Move to Valley invigorates NYC artist
Updated: Jun 4
• Creative Transplant – Pro illustrator energized by NYC-to-Valley transaction
This article first appeared as the cover story in the May edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
• Related Feature — Today Online version
By Bruce Deckert — Editor-in-Chief • Today Magazine
A NATIVE OF hustling-and-bustling New York City, Zina Saunders is savoring life in the more rustic and tranquil Farmington Valley these days.
First things first: Her name is pronounced with a long-I, not a long-E — in other words, this Zina rhymes with China, not Tina.
68 years young, Saunders possesses an eclectic resumé, and by virtually any standard for a professional illustrator she has enjoyed an impressive career history to the tune of four decades of creative work. To extend the musical metaphor, Saunders has endeavored to dance to the beat of her own drum — or perhaps better yet, to a genuine human drum — grooving along on an intriguing vocational journey.
Her work has encompassed both the editorial and advertising arenas — from illustration and painting and animation to reportage and political commentary. In the illustration category alone, she has produced artwork for book covers, magazines, newspapers, product packaging, Broadway play posters and more.
Her political satire illustrations have spoofed and skewered Republicans and Democrats alike, from Sarah Palin and John McCain to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“I’ve taken heat from both the Left and the Right,” she says in the video of her Gel Conference talk on her website, though Saunders tells Today Magazine that she has surely taken more heat from the Right.
Her political artwork has appeared in high-profile newspapers (such as the San Francisco Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal) and magazines (such as Mother Jones and The New Republic).
The Mother Jones website affirms: “Zina Saunders is an award-winning illustrator whose work appears in national magazines and newspapers and whose political satires have amused or outraged her audience, depending on which side of the aisle they sit.”
It makes sense that her portrayals have irritated right-wing pundits and voters more often. Zina and her husband Barry Schiffman are members of the Canton Democratic Town Committee — and they have “brought a wave of energy, insight and professionalism to the Canton DTC,” says Bob Bessel, the town’s First Selectman.
“They not only understand issues, they understand how to learn what voters think about those issues,” Bessel observes. “This is the most basic building block for community, and Canton has benefited greatly from it. I have always enjoyed our discussions — Zina and Barry consistently uncover angles we had not considered and provide insights that help move Canton forward. I’m so glad they’re here!”
For the record — just in case it’s unclear — Bessel is a Democrat. A career PR professional and journalist, he has written an article for Today Magazine about the nonpartisan and cooperative spirit that permeates Canton’s governmental climate.
In that article he pens the following:
“In today’s hyper-political atmosphere, it may sound strange to hear that Canton Democrats and Republicans listen to one another and regularly agree on solutions for the town. But it’s true! Votes on the Canton Board of Selectmen, Finance and Education are largely unanimous — not because we don’t ask tough questions, but because we do! … Together we are smarter, more thorough and more effective than we could ever be on a single side of the political aisle.”
Zina and Barry moved from Manhattan to Canton in July 2015.
“We’ve taken the COVID pandemic seriously,” she says. “I’m 68 and Barry is 75, so we’re in a vulnerable age demographic — we love it here in Canton and we want to be here for a long time.”
While she has “always drawn and painted,” she started earning a living as an artist in the 1980s.
“Zina works on the edge,” says Barry, a retired journalist who worked at the Hartford Courant, the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
“Her work has also always been edgy, a word artists use to convey breaking new ground, challenging convention, creating. … Over the 34 years we’ve been together, she has proved over and over that she’s always doing something new, and it always works out.”
Later in his career, Barry moved on from journalism and earned a PhD in computer science from Columbia University, working in the realm of natural language processing.
“Before we met, I knew little of art,” he says. “I never took art history in college with that giant expensive book — in my youth, I was a newspaper reporter and editor, and looked at the pictures as a way to break up large expanses of type.”
Since then, he has learned plenty from Zina about the art world.
“As someone who can’t quite manage stick figures, I’ve always been amazed by what she does,” Barry says. “Painting is almost subconscious for her. It was something else to have seen her painting with the TV on, while talking on the phone and putting the brush on a picture that’s set to be delivered to someone on deadline.”
Zina’s father, Norman Blaine Saunders (1907-1989), is a renowned commercial artist who has been featured in an array of media outlets and websites — including AskArt.com, ArtNet.com, FineArt.HA.com, IllustrationHistory.org, PulpArtists.com and SF-Encyclopedia.com (aka the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction website).
He is likewise listed on IMDb.com, the ever-popular media outlet for movie, TV and celebrity content.
As PulpArtists.com asserts: “Norman Saunders lived long enough to see himself celebrated as the legendary creator of many iconic images of American popular culture.”
Zina offers further vocational info: “My father … was a pulp magazine cover illustrator [and] painted some of the most popular Topps bubblegum cards in the ’60s and ’70s, including Mars Attacks, Batman and Wacky Packages.”
A Google search is virtually guaranteed to find countless more articles and collections from his storied career.
