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“Girl Hero” creator, MIAD alum, on art and subversion

During her final year at MIAD, Zachary Ochoa’s senior thesis was majorly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ochoa ’20 (New Studio Practice: Fine Arts) bounced back by creating a fantastical universe of paintings featuring Girl Hero, a trans Mickey Mouse-esque warrior. Ochoa’s series became a near-instant sensation that has generated a myriad of opportunities in the last three years, from fashion partnerships and international exhibitions to a book deal.

“I was yearning for art that was safe and fun and felt carefree,” says Ochoa on creating art after the pandemic. “I think coming out of school, not being able to do my thesis, I was really rejecting the academic … I wanted to make work that was super personal.” Addressing themes of gender dynamics and subversion, respectability and liberation, “Girl Hero” started with ears. “I put one Mickey Mouse ear and one spiky ear on a character, and I thought ‘oh, I want to keep doing that,’” explains Ochoa. From there, the series morphed from “Mickey Mouse into a full American vintage-esque cartoon style,” drawing influences from pop culture to anime.

“It feels like there’s this desire for newness and a sense of ignoring a lot of real-life stuff,” says Ochoa, citing the pandemic as an impetus to creating Girl Hero. “I wanted to make a character that was messy and wrong and scary and fun. I want people to relate to her. Maybe the parts of themselves they don’t like, they see in her. Or the parts that they do like, they see in her. It was really about being a character that was very anti-culture–the underbelly of communities and marginalized people. To me, it’s this pillar of funky, gross people who are messy.”

Creating a relatable and flawed character was important to Ochoa. “If a godlike trans Mickey Mouse warrior has issues with loving their body or yearning for friendship, then maybe the things I’m going through are also important and hard,” she explained in an interview with Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine. Respectability politics is also at the root of the character. “How harmful it is to put this pressure on people and to expect marginalized people to have things figured out,” she said in an interview with MIAD. “I think true liberation is accepting the really harsh realities and still meeting [people] with love and grace.”

Ochoa’s work spoke deeply to audiences. She was contacted by the Steve Turner gallery in Los Angeles about a solo exhibition, which premiered in November 2021. Following the success of this first exhibition, creative director and “renaissance boy” Eli Russel Linnetz reached out about creating a graphic novel based on the characters of Girl Hero. Coming up, Ochoa will also be working with a Chicago skate shop to create a clothing and skateboard release. “More people can have access to my work,” says Ochoa. “Now that I’m in this high gallery place, it’s super inaccessible and it’s hard to even see my work right now, which is a weird thing.”

As a student in MIAD’s NSP: Fine Arts program, Ochoa resonated with her professors. “They all had this unique perspective and something to offer. I took them really seriously and they also took me really seriously,” she says. When her application to the prestigious Yale Norfolk Summer Program was rejected, Ochoa was devastated. But Jon Horvath, an assistant professor in the Fine Arts department, offered words of encouragement. “I was talking to him about how I was feeling,” explains Ochoa, “and he was like, ‘you know, Forrest Gump lost to Pulp Fiction, and they were both great movies.’ And that was an aha moment.”

“I personally am such a MIAD fan,” continues Ochoa. Another pivotal experience in her career as a student came when Peter Barrickman, NSP: Fine Arts faculty, expressed interest in creating paintings with her over the summer. “I have so much respect for him, and for him to see me as someone who he would actually work with, it was this switch in me … Everyone gave me the go-ahead to do whatever I wanted to do. It just fueled the fire.” Ochoa encourages current students to “take yourself really seriously, even if you feel silly.”

“I’m very subversive,” laughs Ochoa. About to give a lecture to a class of MIAD seniors, she explains, “I don’t have a website, I only use Instagram. I’m kind of mysterious. I’m going to tell them all these things that their teachers are saying they have to do–well, you don’t have to. If you find some weird way to make it work, you can!”

Coming up, look for Zachary’s art at London’s Omni Gallery in July as well as Miami’s Untitled Art Fair, and keep up with her work on her Instagram @evilgirl2005. Read more about “Girl Hero” in the Shepherd Express and learn more about MIAD’s NSP: Fine Arts major.

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