Eric Zener's paintings plunge beneath the surface of human emotion.

By Susan Haynes
April 30, 2008
France Ruffenach and Michelle Sterling

"Water is my platform," Eric Zener says. He paints a diver in red-striped trunks at the tip of a board, face focused on the leap. Bubbles so real they seem to burst around a swimmer ascending to the ocean's sunlit surface. A lone sunbather lulled by the rhythmic lap of waves. Eric's artwork depicts the diver's hesitation, the swimmer's escape, and the sunbather's contentment.

In his high-ceiling San Francisco studio, he ponders a nearly finished oil. White walls speckled with errant hues, mostly blue, surround the tall, athletic artist. At 42, he is fully engaged with his vision: "Water offers risk and discovery and transformation," he says, "and it's something we can all connect to." He's right about that―collectors around the world vie for his canvasses. Some originals are as large as 48 by 90 inches and priced as high as $60,000, but Eric's shows on the East and West coasts often sell out quickly.

"We found Eric 15 years ago," says Charles Hespe, owner of San Francisco's Hespe Gallery. "He is self-taught, but even before he had the technical ability he has now, he always had a remarkable sense of color and composition and imagery. He has an intangible quality that resonates with people."

Eric's talent emerged during a childhood spent by the water. Born in Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, he grew up in the SoCal beach town of Encinitas, near San Diego. One grandmother, an artist herself, "was bigger than life to me," he says. "I can remember when I was 6 years old, smelling her paints and looking at her Picasso books. I never felt like making art was silly or part-time, something you did after [earning the] meat and potatoes."

Another woman who influences Eric's work is his wife and business partner, Julie―a jewelry designer, frequent model for his paintings, and mother of their two children. Having a family instilled a strong work ethic in Eric. "He did 16 paintings the month after Alexa was born," Julie says. (Eric attributes that streak of productivity to "provider anxiety.") With the arrival of son Ethan, he has worked hard to balance time between his studio and an art-filled Mill Valley home.

Eric's current, though always evolving, theme grew out of a stint abroad. The winner's prize for an international juried competition included a four-month family residency in a mansion on Spain's Mediterranean coast. "Water had been in my work for years," he says, "but I had an epiphany in Spain, in 2003. I would put models in the pool and shoot them with a waterproof camera." Those images became painted variations.

His recent works continue to convey his obsession with water and the powerful emotions it evokes. "I grew up fearlessly surfing in San Diego," he says. "But canoeing in Oregon, I nearly drowned. So I recognize our vulnerability and the danger of water. It is friend and foe."

Eric elaborates on the "friend" part in his artist's statement: "The lone figure immersed in water illustrates the constant force and changing tides in our lives. Above the surface we may appear to be together and unaffected. However, below the surface, subconsciously, we are in a constant state of transformation and illumination. It is my intention that the journey is hopeful and the ending enlightening."