There is a moment in every young person’s life when a door opens revealing a glimpse of the future. For Zirbel, it occurred when he first heard the Beatles. “They woke me up,” he says. “I don’t know how to say it, but what they were doing changed my life. They altered the direction of a Wisconsin Catholic boy. I immediately felt life there and decided to learn how to play the guitar, which I started studying right away.”
Admittedly, thousands of other youths shared that Wisconsin boy’s experience–and his aspirations. Unlike so many others, however, Zirbel followed through on his vision. “Lately,” he says, “I’ve been reading The Beatles Recording Sessions, where they go over all the band’s tracks. There’s a little McCartney interview at the beginning. He’s asked, “What was your goal?’ And McCartney says, “To make records. We really liked the idea of making records.’ That’s the way I feel. I like working in the studio. I like making records.”
Zirbel first began making records in the early 1980s, as the bassist for the band Bohemia; it was around this time that Zirbel jettisoned his first name. Despite being one of Chicago’s most innovative and popular bands, the group was never able to snare a major-label record deal. Unfazed, it produced its own recordings: one full album (Deviations), two EPs, and two singles; a second album remains unreleased, nearly ten years after its completion. Bohemia finally broke up in 1984. Since then Zirbel himself has released two other recordings, most recently (under the name Mental Insect) the critically well-received CD Skull Tracks. His current project, like his earlier solo recordings, is a hybrid of rock, jazz, and blues; it features a collection of songs and musicians from all three genres.
In addition to his music, Zirbel has a second passion. Over the last 15 years he’s produced a dazzling array of photographs, prints, and, more recently, paintings–dense, textured works that reflect a chaotic world beset by violence and greed. (This brooding style once prompted a quick critique from street artist Lee Godie: “You’re good, honey,” she told Zirbel, “but it’s too dark. I learned from Matisse. Make happy art.”) A characteristic work is Hunger, a multilayered painting of what looks like a wall with the fragment of a man’s face on it. He built the piece around a torn poster he found on a Manhattan street; the fragment of a frame that encloses the completed canvas came from a Chicago alley.
“I love working with found objects,” he explains. “They already have a life of their own. I get an energy from these pieces. It’s like a conversation with them. . . . In a lot of ways, art stresses the manipulation of what already exists. As Picasso said, ‘When I paint, my goal is to show what I’ve found, not what I’m looking for.’ Like I’ll start off heading in one direction and it will shift along the way and become something totally different. But I go with that, because that’s the journey of the piece.”
This Saturday night he’ll auction off 25 pieces of his art–along with the work of 26 of his friends–to raise money for the recording he hopes to release this fall. “My music and my art have always shook hands with one another,” he says. “They keep one another alive in a lot of ways.” And though he always finds it difficult to part with his paintings, he says, “It’s good to send some children out into the world once in a while.”
The auction, “Faces on the Sidewalk,” is set for 7 PM Saturday, June 12, at Ab Imo gallery, 804 W. Randolph. Fifteen percent of all sales will go to Chicago’s Anti-Hunger Foundation; people are also encouraged to bring a can of food to donate. Call 243-8395 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.