Zachary Van Horn

An Artist Steps Out of His Comfort Zone

It took Zachary Van Horn (MFA ’18) getting a little uncomfortable and moving to Philadelphia to become a better artist and refine his work.

“I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio and went to Ohio State University for undergrad,” he said. “Coming to PAFA was the first time I was way out of my comfort zone.”

While he was comfortable in Ohio after completing his BFA, Van Horn felt limited and needed a challenge. He was managing a local deli in Columbus and still making work but decided to pick up and move to Philadelphia and follow the path of fellow PAFA alumnus and artist David Lynch.

“Something about PAFA rung true,” he said. “And also knowing that David Lynch came here was big. I thought if I want any kind of direction or actual influence then I should follow someone’s footsteps a little bit.”

Van Horn says his time in the MFA program has been rigorous but rewarding.

Working with PAFA’s faculty allowed him to get out of his own way when it comes to his art.

“The first studio class I took was Kate Moran’s “Low-Fi” class and that class was great because she’s great at getting you to think outside your own head,” he said. “That class had very little painting involved and I’m used to painting. There were a lot of sculptures and thinking more abstractly than I originally would have but it really got me out of my comfort zone.”

Just as Van Horn grew up as an artist during his time at PAFA, he said his work matured and evolved too. He compares his paintings to children and while they once needed him to speak for them, Van Horn says the work now speaks for itself.

“Before, I was still metaphorically holding their hand while a piece was being shown and explaining the work and what it’s about,” he said. “Now I feel they’re like well-adjusted teenagers who can go out into the world and do their own thing without needing me to talk for them. They can do all of the talking themselves and I can go home and make more work.”

But just like it takes a village to raise a child, Van Horn’s art didn’t mature on its own.

He credits the feedback of PAFA’s critics in helping him nurture his work. Dr. Kevin Richards was a sounding board for Van Horn’s emerging interests, and always ready with readings and books that helped Van Horn explore his ideas.

Studio critiques served as a testing ground to see if his work was speaking for itself.

“At some point, I didn’t try to argue the point that I was making with the work, I just presented it and saw how the critics responded,” Van Horn said. “They are really good at vocalizing their thought process and I was able to see if they could get to a point that I was okay with them getting to with the work. And if they didn’t see my point then I knew I had to go back to the studio and work some more.”

At the beginning of the MFA program, Van Horn said it was often difficult to work on paintings that needed more to be better understood. But a sense of healthy competition with his peers gave him the encouragement he needed.

“I think strong relationships with your peers are a great inspiration. You see someone doing really good and you want to do good as well,” Van Horn said. “It’ not about tearing them down but elevating yourself to be better when you see people doing good work.”

His work is more than good now.

Van Horn is part of MAP, an exhibition at 1969 Gallery in New York this summer. Map is a collaboration between PAFA MFA Chair Didier William and Josephine Halvorson, Chair of the MFA Program at Boston University. Halvorson spent time at PAFA this past spring selecting students to participate in the exhibition.

He views the show and other exhibitions as his art growing up and leaving the nest, just like he had to do.

“It can be very hard to show your work but it comes back to the parenting metaphor. You do your work on a piece so you can nurture it up. But at some point you’ve got to trust that it’ll do its job, even if it’s super personal to you, it will get the point across and that’s something that’s very hard.”

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the United States’ first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers a world-class collection of American art, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and educational opportunities in the fine arts. The PAFA Museum aims to tell America's diverse story through art, expanding who has been included in the canon of art history through its collections, exhibitions, and public programs, while classes educate artists and appreciators with a deep understanding of traditions and the ability to challenge conventions. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.