Explore the mesmerizing underwater worlds of Nantucket artist Zoe Markham.
Painting seascapes is nothing new for Nantucket artists. However, when you enter Zoe Markham’s studio at the Artists Association of Nantucket’s Visual Arts Center on Amelia Drive, you encounter depictions of underwater worlds rarely seen on gallery walls. A self-taught artist who now teaches at the Artists Association, Markham creates large-scale acrylic and oil masterpieces that pull viewers down into the depths of the ocean where her renderings of giant squid, blue whales and other deepsea creatures combine exquisite detail with wild imagination. “I like to paint pieces that will hypnotize you,” she said, “pieces that you’ll just get lost in.”
At just twenty-five years old, Markham is a rare artistic talent who appears to have only just scratched the surface of her potential. Her paintings fuse fantasy with vivid depictions of marine life and the deep-sea worlds they inhabit. “I love to paint creatures in their element,” she said, “showcasing their fundamental behaviors that hold aesthetic value—being themselves, playing, lounging, enjoying a meal—to portray scenes that are oddly mesmerizing, surreal and strange.”
Each piece reflects an intimacy with the natural world that Markham said started early. “Nature has been a root in my life since childhood,” she said. “Today, I have concocted techniques to merge my loves of earth and art.” This unique approach goes beyond Markham’s subject matter and exacting brush strokes and extends to the canvas itself.
Along with painting on large-scale canvases, Markham creates her surreal marine scenes on the inside of seashells she collected on Nantucket. “Each shell I collect was strong enough to withstand the journey through the waves and surf to become vessels for my art,” she said. “I polish the shell and start my pencil sketch, then slowly apply layers of ink and paint until personal perfection is achieved.”
The intricate detail on the inside of the shell is complemented with gold leaf on the outside, which frames each artwork. Markham began creating her clamshell masterpieces ten years ago as a way of digging out her own niche in the art world. Employing materials such as resin and liquid glass, her shells achieve a scrimshaw quality in keeping with the Nantucket aesthetic. “Breathing fine art onto the shells, I try experimenting with materials to make scenes and creature portraits,” she explained. “The intricate details catch your curiosity, while the color use tells a dreamy story.”
Markham’s own story began in Los Angeles, where she was born before her family moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Spending summers at their cottage in Rye, New Hampshire, Markham was an avid beachcomber and drew her early artistic inspiration from the sea. “Finding inspiration at first for me is very surface and physical,” Markham explained. “Whatever creature I am painting intrigues me. The details, the texture, the appendages interest me from a beauty standpoint. Then the creatures that I find myself redoing over and over again are the ones that have interesting life habits, biology and histories.”
Three years ago, Markham and her boyfriend moved to Nantucket full time from Colorado. After two years of her renting studio space in the Visual Arts Center, the Artists Association enlisted her as an instructor. Today, Markham teaches private and group classes, as well as a popular “Paint and Sip” class at the Nantucket Culinary Center downtown that combines alcohol and art.
When she’s not teaching, Markham continues to push the boundaries of her creativity. Along with canvases and seashells, she also works on large-scale murals. Most of these murals have been commissions in private homes; however, Markham hopes to someday paint on the side of a public building on Nantucket. “Breathing organic life onto any lackluster spaces and surfaces helps us remember how beautiful and curious life can be,” she insisted. While the Historic District Commission might have something to say about that, Markham’s enchanting art is a reminder that even something as old as the ocean can look different through someone else’s eyes.