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Asheville artist Zander Stefani wrangles his anxiety one brush stroke at a time

Matt Peiken | BPR News



The word anxiety comes up often as Zander Stefani describes his life. He said he channels some of it into his abstract artwork. 


“It’s like I’m painting this peaceful, serene world that I can create on a panel, this reflection of the chaos of my day-to-day life but also this peace that exists behind it,” he said. 


A handful of Stefani’s drawn and painted works are hanging toward the back of Tracey Morgan Gallery in Asheville through Feb. 19. There’s a dash of Keith Haring in Stefani’s blend of abstracted lines and marks, illustration techniques and faces and bodies beneath. Stefani’s color palate merges swirls of brightness atop muted olives and blues. 


“These paintings all mostly started with abstract lines on the wood, no sketching beforehand, just with paint, just doing something and then reacting to what I did,” he said. “It’s like a creative, soulful, spiritual practice still, but sometimes it feels like I’m doing abstract math equations in my head when I’m looking at one of these paintings.”


Stefani is 27 years old and only has to search back several years to a time he felt lost personally and artistically. He thought he would follow his dad into architecture, but never connected with the requisite studies, or with Boston, where he first went to college. He dropped out, moved back in with his parents and enrolled again a year later in architecture school, this time at Savannah College of Art and Design, where he found visual art. 


“My self-awareness was lacking in a lot of ways, and so it’s like I needed people outside of me to help me figure out the steps I wanted to take,” he said. “So one of my illustration professors was like ‘Your work is so fine art forward, why are you studying illustration and not painting?’ and that opened up something inside of me.”


After college, Stefani considered moving to Los Angeles or New York, but after his parents moved to Asheville, he followed them in 2017. He was commissioned to paint a few murals in Asheville, and his mother’s boutique was among the first places to exhibit his work. Stefani also met eventual clients through spinning classes he taught. Today, largely through commissioned portraits and murals, Stefani said, he sells enough art to make a living. 


Stefani just finished his latest mural, running the length of the parking lot at the base of the Blue Ridge Power offices, near Biltmore Village. 


“I think I'll always kind of have somewhat of a struggle knowing exactly what I want to paint,” he said. “I enjoy the challenge, I enjoy trying different things and figuring it out further and further, because the more I stretch myself in different directions, the more it ultimately helps me.” 


The vapors of Stefani’s anxiety are still present. One of his methods for quieting his angst is a small piece of text tattooed on one forearm, reading “Be infinite.” 


“Uncertainty is the root of all of my anxiety and, basically, all of life is just uncertainty after uncertainty,” he said. “So it was kind of like ‘Oh, I’ll get ‘Be Infinite’ tattooed on my arm,’ because it’ll just remind me when I die, none of this is going to mean anything, so I might as well just relax a little bit and enjoy being alive.”


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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