ZoGa: A Love in Color

Written by T.K. Mills

“Check out this piece!” Vanessa, my fiancé, said as she handed me her phone. I admired the work, a cutesy elephant outlined by a kaleidoscopic rainbow pattern. Curious, I clicked the Instagram page, but was unfamiliar with the artist, ‘ZoGa.’ Intrigued by the style, I asked her, “Whose work is this?”

Every morning while living with Vanessa for the past 2 and a half years, I have woken up to Z100’s ‘Elvis Duran and The Morning Show.’ It’s an integral part of Vanessa’s morning routine. A native New Yorker, since high school she’s been tuning in to hear Elvis and his crew play the hits, dive into current events, debate trends, and get real about life. On why she, alongside millions of others, loves listening to the show, Vanessa told me “it’s like hanging out at your best friend’s house.”

Vanessa’s love for The Morning Show is how I came to find myself sitting on a couch in the parlor of Inked Tattoo & Art Gallery, across from the artistic duo that comprise ZoGa, to discuss their upcoming exhibition, “A Night in Color.”

The two halves of ZoGa are Medha Gandhi, co-host of the Morning show, and her boyfriend Brandon Zornes, whose artistic moniker is a portmanteau of their last names (Zornes & Gandhi.) Their journey from art hobbyists to showcasing a major exhibition is a creative roller coaster traveling along the tracks of the pandemic – but more than an artistic awakening, it’s also a love story.

The two halves of ZoGa are Medha Gandhi, co-host of the Morning show, and her boyfriend Brandon Zornes, whose artistic moniker is a portmanteau of their last names (Zornes & Gandhi.)

“We met at the ripe old age of like 11,” Gandhi told me with a laugh. The two grew up in the same neighborhood in Ohio, riding the same bus to school. “we were — I wouldn’t say enemies, but we weren’t super tight.”

“Like frenemies,” Zornes added.

“Yeah frenemies, like you hang out, but you’re also really mean to each other. And then you hang out again. You know, typical middle school stuff,” Gandhi explained.

While the two held a youthful bond, life took them on different trajectories. Zornes moved to Illinois, served in the Navy, got married, later divorced, and pursued a career in the auto industry. Meanwhile, Gandhi moved to Miami, before returning to Ohio to graduate from OSU, and getting a job in radio. Her career in radio led her to Boston, and eventually New York.

Then in 2019, they reconnected. Zornes was in town working the New York Auto Show, bringing prototype vehicles out from Detroit, where he was living at the time. He posted a selfie from the Freedom Tower on social media, which led to Gandhi reaching out – ‘you’re gonna come and not even say anything to me when you get here?’ She DMed playfully.

Later, they ended up spending a fun weekend together, and started seeing each other whenever they were in each other’s respective cities. The honeymoon bliss – and then, a global pandemic hit. Gandhi, who lived alone at the time thought, “I’m not gonna stay in this tower and just be by myself all the time. I’m gonna spend time with him.”

She joked, “we went from long-distance to lockdown.” Zornes smiled, “yeah we were just hanging out playing ‘house.’”

As they went through the motions and trends of early lockdown, when 2 weeks turned into 2 years, they started to get the itch to try something different.

“During quarantine, it was like, ‘What do we do all day? This is crazy.’ And I just went out and bought a bunch of art supplies and I thought, ‘Well, we can just mess around and start playing with stuff.’ We would paint and post the pictures of what we were painting just ’cause what else are you doing? Nothing.”

“During quarantine, it was like, ‘What do we do all day? This is crazy.’ And I just went out and bought a bunch of art supplies and I thought, ‘Well, we can just mess around and start playing with stuff.’

They made the Instagram for ZoGa, and soon enough it grew, with fans asking if they could buy pieces. As their creativity began to blossom in the darkness of the pandemic, so did their motif – the Elephant.

“Weirdly enough, though you will never look at him and be able to tell, he’s part Japanese.” Gandhi said, joking in reference to Zornes’ outwardly Caucasian appearance. “His mother was born in Japan. And Zo like in ZoGa, it also actually means elephant in Japanese!”

