Zachary Seth Greer was raised in a conservative Christian home in Texas, where the apocalyptic imagery of the book of Revelations captured his imagination as he witnessed open countryside transform into abandoned suburbs during the boom and bust of the housing market. After being homeschooled through elementary school and discovering the concept of evolution in junior high, Zach attended the University of Texas in Arlington to study architecture. But he ended up spending his hours in the art studios instead, developing himself artistically while opening up his mind to a more intricate world beyond that of Christian idealism. When financial difficulties prevented him from finishing his degree he packed up and moved out to California. Since then Zach has taught art to children with developmental disabilities, built a venue and community center in his West Oakland home, Trees, and created a series of paintings on display now at Blackball Universe. Last week I hung out with Zach while he painted the walls for his installation and talked to him about innocence, the apocalypse, and Oakland post-Occupy movement.
Zach painting one of the walls at Blackball
When did you start on this series?
It’s been a year, year and a half in the making.
And was there a particular moment or a turning point that made you start on these paintings?
It was just after Occupy Oakland and dealing with all of the trauma and height of human experience. There was lot of amazing community building and also a lot of violent oppression happening. So the ideas started from processing those experiences and have been evolving for a long time. I’ve always been obsessed with apocalypse and what I witnessed with Occupy and continue to see with war, natural disasters, surveillance, and government control– that reminded me of the Christian imagery from my childhood for the signs of the end times and really resonated with me.
Tell me about Occupy.
October 25th, 2011, after OPD raided the camp for the first time I went down to support the retaking of the plaza, and I was standing right behind Iraq war veteran Scott Olson when an officer shot him in the head with a bean bag round, which is filled with metal pellets. There were tear gas canisters exploding everywhere, people were scattering–it was total chaos. And I turned around and looked back and Scott was on the ground. (I didn’t know him at the time but I had seen him standing there in his uniform; he was with Veterans for Peace.) I was one of the people who ran in to try to help him once we realized that police were not going to give any aid, so we all ran in to try to help him and an officer threw a flash bang at us and it bounced off of Scott and blew up on my leg.
So that moment radicalized me, and it was the first time I had experienced first hand any kind of militaristic police oppression. After that the next six months of Occupy Oakland were just highs and lows with dealing with that sort of oppression and understanding how communities become marginalized for their beliefs.
What were the highs and what were the lows?
The highs were the extent of human cooperation that occurred, and the lows were the experiences of oppression against that positivity.
So was October 26th your first experience of Occupy?
No, I had stopped in a few times before, saw all of the beautiful things that were happening–people being feed, housed, clothed; there were mental health facilities and many more positive things–direct democracy. But when I heard of how violently the encampment had been evicted by the city of Oakland I was enraged. I felt a fire in my belly. Once I made it to the library, which was the point of convergence, I could just smell the revolution ripe in the air.
What made you so angry?
That something so constructive could be so violently destroyed, that love would be met with such hate.
How did your involvement change after that day?
There was a point of tangential shift, I reached a point where I could go this way or that way. Except I didn’t really feel like I had an option. It was fate or something like it, some sort of gravity pulling me towards a great uprising. Being on the right side of history was something that was being tossed around a lot. And I felt that. That little community, as imperfect as it was, was an example of how things could function on a larger scale if given a chance. I was in it, after that.
Tell me a bit more about that tangential shift.
It could have been passivity and turning a blind eye to the present events or to be actively involved–being the change I wish to see in the world. There’s critiquing and then there’s actually building something, participating in how I want to see the world operate.
The experience with Occupy also taught me how the complacency of privileged communities is in itself oppressive. To be complacent in a place of privilege is a form of violence.
Disaster Knows Boundaries of None
You grew up in Texas, so can you tell me about that. How is that different from being here and what kind of perspective does that give you?
Well I came to Oakland for the freedom of expression and I came here for the support in being able to pursue art, but I feel like living in Texas has taught me a lot about what I care about and what I am working against. Growing up in a pretty small town I saw basically country, wide open spaces when we moved there when I was a little bitty kid, and then we saw the housing market boom and then crash a couple years later. So all of the fields and all of the open spaces I played in disappeared and suddenly there were all these houses and properties, and I couldn’t go to all those places I had freely roamed before, which is just a bit of stripping away of innocence. And I feel like a lot of my art since then has come from that in some way. I keep returning to the innocence of children because it makes the most sense in my paintings for me and these playgrounds, these things that are taken away and destroyed.
And just suddenly not only were these natural playgrounds taken away but then all the houses were emptied. All of these neighborhoods that were just empty neighborhoods with nothing there. It’s really interesting how we run things through these imaginary systems of economics and growth.
Who are the children in the paintings? Is that us or the younger generation?
It’s representative of the younger generation. I work with kids so I feel for them and I love the youth and their energy. I’m a bit concerned about their future, so I’m trying to bring it to light in the paintings with these kind of suburban landscapes to show that no one is immune from natural disasters and war.
