Unexpected. The word invariably springs to mind when approaching the studio of celebrated artist, Zio Ziegler.
Taking on the unassuming front of a gracefully aging single-family home in the hills of Mill Valley, California, it's a scene that would be far from out of place in any of America's mountain towns. Four-wheel-drive vehicles crowd the driveway; roof racks and camper shells abound. Inside, a sea of bikes greets visitors.
But to see the army of canvases lining the walls and floors of nearly every room in the house belies the space's true intentions. While certainly not the chic, tragically stereotypical industrial warehouse studio scene du jour, it quite evidently more than gets the job done.
For a line of work where commercial recognition has a relationship cruelly at odds with mortality, at 27, Ziegler has already managed to make an impressive name for himself. With commissions from patrons ranging from the United Nations Foundation to high-profile titans of the tech world, it's certainly safe to say that Ziegler's talents are in exceedingly high demand.
His distinct, predominantly black-and-white murals have decorated buildings all over the world–in such cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seoul, Berlin, London, Tokyo and New York–and his oil-, acrylic- and enamel-patterned paintings have been featured at solo exhibitions in Istanbul, Turkey, Milan, Italy, California, New York, Colorado and Idaho.
For Ziegler, while his formal study of art began at Brown University and continued at the Rhode Island School of Design, his artistic training began much earlier, fueled by a rarely-cited source in the art world: bikes.
"I owe everything to bikes, I'm not ashamed to say it," Ziegler says.
As we sit in the back room of his cluttered, if still airy, studio I inquire what came first.
Pausing, his head tilts slightly as he wrestles with an answer.
"It's hard to say. I don't know what I took seriously first. And, I don't even know if I take either seriously right now. Well, that's not fair exactly. I grew up working in shops, working at Tam Bikes–I was a terrible mechanic."
While Ziegler fared much better as a salesman than a mechanic, Tam Bikes' owner, Bryce Kirk, quickly found Ziegler's artistic ability to be an even stronger asset to the shop.
"I did the logo for them," Zio recalls. "I was in eighth grade at the time, and I thought he was the coolest dude ever for letting me do that. He just paid me all day to draw stuff, so I started doing that–drawing maps of Tam, T-shirts and other things, and then eventually it sort of became a new way of communicating with people.
"Years later we were just building dirt jumps–that's all we did–we started spending all of our time digging dirt jumps in Marin after school, and I actually started making little videos of my friends, making films of all the local dudes I knew digging and riding, you know."
As these videos became more involved, a more artistic direction began finding its way into their production.
"I think I was doing the title sequence one day for one of those flicks with Sharpies and all of a sudden I started matching it with the footage and so it became animation.
"Simultaneously I was making T-shirts–a lot of them–and I was fascinated by graffiti, and the graffiti scene that was taking place in San Francisco. There were a lot of characters there and so I started to find a junction between these two."
As Ziegler's artistic endeavors progressed, bikes still remained an important part of his process, both creatively and commercially.
"I was in school in Providence, Rhode Island, where I hardly got to ride my bike and so I started living voyeuristically, making a whole bunch of bike-oriented merchandise. I'd make fake cycling club T-shirts for different schools around the East Coast with ridiculous mascot names and bootleg them, hiring the printmaking students to make these things.
"They've always kind of competed for space in my life," says Ziegler of art and cycling.
"If you look at my life, it sort of exists as a prism with art at the middle, literature as an extension of that, and then cycling and family and the other things I enjoy all feeding into this primordial soup of what my work is about on the canvas.
"I guess, in some sort of way, they can't exist without each other," Ziegler offers. "I'm not a pleasant person to be around unless I've had a bike ride that day, and I'm not a pleasant guy without getting to make some art that day as well. I put more weight in cycling one day and then more weight in art, but together it's really the substance of who I am.
"As cyclists, we have generally a lot of energy and a lot to prove, I think, to ourselves and each other, and so it's the same thing with art, where there's this great exchange between insecurity and confidence and iterating on something–or training for something–with just brute mind strength in order to achieve a goal."
Outside of these parallels, the bike also serves as a much-needed escape mechanism for Ziegler.
"Things become very unbalanced, very quickly, in the studio, if I don't have a good book I sort of lose my mind, because I'm too in my head, and if I'm too in my head, I end up really not liking what I'm doing on my canvases and I second-guess my decision and this choice to be a painter," Zio relates.
"So I go out for a bike ride and all of sudden it balances it out and I come back with a smile on my face and I can tolerate another few days of painting."
That's not to say that painting is something Ziegler approaches with apprehension or dread, but rather in much the same way as he approaches a tough line out on the trail.
Instead, for Ziegler, "painting is thrilling, and invigorating and a whole prism of possibility; the only thing standing in the way of it is you, and I'm certainly my own worst enemy.
"It's the same thing with cycling. The bike was built for maximum performance, maximum efficiency–you're the only factor in this equation that makes it really slow sometimes–and it's a beautiful thing to think about, because I need to be in tune on my canvases to move forward in the same way I have to be in shape to get what I want out of a ride, otherwise it's painful and terrible."
Ziegler's life in the art world is one that involves a rather demanding travel schedule, which doesn't exactly play nice with his fitness, and can also disrupt his performance in the studio.
"I have to tolerate two weeks of cycling after a trip to get back in shape in order to have a great bike ride. I mean, I'm having great bike rides but a ride where I feel like I can just crush–and that's the studio experience, too. I think there's this whole notion of art and life fitting together–they don't."
Not too far back, however, Ziegler fell prey to the competitive siren call of Strava, the addictive ride-tracking app, and began devoting the majority of his time to two-wheeled pursuits.
"I was riding my ass off every day, training for nothing, and painting just sorta faded," Ziegler recalls. "I'm spending like 10 hours a day sometimes riding bikes, I mean, morning ride, afternoon ride, night ride," he pauses. "My girlfriend at the time left, probably because of Strava."
While he looks back on this experience with a slight sheepishness and a bit of amusement, he's not regretful. In chasing KOMs, Ziegler discovered a propensity for suffering, one he continues to hone, albeit with a touch more moderation.
Suffering though, according to Ziegler, is required to improve within any pursuit of passion, and the ability to embrace this suffering with your own unique imprint, the weather vane for greatness.
"I started pushing myself harder in my paintings when I started suffering harder on the bike, and it was interesting to watch the ability to suffer grow," Ziegler says. "I think suffering is the same thing across the board. I truly believe that the greatest cyclists are, one, those who have style…some sort of inherent style that you can't ever achieve unless you have it, but also the ones who have the ability to suffer a little bit harder than everyone else."
And certainly, Ziegler notes, the ability to suffer surely has its place in art as well.
"My favorite artists are the ones who just suffered for 40 years, 50 years, there's no replacement for that.
"I was able to come back to the studio with such clarity when I was painting" Ziegler says, referencing the powerful effect his riding had on his artistic process during his 'Strava Period.' "Those ended up being some of my favorite canvases because I just didn't have the energy to second-guess myself…so very much so, I am what I am and I paint what I paint because cycling does what it does for me.
"It's the same thing, art and bikes. It's like a Zen exercise–absolute presence … I just feel lucky that I found it early enough to be hooked."