In the sturdy, old Rebel town of Oxford lives one of the most animated people I have ever met. She’s a nerd of legendary proportions, an idealist like no other and an absolute true believer if I’ve ever met one. She’s way into cosplay — she knows her anime — and I’m willing to bet that she’s better than you at video games. She’s a revolutionary portrait artist who can use a million different techniques, some of which are a thousand years old, in order to create something one-of-a-kind. Her name is Kristin Alexandra Zumbro, but you can call her Kaz.
Kaz has been an artist for pretty much her entire life. Born to a mother who is a card-carrying art graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi and raised in Hattiesburg, a town so hip it connects to the thighbone, she’s a perfect example of the awesome power of nature and nurture both pointing in the same direction. When she was a teenager, she joined the theatre program at Oak Grove High. There, she was introduced to the highly specific world of competitive costume design and ended up changing the game on these fashionable face-offs as one the only designers in Mississippi to use state of the art techniques, like incorporating Photoshop into her designing process.
After a few more of life’s loops, left-turns and level-ups, she found her way into the BFA program at Ole Miss, where she has grown into a class of her own as a portrait artist. Through a combination of poring over her class studies on artists through history like Raphael and Leonardo de Vinci (as well as anyone else named after a ninja turtle), geeking out over some of her favorite artists like Alyssa Monks and drawing from a deep inventory bag of inspiration from many of her favorite nerdy mediums, Kaz creates images of people that not only flood your imagination with wild colours and effects, but also scream much more about the subject than any conventional portrait or photograph ever could.
Currently, she is in the middle of one of the biggest boss battles she’s faced during her adventures as an artist. Like millions of college students who have come before her, she is currently facing her arch nemesis — the senior thesis. But unlike most college students, instead of procrastinating until they force themselves to rush through and turn in something subpar, Kaz has elected to do something truly spectacular. It’s called “Avatars: A Portrait of Online Identity,” and it centers around women’s presence on the internet, a topic of controversy that I, as a man, soon found myself woefully uneducated about during our interview.
Her inspiration came from a series of online attacks that have formed over the past couple of years from a hashtag known as #gamergate. This movement was formed by legions of men who believed that women were poisoning the video game industry, and targeted them using some of the most Caligula-esque techniques that could only be conceived by horrible internet people massing together in droves on websites like Reddit and 4chan. Prominent females in the gaming industry like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoë Quinn became victims of swatting, where one basically gets a swat team called on them and are dragged out of their home, and doxing, where private or identifying information gets blasted all over the information superhighway. As Kaz put it to me, these women were literally being attacked for having an online identity. It totally sounds like something out of a Netflix thriller, except there was no Jessica Jones to go track everyone down and kick their asses.
In order to find a way that best provides an artistic walk down this path she had chosen, Kaz opted to broaden the road and look at women’s online identities as a general concept. This is when she had the idea to center around the most infamous form of portraits in the modern day — the selfie. As she puts it, the idea of women being able to make portraits of themselves is actually pretty revolutionary, historically speaking. Throughout artistic history, if a man painted a woman into a picture, it was called art, but if a woman painted herself, it was called vanity. Women were always thought of as models, not artists, meaning that they weren’t even allowed to have a voice about their own bodies.
With the modern day selfie, women are finally taking back their image as their own, getting to decide which angle they think is best, and which look they would like to portray to the world. There’s even a pretty deep connection between the selfie-taker’s weapon of choice, the Apple iPhone, and society’s historical view of women, seeing as how it’s the apple that is the symbol of Eve’s original sin in the garden of Eden. There’s even a bite taken out of it in the logo. Did that just blow your mind a little? Because it sent mine flying all over the wall like grenade shrapnel when Kaz made the connection for me. Her final product is a collection of portraits that hark to the familiarity of the iPhone selfie while staying true to the wild and fantastic style of Kaz’s art. It’s a work of genius that has the ability to make anyone stop and think about the amazing storytelling power that women have in the palm of their hands all day, every day.
Kaz’s thesis will be available for the public to view in Oxford before she graduates, and she hopes to bring the experience into an online gallery for anyone to view, including detailed descriptions of the models that you can read to actually hear the stories that their portraits tell visually. As for Kaz, she will soon be done with her quest at the University of Mississippi, and she’ll be on to bigger and more grand adventures as she enters the new levels of her life. She’s dreaming big, with hopes of working for companies like Disney, becoming a professional illustrator, and finding new and creative ways to tell other’s stories through visual art. She’s got the passion and the tenacity and more than enough talent to become something great and leave her name as a mark on the high score board. But wherever she ends up going, the only true certainty for her and her art is that it’s far from game over.