Creating a Version of Yourself That Already Exists; A Conversation with Visual Artist Diana Zeng


Photo courtesy of Diana Zhang

Diana opens the door to her home studio and I am immediately conscious that I have stepped in the home of a warm artist who loves her color. Greeted with a hug and some sniffs from a friendly dog, I knew I was welcome in her space. In the entryway lean three towering canvases at about six feet tall. The smell of oil paint wafts through the air as I enter her studio and I am met with her work table overflowing with brightly colored fabric and textiles wrapped around wires. On the walls hang five different pieces in the midst of creation, each in a different phase. Doing my due-diligence and research before meeting with Diana, I knew what her pieces looked like on an instagram page, but the vibrancy of the canvases cannot be done justice unless seen with your own eyes. The glossy canvases with loud, welcoming colors jump off the canvas. And the personality of the artist behind these amazing works is just as colorful and full of life as her paintings. I sat down with Diana and talked about the misconceptions of artists, her drawings to color and her surprising decision to become a visual artist.


Getting to Know Diana Zeng 

Diana Zeng has not always claimed to be an artist. From a young age she didn’t think the possibility of being an artist was even on the table.  Her mom would give her options of what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she would say “I don’t want to be that” to every choice her mom put in front of her. “She would always ask me, well what do you want to be? And I’d say ‘I don’t know! I just don’t want to be anything you told me!’ And now I recognize that it is probably because she never said artist.” 

Pursuing Art 

In May of 2017, Diana Zeng left her job, telling her boss she was going to be a painter, surprising both them and herself.  Since then Diana has worked on a number of projects and series of work including her line drawings, which allowed her to remove the self consciousness out of drawing, her “Seasons of Change” series inspired by Chinese calligraphy, and her vibrant oil paintings. Diana describes her decision to pursue art as her life path as “the life I never dared to have. A lot of times people tell [me] ‘Wow, you really went after your dreams.’ But no, this was not even a dream. This wasn’t something that I could have dreamt about because it wasn’t even in my consciousness…It definitely surprised me in terms of how large the leap I ended up taking from not having studied art to deciding I wanted to be an artist.” Rebellion, as we saw in Diana’s response to her mother’s questions about her future career, was not uncommon.  And I think it’s safe to say it has worked out in her favor. 


Being Your Own Boss

What is it like being your own boss? How do you hold yourself accountable and stay motivated?

I think for me being an artist, or being anyone who works really well independently when you don’t have a boss, calls you have to really know yourself and how you work best. So that even if I wake up in the morning and I’m tired or I’m not sure what I want to be creating how do I still get myself in a really good workplace and mental space? I love a sense of urgency so setting deadlines work for me. I think sometimes people feel that maybe being creative comes when you have, no boundaries, but I think having boundaries actually help create a lot of new ways you can work. And for me that boundary is a time limit, the pressure that I have to create something that makes me really zone in and focus…so now I work like 12 to 14 hours in my studio. I have these visions that I want to create and then I have a timeline that makes me actually create them.” 


Expectations of Artists 

Do you feel expected to be creative all the time and is that a draining feeling?

“When I made the move to focus on art it felt like I had more freedom to be myself. I think that there is this idea that an artist is someone who creates masterpieces in the middle of the night, like working at three in the morning and “bam!” I think this is maybe a misconception, at least for me…it’s not the expectation to be creative all the time that I feel, but a sense of freedom. For me it is the opposite of draining. It feels like finally I can just do and create and really be everything that I am. In school, I studied marketing and with that you are always thinking about the end consumer. As an artist, I am creating this for me and then I find who resonates with my work. And it’s not going to resonate with everyone, and it shouldn’t.  So I feel like it’s not this need to be creative, but this ever present and growing understanding of myself that influences what I am making.” 


Drawn to Color

When talking about her different styles of work, Diana kept coming back to being drawn to color. It’s hard to miss when you look at her pieces, but this is what the artist had to say about her feelings toward the vibrant. 

“I love color. But I think I have just always been drawn to how colors speak to each other and how they make us feel. My paintings have always been high pigment and high intensity color, because I think a lot of times when I’m painting I’m so focused on a specific moment and that moment becomes so vibrant. So the colors in my oil paintings came very naturally, I never decided I wanted to be someone who uses a very vibrant color palette. That wasn’t a decision point. I had paint and I decided I was going to make a very loud neon green and that’s what I’m going to do!”


Upcoming Exhibition


In Diana’s upcoming exhibition at [email protected] in Cortex, she will be exhibiting oil paintings that depict the personal workspaces of different entrepreneurs and creatives . [email protected]  is a coworking space and a pretty public place for an exhibition, which Diana is interested in exploring more of in her future work. She asked those in the Cortex community to send her photos of the private spaces, from home offices to backyard gardens, people made for themselves to work and feel free to create. Diana herself worked for a startup in the coworking space so she wanted to emphasize its sense of camaraderie by welcoming people into the personal spaces of their colleagues. These photos turned paintings of everyday life pushes a message Diana tries to emulate in her work, “Everyone in life is going to experience some real lows and they are going to experience great heights. But the day to day is quite mundane. And that is the part where life is being lived, startups are being built, paintings are being created. And it is drastically shaped by the highs and lows but the day to day is the largest percentage of your life and those are the moments I tend to paint. When and where life is just happening.”  

In her normal, vibrant, fashion, these paintings are large and loud in the most fun, engaging way. The canvases will be accompanied by colorful textile work weaved with wire and clothing from her family. These textiles will be braided into friendship bracelet patterns that remind Diana of her youth; becoming best friends with someone within a week at recess or summer camp, making friendship bracelets, and deciding they were her person; a story many of us can relate to from our childhood days. The concept of little kids deciding to befriend strangers is exactly within the message her exhibition is all about, how we can feel closer to the people around us. “ I remember almost instantaneously declaring that you’re best friends with someone new when you are six or seven years old. You don’t know anything about their political beliefs, you don’t know anything about their family life, you have almost nothing in common and you bypass all of that and decide they are your best friend and you love them. There is something like that in all of us and that didn’t have to be erased as we got older. I think it would help us feel less alone and antagonistic toward strangers, and help people simply care about people.” 


Diana’s next exhibition, “DEN OF THE WILD HUMAN” is coming to [email protected] in the Cortex District, St. Louis in April of 2020. You can follow Diana and upcoming shows on her website and instagram