"I like to bring together contrasting things, so like offensive or pornographic, kind of violent imagery and then cute, pink, girly things."
This is the basis behind the art performances and video projects of Zea Askew, junior in studio art with a concentration in 4-D whose work has earned her awards in UT's School of Art.
Last semester, Askew was asked to do a body extension exercise for her Introduction to 4-D Studio Art class. Influenced by a bulimic friend, Askew dressed herself in pink children's underwear and set up with Disney Princess cups set on top of a Disney Princess tablecloth. Using a plastic stomach she had made out of two Ziploc bags, she poured in a pink diet shake and sucked the pink liquid up, spit it out into the cups and walked off. This performance won her both best in her class and best overall.
"(Bulimia) is very ritualized. Each little thing," Askew said. "I used the obsessiveness of it or the organization, I think. I know she used to keep cups of vomit in her fridge. Just the rituals of it. There was also this young girl. Emily Bivins, the director of the foundations classes, her daughter was there, and she was talking the whole time during everything, and when the performance started, she was just wide-eyed and silent. It was interesting to have the dynamic of the young girl there."
Paul Harrill, associate professor of 4-D and transmedia, has Askew in his Introduction to Video Art class, where students learn technical and creative strategies for making films and videos. While Askew's work often deals with political or social issues, he sees her approach as "refreshing."
"She approaches those issues obliquely," Harrill said. "That approach means that there's ambiguity and mystery in the work, and it makes her art a dialogue with the viewer. Obviously, I think that's an exciting and sophisticated approach for a young artist."
Askew was not always pursing art, though. Before transferring to UT last semester, she attended Tennessee Technological University for biology. She switched to geology and "just wasn't happy at all." It was then that she decided to move to Knoxville and pursue art instead.
Before college, Askew was always around art, as her father is an art professor at a community college in Florida. She attended art magnet schools for both middle and high school and drew, sculpted and performed in plays when she was younger – which influenced her decision to focus on 4-D art.
"My concentration is 4-D, so like performance, installation, time-based things, sound stuff," Askew said. "(I'm interested in) pretty much anything, and that's why I like it; it's so open.
"I've been interested in performance just because it's a new medium for me, and I like to learn things and challenge myself."
Recently, Askew worked with another new medium: a Super 8 camera. Used to make silent black and white films, she used "weird, Virgin Mary, bondage imagery."
From dressing her friend and boyfriend in wigs, masks, horns and collars to having another friend dress in Mary Janes with braids in her hair, Askew said it all looked like a "Marilyn Manson video" and was "very cliché."
"It's hard when I create things because I don't understand the conceptual meaning behind it until afterwards," Askew said. "Then, I'm like, 'Obviously that's why I did this and that.' I think it's just growing up and trying to figure it out. Taking a step back and looking at everything."
Colby Sirbaugh, sophomore in advertising, first spoke to Askew at a T-Bus stop.
"The combination of her style and intellect made her seem mysterious," Sirbaugh said, which led to his desire to get to know her better. Askew later used him in her Super 8 project where she used a lot of imagery with "slightly religious undertones."
"She kind of contrasted light and dark in the sense of good and evil," Sirbaugh said. "(It was) very mysterious, with sexuality playing a pretty big role.
"I haven't seen the final project, but if I had to describe it I would say imagine if 'A Clockwork Orange' or 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' were three minutes long and directed by high fashion designers."
Askew speculates that her style of art stems from an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend from high school who has continued to stalk her. While she tried to ignore him for three years, she has decided to take legal action with the encouragement of her family and boyfriend.
"I have a court date next month," Askew said. "All this stuff is really stressful, and I think looking back on it, a lot of that imagery is about the feeling of being controlled and trying to figure out how to make your own freedom."
For an upcoming class performance, Askew will explore that idea further. The project is about exposing her inner self. Askew thinks "they want us to be angst-y artists," but she plans to delve into her Twitter persona. Wearing a schoolgirl uniform and the pink, children's underwear, she will sit down and tweet. While she has not decided the specifics, she is considering taking a picture of the audience and have instructions up for how to tweet her.
"I'll interact with them through this thing that is very private to me," Askew said. "My mom doesn't know my Twitter. People on Facebook, I usually don't tell them. Recently, with the whole stalker, ex-boyfriend thing, I had to change my name on Twitter and delete my Tumblr, taking the way that my privacy is broken into my own hands. I'm the one who's giving it out, and it kind of puts the power back to me, and I kind of like that."
With the support of her parents serving a big role in her creative life, Sirbaugh said she sees her intuition as one of her strongest qualities.
"I think she knows herself pretty well which allows for her artwork to come across quite honestly; (that's) something very honorable, with so many 'artists' that are trying way too hard to be creative and interesting," Sirbaugh said. "Zea just is."
Askew was told by her adviser to move to New York after she graduates, which is now her "only set plan" after college. She is unsure of what she will do when she gets there, but she is unafraid of chance.
"I just kind of try to stay open to things, and I believe something will fall into my lap if I keep doing something that I like," Askew said. "I'm pretty much open to anything. I feel like art is pretty open."