“As a child,” Zina writes on her website, “I got my first taste of being a professional illustrator when I would ‘correct’ my father’s paintings when he was away from his drawing board. Many an eyelash on Norm Saunders’ damsels in distress was painted by a 9-year-old Zina.”
By the way, in her political artwork Saunders has clearly satirized Sarah Palin — the Republican VP candidate on John McCain’s 2008 presidential ticket — more often than the Clintons.
A recent review of the Political page on Saunders’ website reveals seven editorial illustrations of Palin, the former Alaska governor, and zero of the Bill-and-Hillary duo. To see her work depicting the two-term president and first lady — who doubled as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 versus Donald Trump — you can watch Saunders’ Gel talk on the About page of her site: www.zinasaunders.com
Meanwhile, Saunders’ human-interest series called Overlooked New York — www.overlookednewyork.com — is a cutting-edge fusion of cogent illustration and feature reporting.
"Anger, fear and disappointment have proved to be the spark for my most creative and most exciting and most gratifying work" — Zina Saunders
A passion project that Saunders launched about two decades ago, Overlooked New York chronicles via images and written stories the experiences of so-called ordinary New Yorkers who have lived — per her compelling accounts — extraordinary lives.
“Although she spent years working on assignments,” says Barry, “she always liked doing her own projects best, out of her own imagination and curiosity. Her Overlooked New York project was prompted by the frequent sight of grown Puerto Rican guys who rode around New York on extravagantly decorated vintage bicycles.”
Zina and Barry were out for a walk one day when they lived in NYC, and she spotted one of these bicyclists.
“She shouted, ‘There’s one!’ Off she ran to get his name and a way to reach him,” Barry says. “She did his portrait and an interview, and importantly got names of some of his pals, and they became the much bigger project about groups of people who pursued some arcane or quirky passion, from amateur astronomers in the light-polluted city, to guys who met every weekend in Central Park for a drum circle.”
On her Overlooked website, Saunders has 20-plus categories for these New York residents — including “Puerto Rican Bike Men” and “Rooftop Pigeon Coop Guys” who keep pigeons and enter them in races. A gentleman named Orlando told her an astounding story about a pigeon he entered in a 300-mile race.
“She never made it home,” Orlando says. “I figured a hawk had got her. But about two weeks later my neighbor called me and said a pigeon was hanging around my front door. So I went out to look, and there [she] was … with a broken wing and her feet all messed up and blistered. She had walked home.”
Saunders has published a related book, available on Amazon — "Overlooked New York: Impassioned New Yorkers from an Artist’s Perspective." She has several other projects, reflected in her further websites:
Making Lunch profiles the people who make the typical American lunch happen.
The Fearies site is a series of illustrated portraits and rhymes about a band of fairies who spook kids with childhood fears — but there’s an antidote to chase each Fearie away.
Africa Closeup is a true story about an African AIDS orphan named Faith from Zimbabwe.
“What excites me most,” Saunders says, “is my current work — abstract paintings that are the truest expression of who I am inside … which show my spirits lifting after a long, difficult haul in this country over the past five years.”
“Painting is almost subconscious for her — it was something else to have seen her painting with the TV on, while talking on the phone and putting the brush on a picture that’s set to be delivered to someone on deadline” — Barry Schiffman • Zina's husband
Barry adds: “Now she’s painting abstract pictures on wood panels. They present narratives reflecting her emotions and views. There’s usually one at the Gallery on the Green in Canton, and often one at other galleries around the area.”
Saunders was a featured speaker at the 2009 Gel Conference — aka GEL, for Good Experience Live — in New York City. The annual symposium began in 2003 with a goal of spotlighting ideas and innovators in diverse fields. On her website, she playfully captions the video of her talk this way: “Me yakking it up at the Gel Conference.”
Saunders begins her talk by offering some refreshing honesty in a signature NYC accent:
“My show-and-tell today is ... about how anger, fear and disappointment have proved to be the spark for my most creative and most exciting and most gratifying work — and I know that in our culture we’re all supposed to, you know, let it go, be good, be happy, be joyful. Well … I never let anything go.”
Her never-let-anything-go comment elicits telling laughter — via a collective guffaw, the audience apparently communicates with gusto that her candor resonates a shared human crucible: Yes, Zina, we’ve been there too.
After sharing a variety of stories, with visuals of her artwork, she closes her talk as follows:
“Fear, anger, disappointment — these were the things that wound up sparking for me movement into [new] territory … I would never have traveled these paths had my road been paved and smooth before me — I’ve found it’s the potholes in the road that force me to take detours that bring me into territory that’s exciting and new, and gives me a new way of looking at the world and participating in the world.”
Given this, she offers the audience a counterintuitive wish: “I hope for all of you lots of potholes in your future.” +
• Related Story — by Canton First Selectman Bob Bessel:
• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is an award-winning journalist ... but a very rudimentary visual artist