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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 21, 2008

A childhood on the Ivory leads Zunon to paint two worlds

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Riveting paintings dominate the dining room of the Zunons’ home in Guilderland. They illustrate the story of a little blue boy in an African village.

"His skin was blue," said Elizabeth Zunon, the artist who painted the pictures. The paintings were inspired by a story she knew as a child. "It’s about accepting people for their own personality," she said. Zunon painted the series of pictures as a senior project at Guilderland High School.

She went on to graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006 and is currently writing and illustrating books for children.

Her art will be featured at Albany County’s celebration of African-American History Month on Feb. 29, which is following the national theme of multiculturalism.

Zunon grew up straddling two cultures. Born in Albany, she moved with her family to the Ivory Coast of Africa when she was two months old.

"That’s where my father is from," she said. "Both of my parents had been there for years. They raised me and my little brother there...We’d come to Albany for six weeks every summer to see my mother’s parents."

It wasn’t hard to have one foot in each world, speaking French in West Africa and English in America. "It was the way I grew up," Zunon said matter-of-factly.

One constant was her love of art. "I was always drawing — at recess, after school," she recalled. "My friend and I would draw images of horses and sell them at recess for a quarter."

The Zunons moved to the United States when Elizabeth was 12. She entered Farnsworth Middle School as an eighth-grader and then graduated from the high school in 2002.

Zunon became friends with girls whose families came from other countries, as diverse as Bangladesh and Russia. "We were outsiders but we had our own multi-cultural, multi-ethnic group. We weren’t in the cool crowd with the cheerleaders and football players," she said.

Her art teacher, Anne Brown, encouraged Zunon to keep painting and to think about a career in the fine arts. She was accepted at one of the country’s top programs.

Her first year at RISD, the foundation year, was "very intense," said Zunon. "They worked you to the bone," she said, describing eight-hour drawing classes where she worked with charcoal, sketching figure models.

She describes her work now as "painterly realism with some stylization."

"I like to use oil paints on canvas," she said.

Zunon traveled to Italy where she studied religious iconography. She said she is most influenced by Caravaggio and Rembrandt, both 17th-Century masters.

"The paintbrush is my most important tool," said Zunon. "I use traditional but unconventional imagery."

For example, when she paints fabric, she portrays, rather than the folds and shadows, the graphic design of the material.

"I like to combine realistic portraiture with flat, bold graphics," she said.

Universal themes

Zunon decided to create children’s books for her life’s work. "I’ve always loved reading children’s books," she said. "I want to incorporate people from around the world — different colors, ethnicities, and religions."

She’s had nothing published yet but one book is complete and another is underway.

Zunon lives in New York City and supports herself by working in a flower shop. "It’s a good day job," she said. "I don’t have to sit at a computer in a cubicle; I’m around bright plants and nice smells."

Her first book is about family traditions and the history associated with the making of chocolate. "It’s not commercial, like here," said Zunon.

She likes to illustrate themes that apply to children around the world. "Any child can associate with a special family tradition," she said.

The book she’s currently working on is about the effects of war on a child.

"A few years ago," she said, "a civil war broke out on the Ivory Coast. My family and I watched on TV and spoke to our relatives and friends...It was hard for us to believe this horrible thing was happening to this wonderful place."

She went on, "Children don’t understand war, just how it affects their lives." She gave the example of a school being burned down, disrupting the children’s lives.

One scene in the book is of a girl walking through her war-torn neighborhood. "Everyone hides in their home," said Zunon. "Everything is dreary. Even the leaves are hiding. The branches of the trees are bare."

The girl decides to make garlands of leaves. She climbs a tree to wrap the colorful garland of leaves — each a bold fabric — on the branches of the tree.

Three birds observe the girl from their perch on the tree.

Another of Zunon’s paintings also involves three little birds; it was inspired by a song of that name. It shows her and her brother, when they were younger, with Abidjan, then the capital city of the Ivory Coast, behind them.

Zunon recited the lyrics to the song: "Three little birds sat on my window and told me everything would be all right."

She painted the picture after she had finished college and couldn’t find a job. She worked hard on it, she said, and found a purpose.

"The way it really is"

The founder of Black History Month, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, has set the theme for this year’s observance, "Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of Multiculturalism."

Although the United States has always been racially and ethnically diverse, the association says, it has not always recognized its multicultural history but, until the end of the last century, saw itself largely as the flowering of the Anglo-Saxon culture and prided itself on allowing immigrants to adopt the American way.

Woodson, born in 1875 in Virginia to former slaves, pursued education against all odds, finally earning a Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1912. He came to believe that the role of his people was ignored or misrepresented by scholars and founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915.

