Artist Frankie Zombie gives new life to everyday objects.
by Vanessa Infanzon
When visual artist Frankie Zombie was hounded by a longtime friend to paint a Yamaha piano, he resisted. He’d painted on jackets, shoes and other nontraditional canvases, but he wasn’t sure how a musical instrument — especially something as large as a piano — would work.
Zombie was disillusioned with the music industry; he’d spent three years in Los Angeles playing piano and producing for John Legend and Pharrell Williams. He returned to his home in Spartanburg, S.C., depressed. His friend’s insistence got Zombie thinking about how visual art could reconnect him to music.
“That piano started it,” remembers Zombie, 32, who currently lives in Charlotte. “Before painting [it], I started to play. I felt that happiness and calmness come back. I told myself, this is my rebirth and my reconnection — not to music, but to visual art.”
Painting gives Zombie the purpose he’s been seeking. “I know how to speak to people through art,” he explains. “I couldn’t really speak to people through music.”
Anything is a canvas, Zombie says. A self-taught artist, he’s made his career by painting ceilings and walls, guitars and vehicles. He wants to inspire youth to consider art and entrepreneurship. “Growing up, I was told not to paint on anything. I was told to keep everything neat,” he says. “My focus each and every day is to show youth that there are so many different things to consider as a canvas.”
Since last summer, when Zombie worked on the Black Lives Matter mural on uptown’s Tryon Street, he’s become integrated into Charlotte’s art scene. He had two pieces at the Mint Museum’s LOCAL/STREET, a pop-up exhibition featuring more than 40 local artists.
After painting golf shoes for Canadian singer Celine Dion last year, Zombie created a shoe painting class for the Charlotte community. In May and July, he taught youth and adult workshops at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. He spent time with each participant, empowering them to create their own style, says Afeni Grace, program director at the Gantt Center. “His love of art shined through,” Grace says. “That level of attentiveness and genuine caring is something the Gantt Center really values in our teaching artists.”
People find Zombie by word of mouth and social media. He’s traveled all over the country painting household items passed down through generations or ones recently purchased for him to paint. Zombie gets to know his clients — he wants to understand their energy.
Before Zombie paints a piano for a client, he plays it. He may stare at it for an hour to develop a plan, he says. “As they take me through their home, I pay attention to the plate on the table,” he says. “I pay attention to the details of the tiles on their floor, the backsplash in their kitchen. Things that people love in their home: I pay attention to every part of that.”
Zombie was born Frankie Page in Long Island, New York. He grew up in the Bronx and moved to Spartanburg during high school. Though he started painting portraits in high school, he didn’t take it seriously. After high school, he returned to New York City to attend night classes at a local college while working for an elevator company during the day. A friend noticed he was up all hours and nicknamed him Zombie. It stuck.
As a child, Zombie recalls staring at Fordham University, across the street from where he lived, in his mind layering colors on the people, buildings and train tracks. “When I walk into a room, my brain automatically starts to layer everything,” he says. “That part has always been with me.”
The Jetsons, the animated television series Zombie watched as a kid, inspired him to use bold colors, monochromatic designs and pastels. He noticed people of color weren’t represented in the futuristic cartoon and spent many hours recreating it in his artwork with people who looked like him.
He also gives credit to the music — hip-hop, jazz, pop, soul — his family introduced him to. “I just found a way to take all those things and simplify them into colors,” he says.
Interior designer and owner of Charlotte-based Home Ec., Natalie Papier met Zombie last year when they connected through a local photographer. Since then, they’ve collaborated on several projects. Zombie painted a surfboard for a Home Ec. client in California and a guitar for Papier’s design vignette for Furnished, a fundraising event for the Charlotte nonprofit, Furnish for Good.
Papier admires how Zombie brings joy to forgotten household items such as chairs, pianos and tables. She’s noticed how he asks questions to find out why the piece is meaningful to a client. “He really gets to know the people,” Papier says. “It’s not like he’s pumping out art. He’s very cautious about people’s feelings. He makes sure they are part of the project.” SP
Learn more about Zombie at frankiezombie.com