Rent’s cheap. There’s a lot of big spaces. There’s a lot of young people going there and treating it like their own frontier. There’s cool stuff going in Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Philly.

A good buddy of mine just started up this magazine called the Rustbelt Almanac, where essentially they travel around and interview young movers and shakers of this new Rustbelt revival, Rustbelt Renaissance, whether it’s art or young entrepreneurs or tech or young designers. … In the Rustbelt you have an opportunity to get a lot of attention for what you want to do – and do it relatively cheaply. 

"Burial Masks"
Have you found places where you feel comfortable in New York?
The places I like best in New York are places where there aren’t people, so I find myself frequenting a lot of construction sites. I live in this closet over in Hell’s Kitchen, so a lot of times I walk down to where the bus stations are and where the train yard is. It’s weird because it’s still midtown but no one really goes there, except for people who are oddly waiting for the Megabus. It has a nice transient nature to it. ... When I first moved here, the guy who was showing me the apartment was like, “Oh yeah and there’s this great club down the street, with discotek music, and a lot of Europeans go to it. Is that what you’re into?” And I’m like “No! Not at all!”

Has your work changed significantly during your time here?
The goals haven’t changed too much. I’m still using a lot of similar language. It’s just the subject matter has become less specific. I came in using a lot dogmatic imagery and iconography. And they are still very much icons, but it’s not like specifically St. Peter or something like that. ... I found ways to reference the imagery and try to touch on something less specific, but it invokes similar ideas.


Congratulations, Class of 2013! Looking forward to seeing you walk across the stage on Friday!

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