It seems like the kids are never seeing or interacting with the negative forces in the paintings. Why is that?
Well I like the idea of their neutrality and playing and interacting with these scenes in a way that’s kind of introspective with looming desire. As adults we go to school and we learn all these preconceptions about the world but kids you know, all they want to do is play.
So they’re playing in the midst of this world.
Yeah. There’s a glimmer of hope in there, you know. It can’t all be awful.
The ominous presences in the paintings are depersonalized in a way, especially in “Uncertainty on a Day like the Future,” it’s just that dark void, so can you tell me about that?
About that one in particular?
Or just on the expressions of darkness in the paintings being this kind of—not like a kind of person or a villain or anything that you can particularly pinpoint—know what I’m saying?
Yeah, It’s just kind of an overarching, looming . . . doom.
That one—Uncertainty on a Day like the Future—was originally a print that was simpler, it was this big lake monster rising up and it was called “Uncertain Bravery.” And the girl is standing in front of something like the present state of our world, all of our governments, and societal problems. All of those things make up this monster and she’s figuring out how to face it, and of course there’s gonna be a little bit of uncertainty but you gotta shine through and try to make something good in spite of it.
Uncertainty on a Day Like the Future
And then colors. You really love this blue. You have this blue repeated over and over. Where did that come from?
Well I can’t afford many paints. (laughs) But I like the cyan magenta yellow sort of combo–that digital sort of feel, and there’s that 3d effect that you get with the red and the blue that I’ve always liked. I always looked at those 3d books when I was a kid where you wear the glasses. And red and blue just vibrate together really well. It’s hot and cold; it’s just these chromatic contrasts that help express the dichotomies in the paintings.
It’s interesting that there’s this dark tone to the paintings and yet the colors are just whimsical in how vivid they are and how bright they are.
I like dichotomy and contrast and all of that goes in with the subject matter, but just visually I find brighter colors more pleasing.
So I’m wondering, is there a line between art as a personal expression and protest art?
It’s a blurry line. I mean it’s definitely personal introspection and processing ideas and kind of finding the problem, and then going back to history and using art history and history of our world with government and collapse and all of those things, just putting them all together, meshing them. I like to work with collage whether it be physical or digital collage, just throwing all of these random images together and somehow making them work. I’m inspired and influenced by everything around me.
With “Nesting in the Void”–did you see that movie Holy Mountain?
Was there any correlation between that scene and the painting?
It’s possible, I don’t think I was thinking about it at the time but that’s a very strong movie full of imagery.
That image has just always stuck with me–with the student getting shot and all the birds flying out.
Living in Oakland and dealing with violence, I wanted to portray that idea symbolically. I wanted this idea of something moving through the body, kind of a beautiful transformation coming through the other side.
Nesting in the Void
So do you think the paintings are ultimately hopeful?
I think so, I think they’re just contemplative, and hopefully anyone who has a heart for the youth and for children will gain something from it and want to try to do something more positive for the future and help future generations.
You went to Central America recently. What was that like?
It was really rad, cause it was right after Occupy had been squashed by the police. To get a richer history of US involvement down there was personally enriching. Talking to locals and people who had been refugees during the Guatemalan war and Contra wars, getting this history of revolt and insurrection after seeing a sort of naive movement fall short. Occupy was great in it’s idealism but no one has really dealt with that sort of thing here in the states.
You mean oppression?
Yeah, I mean not on the same level. People haven’t had to escape the country and be refugees, so getting that depth of those ancient cultures and their struggles, and going to all the Mayan sites was so rich. So I feel like that was an expansion of my own consciousness.
Did it influence your perspective of what our future might be like?
Definitely, I heard stories about how our government has treated people down there. The US has treated countries so badly and it makes me feel a little bit of blood on my hands–a little bit guilty, like ‘I’m sorry our government did that to you.’
I guess seeing those past historical things and seeing Occupy get treated similarly–there was no respect for free speech or the right to gather and organize, so it was very eye opening to realize that the American government has been such an aggressive and violent regime through history.
The Great Divide Between Here and There
Why is the apocalypse such a strong theme in your work?
I try to paint other things but I can’t seem to get over the apocalypse. It just comes natural. I try not to fight myself on what I want to paint.
Plus I feel like we’re in it. All the things that are happening with natural disasters and poison in the water. It feels relevant. Plus it’s better than painting still life. It’s more exciting.
In addition to painting, Zach is also founding special needs art and music program called S.N.A.P.S. –Special Needs Activities Professionals. Keep an eye out for more news on S.N.A.P.S. in the future.
Zach’s paintings and the rest of his installation are on display now at the Blackball Universe gallery in Oakland near Jack London Square for the rest of October. You can see his art on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 to 5. Be sure to come out in your best costume on Friday the 18th for Blackball’s Halloween art party–Blacula’s Ball. I’ll be there and it’s probably gonna get crazy.
You can view more of Zach’s artwork and find out about future projects at zacharysethgreer.com
All the installation photos were taken by Zoe Ceja, who is awesome.