Rice Award Winner Erin Zerbe Mixes Style with Substance
On campus, she is simply known as “Z.”
And that is just fine with Siena Heights University Assistant Professor of Art Erin Zerbe.
“It’s one of those nicknames that evolved organically and became what it is,” she said. “It’s kind of built a little bit of a persona around it. I like that. It’s fun. It allows me to come in and get right into work mode. When I am at work, I am ‘Z.’”
She may show up to class in a super-
hero costume to co-teach an animation and creative writing course on comic books. Or she may use a wild array of hair color and fashion to make a state-
ment. However, despite establishing her unique persona, her efforts in the class-
room are what endeared her to her students as the recipient of the 2016 Eileen Rice Award for Outstanding Teaching.
“For me, winning the award was this culmination of a lifetime of work,” said Zerbe, who came to Siena Heights in 2012, her first full-time faculty position. “I dedicated myself not only to being an artist, but to being an educator.”
Zerbe tried the artist path early in her career. After finishing her undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, she took a job in the corporate world creating digital online content for the web and social media.
“I was miserable,” she said of the experience. “I just couldn’t figure out why. I was doing something creative, and I enjoyed creating it, but I was exhausted and frustrated all the time.”
She quit her job and returned to graduate school. After receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011, Zerbe took an adjunct teaching position at VCU. However, it was only temporary, and when she saw a full-time opening at Siena Heights, she applied.
“When I got here and got the opportunity to meet everybody, I instantly felt like part of a family,” Zerbe said of the interview process. “I had never felt that in any job ever before. I really was hoping and praying that I was going to get the position. It’s truly an amazing place.”
Zerbe teaches courses in videography, animation and web design for SHU’s art department. She said Siena’s students are unique from other art students she’s encountered.
“They are just hard-working and salt-of-the-earth,” she said. “They come in and they don’t have that air that a lot of art students have. … The students are kind and they’re willing to work hard and they’re here because they truly believe in the process and they want to better themselves.”
She said she not only wants to make them better artists, but better people.
“I believe that’s what we do here, is prepare them to be what we talk about in our mission statement, to be competent, purposeful and ethical individuals,” Zerbe said. “That’s beyond just the material that they’re learning. I want them to be competent artists, but it’s more important to me that they are competent individuals and they’re going to be productive members of society.”
She said she uses her flamboyant style to often overcome her feelings of anxiety around others.
“I am actually very, very anxious and awkward and kind of uncomfortable,” she said of her social side. “So I compensate by being goofy. That’s my defense mechanism. Deep down I’m still this nervous young kid who wants everybody to like me. I pretend to be goofy to balance that out. But when I need to be serious, I can be.”
She said despite her vast experience in digital media, she has recently returned to her artistic roots to help deal with the unexpected death of her father a couple of years ago.
“I recently fell back in love with drawing and illustration,” Zerbe said. “I found that to be really cathartic to me.”
Outside of the classroom, she is using her art to help in the community. Selling her artwork at comic book conventions and expositions under the guise of Kimchi Zerbe, she donates all her proceeds to help the Lenawee Humane Society rescue, neuter and spay feral cats in the community.
“This is a huge problem in Lenawee County,” she said.
She said receiving the Rice Award helped validate her decision to follow the teaching path.
“Maybe I’m not messing this up,” Zerbe quipped. “I’m doing OK. There is this really weird line between like crippling self-doubt and uncontrollable narcissism. That’s kind of where most artists sit. When I won the award, I was like, ‘So, I don’t suck at this. That’s cool to know.’ It was kind of like a dream come true, to be acknowledged for the amount of work that I put in and the level of dedication I feel that I commit to my students. This was a great way for them to say, ‘we do see it and we know you work hard, and thank you.’”