Art meets science

West Michigan artist determined to make an impact on the painting world

Taking it All In: Visitors view artwork as part of the Enchanted Transient Reality exhibit in the Rankin Art Gallery. Photo By: Olivia Odette | Photographer
Born into a small town, one artist is determined to beat the odds.

Rob Vander Zee is the artist behind the paintings at the Enchanted Transient Reality exhibit in Rankin Art Gallery.

“I’m from a small town in Michigan, and no one knows me or gives a damn until I stand up and demand that they do,” Vander Zee said.

And he did demand.

The 38-year-old artist captivates the viewer’s eye with his almost bizarre depictions of various flora and fauna using bold colors that seem to glow from within by layering oil glazes.

Sci-fi, evolution and genetics are the driving forces that enable Vander Zee to create the enchanting world seen in his paintings. He believes someday people will see the creatures that he paints because of the progressive research of genetics and cloning in today’s world.

“I like to look at [his] paintings and come up with stories,” Carrie Weis, director of the gallery, said.

Places such as Italy, the Galapagos Islands and the South African rainforests have greatly influenced Vander Zee’s work. A few weeks every spring is dedicated to traveling and witnessing other cultures. Japan and India are his next two stops.

Born into a family of “classic underachievers,” Vander Zee grew up in the small town of Cedar Springs and attended Aquinas College for his Bachelor’s degree before attending Michigan State University for his Masters in Fine Arts.

While he had the support of many friends and family, he faced much discouragement as well.

“The world of painting hasn’t seen Rob Vander Zee yet,” he said to his principal after he was informed he would not make it as a painter.

But this workaholic is bound and determined to leave his mark on the world. Not only does he paint the mystical creatures displayed here, but cityscapes and landscapes as well. He recently opened up his own art gallery in Virginia and started writing a couple different books on artwork.

Eight years ago, a group of 20 students approached Vander Zee about opening his own school in New York. He took the risk and did what he was asked. He now caters to a group of 40 aspiring painters and closely works with 16 of the original students.

“I’m taking a lot of risks, but I have to. This is what I always wanted to do,” Vander Zee said.

His dedication has not come without sacrifice. Vander Zee works at least 40 hours a week on his painting in addition to teaching. On one painting alone, he spent a grand total of 300 hours.

The art exhibit displayed on campus has made him absolutely no money. To maintain some sort of living, he paints various other pieces of artwork on commission. However, much of what Vander Zee makes goes back into his artwork, spending around $20,000 dollars a year on material costs alone.

Despite the hard work, Vander Zee claims he loves his job because of the freedom it provides.

“My life is very wide open and I can pick and choose how I want to live it. I can create whatever life I want to create for myself,” he said.

To see Vander Zee’s work, stop by the Rankin Art Gallery from now until Sat., Oct. 13.