He believed that history was not the mere gathering of facts but that it must include social conditions and arrive at a reasonable interpretation of the facts.

His research and books preserved the history of African Americans, which he believed would stem racial prejudice. He was often ostracized by African-American educators of the time who thought it was wrong to teach black history as separate from a general view of American history.

"Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished," wrote Woodson, "lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history."

Zunon’s view of America was shaped from Africa. "When I was growing up on the Ivory Coast, I thought of the United States as a big melting pot — so many cultures all living the American Dream," she said. "The Ivory Coast was the African version of that; so many came to live a better life there than in their own countries."

When Zunon moved to America, she didn’t see much diversity. "Guilderland High School was a typical suburban school," she said. "I didn’t see much diversity."

She went on, "I’m interested in how people associate or disassociate themselves to a culture...I’m interested in similarities between African-Americans in America and Africans in Africa...These two peoples on two different continents are trying to associate themselves on the other side of the ocean."

For example, she said, when she lived on the Ivory Coast, she saw Africans "obsessed with basketball and Michael Jordan...and popular American culture."

And then, in the United States, she sees black Americans wearing African clothing and head wraps.

She has expressed this in some of her artwork. For example, she painted a series of four different women in four different head wraps. The first three are African women; the last is an American woman in Times Square.

"The way women wear head wraps in Africa is totally different," she said.

Zunon’s ultimate goal, she said, is to write and illustrate children’s books showing "the way it really is — not the way it has been depicted."

"We need to explore the differences through ourselves," she said. Zunon believes such books will be valued by grownups as well.


Albany County will celebrate "Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of Multiculturalism," the national theme of this year’s African-American History Month, on Friday, Feb. 29, at 12:30 p.m. at 112 State Street.

Maxine Fantroy-Ford, principal of Albany High School is the keynote speaker. Elizabeth Zunon will present her artwork. The Albany High School Gospel Chorus will perform, and Dr. Mildred Chang will recite poetry.

The event is free and open to the public. Since seating is limited, those who want to attend should call 447-7010.

County asks business
‘Keep tobacco ads away from kids’

By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY COUNTY — In a unanimous decision, the Albany County Legislature last week passed a resolution asking businesses to reduce, re-arrange, or eliminate their tobacco advertising.

Introduced by Alexander "Sandy" Gordon, a Democrat who represents the Helderberg Hilltowns of Knox, Berne, and Rensselaerville, the law encourages businesses to reduce their tobacco advertising and stop placing tobacco advertisements where they are clearly visible to children — on wall space under five feet, near candy displays, and on counter tops.

"The goal is for getting the advertising out of the face of children — at eye level for very young children — and making the opportunity for the children to have a decision about tobacco on their own without undue influences at an early age," said Gordon.

"No question, you know that I have a personal history with tobacco and lung cancer, and any effort that we can do that is positive in stopping the youth of our country from starting smoking is a well-directed effort," he said.

Gordon’s wife, Mary Ellen, died last September after being diagnosed four years earlier with lung cancer.

The resolution, which includes national statistics and results of a survey conducted by the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition, will be sent to tobacco vendors throughout Albany County. There are 357 retail vendors in Albany County and 23 vending machines.

"I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful first step," said Judy Rightmyer, program director of the Capital District tobacco-free coalition.

"We know — the research has shown — that tobacco ads really target the young people," she said, adding that tobacco ads "make it look socially acceptable."

Rightmyer said she hopes Schenectady and Rensselaer counties also pass resolutions.

For the past four years, the coalition has commissioned Syracuse University to conduct a telephone survey of residents in Albany, Schenectady, and Rensselaer counties. Rightmyer said 350 people in each county participated in the most recent survey, conducted from June 28 to July 6 of last year.

The county’s resolution references the survey.

Results showed 67 percent of Albany County residents have noticed cigarette or tobacco products being advertised or promoted in shop windows or inside shops where tobacco is sold. A majority did not want tobacco advertisements on the outside of buildings. Nearly 71 percent of the county’s residents do not want tobacco advertisements on the exterior of stores within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, or daycare facilities.

About 62 percent of those who were surveyed thought tobacco ads and signs should be voluntarily removed from within grocery stores.

"This is an issue of the heart for me, and if we can help to break the cycle of tobacco addiction — it surely is evident that the people in the tobacco industry are putting profits ahead of people," said Gordon. "And I think we need to eliminate that and maybe that will start to break some of the investment cycles that people have as well, that include some of the larger tobacco interests."

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