Zeph paints while surrounded by demons

The artist’s debut solo exhibition, dubbed ‘Zeph’s Pharmakeia,’ opens at the Vanderelli Room tonight (Friday, Feb. 10) as part of Franklinton Fridays.
“Autobiographical Decay,” (Detail), 2023

Pills, pill bottles, syringes, and oil on canvas.
“Autobiographical Decay,” (Detail), 2023 Pills, pill bottles, syringes, and oil on canvas.Courtesy Zeph

When Zeph works in their studio in Piqua, Ohio, the artist does so while surrounded closely by their demons, which fill dozens of canvases stacked against the walls and piled on tables and dressers. Now, with a new exhibition at the Vanderelli Room, these accumulated traumas are finally being given some room to breathe – paintings tackling addiction, incarceration, self-harm and the ills of the for-profit healthcare system stretching out over the walls of the Franklinton art gallery, the added space leaving room for at least a touch more light.

In some ways, this development reflects the gradual healing that has taken place for the artist, who still engages daily with these myriad demons, but who one canvas at a time has finally gained some distance on them.

For Zeph, this healing journey started when they were incarcerated, which followed years of medical misdiagnosis, a miscarriage, prescribed opioids and a slide into heroin addiction that led to a pair of prison stints. It was during this second sentence that Zeph first crossed paths with Aimee Wissman and Kamisha Thomas, co-founders of the Returning Artists Guild, a network of roughly 30 current and formerly incarcerated artists in the U.S.

“They really nurtured that seed, that initial seed for art,” said Zeph, whose debut solo exhibition, “Zeph’s Pharmakeia,” kicks off with an opening reception at 6 p.m. tonight (Friday, Feb. 10) as part of Franklinton Fridays. “We did art therapy together, and they brought me in on that, and they’ve supported my dreams from the beginning.”

Growing up, Zeph had a natural inclination toward art, but it wasn’t until prison where they started to embrace the form as a means of working through the numerous traumas accumulated in their life, many of which stem from multiple chronic, debilitating diseases that long went misdiagnosed and mistreated. “Those that were born in biologically female bodies, typically they run into more issues not being believed at the doctor’s office – the old ‘hysterical’ trope, if you will,” Zeph said. “It took me years to get diagnosed correctly. They told me it was all in my head, that my hips were hurting because of the way I was sitting.”

Eventually, Zeph found their way to the Cleveland Clinic, where they were diagnosed with a genetic birth defect of the hips and a connective tissue disorder, among numerous other ailments. (Zeph said they have been diagnosed with more than 20 chronic illnesses over the last seven years.) 

A number of Zeph’s paintings exist as commentaries on those long years prior to discovering these truths, when they were shuffled in and out of doctors’ offices, often treated as “a guinea pig or a lab rat,” as they explained it. In “American Healthcare,” a besuited elephant holds an hourglass, seated near a curled up, naked, bedridden figure and a discarded pill bottle – reflecting a bureaucratic system grown fat off the suffering of patients. “Withdrawal (Existential Crisis),” in turn, depicts the artist extracting a tooth with a pair of pliers, a commentary on the painful reality some face absent dental health insurance.

Other pieces are rooted in addiction and the tribulations faced by those in recovery, Zeph covering canvases in syringes and gaunt figures with haunted eyes. “There’s a stigma surrounding addiction, and especially being someone experiencing chronic pain,” they said. “I’ve never really felt like I could be myself anywhere, so I guess [art] has created a way for me to do that. … This is a free space for me to talk about the things that affect me.”

Zeph said these conversations have always been easier to have on canvas, and so they often immerse themselves in the work for hours at a stretch, oil paint splatter covering their face, clothes, bag. At times, they will even tape the paintbrush to their hand, allowing them to work through those frequent moments when chronic pains make even the act of gripping a brush impossible.

“When I was younger, that creative spark was there, but there was a lot of self-doubt,” Zeph said. “I never felt like I had the ability or the capability to do it. It’s only in the last couple of years when I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this for me, and I’m going to paint what I like.’ … And it motivated me to keep going, to keep pushing.”

This creative push has come with some welcome side effects, and with each canvas Zeph said they take a step or two further down the path to recovery. “I have a piece on self-harm over there,” they said. “And I haven’t self-harmed since I finished that painting.”

“Seeing everything spread out in here now, I can see all of these phases of my life, or the things I’ve gone through these last six or so years, and … I can look at them and say, ‘Man, you made it through that. We did it,’” Zeph continued. “And I know that sounds silly, because all of the work we’ve talked about here centers on pain and agony and grief and sorrow and all of these negative emotions. … Obviously, depression never goes away. But for the first time in so long I actually have hope. I am filled with hope. And that’s a big thing. And I’m excited to see where it goes from here, because this is just the beginning.”

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