“When they think of us, I hope they smile,” says Karen Zimmerman, who recently moved from Haywood County to another rural locale: Limestone, Tenn. But she’s referring to her neighbors in Mozambique, the southeast African country where she and her family lived for 10 years.
Her September show at Woolworth Walk in Asheville, Celebrating Women Around the World, captures the visages of indigenous women in oils and watercolors. Bending the limits of realism, the collection distills the strength of community in rich, warm hues.
Baskets of Mangoes depicts two women carrying that ripe fruit, their faces glowing with laughter. A Woman’s Friends carries a similar joy. Three women in bright, patterned hats speak to one another with a certain cheerfulness. But there is a deeper sentiment, says Zimmerman. “I see the image of God in them,” she explains.
Christianity is the prevailing influence in her work, but it wasn’t always. Growing up in a South Jersey home wracked by alcoholism, Zimmerman struggled to accept her family’s religion. “I experienced lots of dissonance. I thought God couldn’t be real because people are hypocrites,” she says. “But then, right before I turned 19, I heard someone preaching about faith, and a supernatural grace fell upon me.
“It was a transformative moment in my life.”
Though Zimmerman had always been attracted to art — her earliest memory is drawing Mickey Mouse with her dad — she enrolled in a bible college in Philadelphia, an institution with no art classes. Later, in her mid twenties, she and her partner, Paul, took jobs as dorm parents at a boarding school in Kenya. And after four years in Kenya and a stint in Charlotte, the couple and their three children moved to Mozambique. Knowing nothing of the Portuguese language and little of Islamic mores, the family managed to build a community radio tower and perform routine eye and dental care. (Zimmerman’s youngest child is now in her fourth year of medical school, with hopes of returning to help reinforce the country’s ailing healthcare system.)
Celebrating Women Around the World is a testament to the power of faith. But in its vivid depictions of people and their complexities, the series is also a departure from Zimmerman’s typical style — bucolic barn scenes and birds rendered with ornithological intricacy.
“Blooming Evidences of Glory” bridges the transition in styles, pairing indigenous women with a flower integral to their culture: the Arctic-based Inuits with forget-me-nots, Aboriginal Australians with golden wattle.
“I quickly realized that, above all, I enjoy painting people,” says Zimmerman.
Karen Zimmerman, Limestone, Tenn. Find her on Instagram: @novyoart. “Celebrating Women Around the World” runs through Tuesday, Sept. 29 at Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St., Asheville). Gallery hours are 11am-6pm Monday through Saturday and 11am-5pm on Sunday. Masks are required to enter the gallery. For more information, visit woolworthwalk.com or call 828-254-9234.