Kathleen Zimbicki holding her abstract painting Dark Matter, 2018.

    Kathleen Zimbicki holding her abstract painting Dark Matter, 2018.

    Kathleen Zimbicki is an artist who has been an integral part of the art community in Pittsburgh for over 60 years. The Cultural Trust will present a show of her varied work at 707 Penn Gallery, opening July 6.

    Integral is not too strong a word to describe Zimbicki’s contributions. She has nurtured future generations of artists at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (PCA), TouchStone, and Carnegie Mellon University, among many other institutions. Add curator into the mix of her activities. And gallerist.  Her Studio Z Gallery was a fixture for nearly 40 years until a downturn in art sales after 9/11 made her decide to close, although she is still at Eastside Gallery, an artists’ co-op. The PCA honored her with the center’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, only one of dozens of such honors including fellowships; she has exhibited extensively and served on the boards of cultural organizations; an extensive list of private individuals, businesses, and museums have her work in their collections.

    “Kathleen’s keen wit, deep commitment to her art-making, and loyal support of the art community are well known,” says longtime friend and noted Pittsburgh artist Fran Gialamas.

    The Critter That Ate Penn Hills, 2012.

    The Critter That Ate Penn Hills, 2012.

    It’s no wonder, then, that the Senator John Heinz History Center came calling last August to gather in her papers. “They took two big bins full of my life,” Zimbicki exclaims. “Then a guy came out and did an oral history.”

    “Preserving the papers of significant artists like Kathleen Zimbicki promotes a historical understanding of art in Western Pennsylvania,” states Kim Roberts, communications coordinator at the Heinz Center.

    Zimbicki grew up in a musical family, but realized at age nine that her talents lay elsewhere. She picked up a brush and hasn’t put one down since. “Art is in her DNA,” Gialamas adds.

    At the beginning she worked mostly in oils. But oil requires turpentine for cleaning, which her young daughter tried drinking; fortunately she spit it out, but that scare pushed Zimbicki into another medium. “It was such a long time ago. I can’t remember how the transition went. I just knew that I didn’t want turpentine around the house,” she remembers. “I tried watercolor. It’s more difficult than oil, but I fell in love with it. I loved the look, loved the lushness, loved the wet-on-wet appearance, where you wet paper and ‘drop’ paint on it. I can blend the colors; they become transparent, or opaque when dry, taking on so many different looks. I like to do new and exciting things. Sometimes I let the paint bleed, or I rub the pigment out after it dries.”

    Mike Slept, I Painted, 2004.

    Mike Slept, I Painted, 2004.

    Zimbicki’s art is colorful—bright, lively, warm, sometimes serene, always comforting, without sharp complementary contrasts; no masses of riotous Matisse-like color contrasts here. Some of her works have fanciful names, such as No One Under 30 Eats Fish or Zimland or The Critter That Ate Penn Hills, which features an alligator.

    “I’ve done lots of alligators. It’s the shape, it’s the pattern; you can make lots of patterns with the scales,” notes Zimbicki. The multi-toned, happy critter with large, white scales along his back that is chowing down on Penn Hills is an example.

    “A critic called my work magic realism, but I say it’s just my funky images. It’s what I want to do. It makes me happy,” states Zimbicki. “But if somebody else is happy that’s even better. I love abstract painting, I love doing it, but then I’ll wind up putting a critter in it. Abstract is the most difficult thing for me to do.”

    Yet the very prolific Zimbicki does some delightful abstracts. She is pictured in the accompanying photo in her art-filled home holding a subtly muted abstract composition called Dark Matter, a rather deep but appropriate name compared to her others. The painting features flowing forms joined by rivulets of lines that almost disappear into the background.

    Zimbicki’s talent and output is not just for Pittsburgh. She has shown art all over the world. “My husband Mike and I traveled a lot. I always took a box of materials along,” recalls Zimbicki. She would paint in public places throughout a trip. “People would see that I was painting so I started having shows with the group at the last day when they had the party.” The shows were on their cruise boats, or in the hotels at which they stayed.

    Zimbicki recalls one incident in China. Mike went on a tour and she painted: “The bus was ready to go but nobody could find me and I didn’t realize it. Then I got on the bus and they all shouted ‘Where were you?’ They were angry. Well, I was right there but I had to finish the painting.” Of course.

    The painting reproduced here is from China. It shows Zimbicki’s ability with representational art—which leads to the obvious conclusion that she really excels in multiple genres, not just whimsical fantasy. Her work is never repetitive. There are just too many ideas constantly forming in her creative mind for that.

    Which means that art lovers everywhere have a continuing variety of lively, entertaining, and eminently pleasing work to enjoy.

    Thank you, Kathleen Zimbicki.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has recently completed a biography about noted abstract expressionist artist Sonia Gechtoff. She lives in Mt. Lebanon.