Zoë Tirado: A style bold enough to cause a “changing of the guards”

By Amanda Calvin, Snug Harbor Arts Intern (Spring 2021)

“I have had an art practice for as long as I can remember,” said Staten Island native Zoë Tirado, the artist behind upcoming Newhouse Center exhibition “Ghoulfriends.” While Tirado now describes her unique style as “the line between what is considered traditional and what is obscene,” often exploring identity, sexuality, and the grotesque, this description has evolved since the beginning of her practice.

A preview of Zoe’s Newhouse Center exhibition

“In high school is really when I started to take more focus and consider art as a possible career route,” said Tirado, who attended Art Lab’s summer scholarship program at Snug Harbor from age 15 until graduating, where her artistic style began to develop as she painted large pieces.  “Part of working big is that you’re using your whole arm rather than all your movement being focused in your wrist, I think that tends to really come out in the way I paint,” she said. “I really love the way big brush strokes look, I like seeing where the brush was or what kind of brush someone was using.”

Upon attending the School for Visual Arts (SVA) for her bachelor’s degree in fine art and studio art, concentrating on painting and printmaking, Tirado felt a shift in her creative style.

“There’s a misconception that I had — I felt like I had to have photorealism, that I had to paint the most spotless paintings,” said Tirado, who now specializes in portraiture and painting from photographs. “When you go to art school for undergrad, it’s kind of holistic, they make you explore multiple disciplines. In terms of my own practice, I was going all over the place by the time I graduated,” she said. “SVA tends to gear toward the conceptual and a little more avant garde…That really helped lend me to be more comfortable in the way I paint, which is still realistic, but it’s more expressive, and a little bit surreal.”

“Rebecca L.” 2021

Tirado’s evolving style is evident in her exhibition at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art. “Ghoulfriends,” which has been in the works since 2015, began taking form when Tirado painted a piece based on a photo of her brother in costume at a party. “There’s a spark that happens with me — something will spike my interest,” she said regarding inspiration for many of her pieces. “Then I end up doing a lot of “research” – which is me, disorganized, pulling photos from my own life or the internet.” For this exhibition, the single photo was all she needed to be inspired to create a cohesive collection.

Ghoulfriends, derived from dozens of polaroid photos of Tirado’s friends and family, is one of her most personal projects to date. The compilation of paintings depicts her subjects in makeup, using her expressive, surreal style. “Because of my paint style with the subject matter, it blurs what you’re looking at; you’re not sure if these people are in makeup or if this is something intentional that I did. I thought that was really exciting.”

The inspiration behind the name for the project didn’t take as much research, but rather a sudden inspiration from a line Tirado heard while watching “Rupaul’s Drag Race.”

“In Staten Island, if you are an artist working in gallery spaces and you want to present your work, The Newhouse Center is the place to do it, hands down,” said Tirado excitedly regarding her upcoming exhibition. “The space is beautiful, it has the best lighting, walls, and an open, airy feeling.”

Tirado explained that showing at the Newhouse Center is a rare treat for Staten Island artists, who often have a difficult time finding the right space to do so.

“The lack of spaces on Staten island makes it really hard to present your work,” she said. “So many artists end up leaving Staten Island, never showing in Staten Island, or practice completely removed from Staten Island.” Tirado added that even when artists are able to find a space, their work can only be presented for a weekend in most cases. This harsh reality makes Ghoulfriends’ upcoming three-month display even more of an accomplishment. 

“The Newhouse Center is somewhere where you can be a working artist and show your work and be proud that it’s showing there,” she said. “It legitimizes your work a lot more.”

Since her time with Art Lab in high school, Tirado’s history with Snug Harbor continued with Queer Van Kult, a series of performance and experimental showcases beginning in 2019 that presented the work of queer artists for which she helped coordinate, curate and present work for.

While ecstatic to see her work on display at the Newhouse Center, Tirado is excited for a larger audience to acknowledge her hard work. “I’m hoping that people can see how hard I’ve worked on this show and how much the people in the paintings mean to me,” she said.

“Mom, Dad and Gran” 2020

Although this response would be rewarding for Tirado, she has set an additional personal goal regarding the reception of her exhibition. “I feel like I need to work on caring less about what other people think, and distance myself from the expectations I have around other people’s thoughts around my work.”

Tirado was recently inspired to set this goal after she found herself thinking negatively about her work and feeling embarrassed by her own ideas — thoughts which came from pondering how audiences would receive her unique style.

“I got really great advice recently about looking at my work and saying — ‘Does this work represent me?’ ‘Is this indicative of who I am?’” Tirado now attempts to answer these questions whenever she is working; Ghoulfriends’ personal connection shows her progress in this new way of thinking.

Like many during the pandemic, Tirado has seen her life, and art practice, change drastically over the last year. “From last May until September, I was stagnant. In my practice, I’m not someone who works continuously anyway, but this was probably the longest I had gone without painting in a while.”

While facing difficulties such as this, Tirado also saw some positive change emerge in her life in the last year; she now attends the CUNY School of Professional Studies as a graduate student in the Museum Studies program and has had opportunities to present her work on various virtual platforms.

Once she was able to regain her creative energy last fall, Tirado became busy preparing for the Ghoulfriends exhibition. “What was good was that I was able to rethink a lot about what I wanted to paint,” she said. “I have dozens of reference photos and was having a hard time narrowing it down. It gave me a lot of time to think about how I wanted to present the work, which is equally as important in a lot of ways.”

The arts, Tirado said, are an extremely valuable asset to society, especially during such a tumultuous time of sparse funding and deciding which industries are “essential.” Just as she was able to take time last year to rethink Ghoulfriends, Tirado hopes the same rethinking can happen in the arts scene, both nationally, to begin to value the arts more, and on Staten Island, with the rise of contemporary artists.

“It’s always been the same artists in Staten Island that get a lot of recognition, praise and opportunity. I think that there needs to be more entry points for younger generations to come step in,” said Tirado.

“My biggest hope for my show is for people to see that there are contemporary young artists on Staten Island that are painting stuff that’s different; it’s not all landscape paintings and drawings of nautical stuff. That stuff is great, but that’s not all there is,” she said. “The Newhouse Center is doing important work, I’ve noticed a great mix of up-and-coming artists as well as established artists that have presented there over the past few years” said Tirado.

“I feel like there’s a changing of the guards that has never happened before.”


To learn more about Zoë’s work, visit https://www.zoetirado.com.

“Ghoulfriends” runs at The Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art in Gallery G, galleries 3-4 from through July 25.

For more information about visiting Snug Harbor, visit https://snug-harbor.org/visit/directions/ .