by Illaria Dana, Education Major
Finding Joy in Your Life’s Work: An Interview with Local Artist, Zoo Cain
Zoo Cain is a local artist, cancer survivor, and sober person. He raised three children. He attended and left Portland School of Art (now Maine College of Art), because he wanted to study printmaking and lithography, “and they didn’t get to that stuff til the third year!” He has found his own way to create, and he creates prolifically. In his own words, “I’m finishing five to six art works a week, all the time. I’m sitting in a unique position of an artist who actually gets to live.”
Being sober for a quarter of a century is bound to make a huge difference to people. Zoo describes his experiences in recovery. “I finally went and took a seat at the oldest and most divinely inspired 12 Step Program, and yes, I was saved from ongoing demise and utter destruction. 25 or so years later, I rest and thrive in the guidance of the spirit world.”
Humble may not be the first word that jumps into your mind when talking with Zoo. He is never afraid to offer his opinion. He can be seen in shorts in the winter. He says, “If one more person has a cow about the shorts in this weather, I’ll just lose it,” and laughs. He carries around his work with him, wooden boards that he fills with color and toolboxes with pastels and pencils. His art has a geometry about it, but geometry alone does not do the work justice.
What is humble about Zoo is his devotion to service which is a devotion to other people. He brings meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous to the jails and institutions. When members of the community are sick, he brings meetings into their hospital rooms.
He told me about a group of elementary school students that he guided. He said, “I gave them all wooden boards, rulers and colored pencils. In an hour, they were all making this crazy art.”
When discussing the character traits that will keep him spiritually fit, he mentions patience. “Patience, I think, is the key to everything. To living a good life, to breathing properly, just everything you can think of. It’s a word I never even hear. Do you ever hear that word? It’s never bandied about in this country. I think patience is very, very crucial.”
What is remarkable about Zoo’s art is not the elegant combination of geometry and color. What is remarkable is that he has found his artistic voice and has pursued this voice relentlessly. His house is filled with his work, and you can find it all over Portland, especially in church basements and stores that he frequents.
What draws attention to Zoo is more than his expansive repertoire of art, though the art on its own is compelling. The Portland Press Herald ran an article on a benefit held to raise funds for his cancer treatment in April 2015. He is the subject of a documentary in the works called Peace, Love and Zoo. People are drawn to Zoo, people who are not addicts, alcoholics, artists, or cancer survivors. This can only be explained by his authenticity.
“I don’t know anybody who has done it like me. The one I am probably most closely related to, as far as I can tell, is Keith Moon. He was a wild drummer. He played out of time. He drank, and did so much other dope viciously, but he never got sober. He died that way. I somehow did all that… Well, for one thing, people weren’t wining and dining me all the time, and I didn’t have a ton of money. Here I am though. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in 25 years or done this or that. I’m sitting in a spot where I may not pass away from that.
“Aggravation was my father’s middle name. Peace-making was my mother’s. I think we drag a lot of stuff from our parents. Even though, people like you and I, as far as I can tell, are pretty self-made, we ignore the stuff from our parents and go on our own trip, because we are fairly authentic. That said, I still think we have DNA, the blood, a lot of stuff that we witness that comes along with us. It’s kind of like being with a partner for a year. You’re going to soak up a lot of their stuff.”
How does he deal with the past? He continues to dedicate himself to living in the moment. “I don’t want to get disgusted with life before it’s time. Or ever. Why would I ever want to get disgusted with anything?”
It is easy to believe that one’s life has little effect on other people. From talking with Zoo, it becomes obvious that even the humblest life has enormous power.