The elephant became the defacto symbol of their art. Why? “Cus’ I’m obsessed with them!” Gandhi explained gleefully. And so they added a happy little elephant to one of their canvases. Soon enough their followers wanted more, and thus the elephant returned again and again becoming the ZoGa emblem.

Without clear direction or even a deliberate purpose, the two painted for fun, experimenting with colors and styles.

“I think it was totally organic.” Zornes said. Nodding in agreement, Gandhi added, “We bought a bunch of different mediums to see what we liked, to see how things ended up drying… it was a process.”

“We pretty much do everything together,” Zornes told me, describing their methodology. “There’s both of our hands involved with it. Sometimes it’s the paint. Sometimes it’s the process of laying down. “

“He doesn’t like to draw,” Gandhi added with giggle.

Zornes continued with a sly smile, “I like to make a mess with the colors and just watch it come to life. I mean, that’s the cool thing about it is watching it change from the beginning to the end and then feeling like it’s finally gotten there once you’ve gotten the right colors.”

Detailing their palette, Gandhi explained, “I’m a giant fan of really bright colors. And it comes from the Indian side of me. Everything is about as many colors as you could possibly get. He’s a little more subdued, but he also has color combinations I would never think of. It works together really well, but it was definitely a slow evolution to get to where we are now. We’re still evolving, you know?”

Adjusting to being flexible with both their art, and themselves, has been part of the learning.

“If he makes a mistake, he’ll be like, ‘Ah, throw it in the trash. I’m done.’ And I’m the person that’s like, ‘Absolutely not. We’re gonna take that mistake and change it into something else, Gandhi explained.’”

Theorizing it was reflective of their respective careers, Gandhi posited, “a big part of that is what both of us do. If he’s working with cars, you can’t make a mistake and just let it go. Whereas I’m working in a live broadcasting field, we make mistakes all the time. You just get around it. So we approach it from two very different angles.”

Zornes added, “I don’t design the vehicles, so I it’s more like we’re being told what to do… Whereas as an artist, you have the freedom to literally do whatever you want to do. There’s no right and wrong way to do it.”

As their practice grew, they wanted to branch out become more intentional with their canvases, experimenting with lions, koalas, and other animals into their work, as well as exploring other mediums to work with as well. Zornes’ Sister in Law (Tori Love Jewelry) helped them design and create the ZoGa necklace brand. Part of the exploration of with other animals comes from input from collectors, requesting specific pieces, but also from Gandhi’s passion for animals.

Though she doesn’t care to flaunt her charity, part of Gandhi’s mission in selling works is to help raise money for conservation. With each sale, part of the proceeds go to Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a Kenya-based organization that uses funding to enhance wildlife protection and habitat preservation in Sub-Saharan Africa. [At one point during our conversation, Zornes referred to their muses as ‘Zoo Animals’, and Gandhi was quick to correct him, “they’re not zoo animals, they belong outside.”)

They intend to keep pushing the boundaries of their art, and which animals inspire them, though some aspects they want to keep mum until the opening of their solo show, letting their audience see the new works for themselves.

With each sale, part of the proceeds go to Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a Kenya-based organization that uses funding to enhance wildlife protection and habitat preservation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While remaining humble about the platform she holds, (240k followers on her personal Instagram, and the millions of Z100 listeners) Gandhi was also self-aware about how her day job has helped boost ZoGa.

“It definitely plays into it. I mean, I want to keep them completely separate… but it’s hard because I also want to talk about it. I’m very fortunate that I have a platform and a team of people who are very encouraging, and they let us talk about it on the show. Obviously, talking about it on the air, like Vanessa heard, that’s how I think a lot of people have heard [about ZoGa]…” Gandhi opened up. So I have to give a shout out again to a little bit of the merger between the art and the work, even though I don’t want it to be.”

Her work has opened new doors in unexpected ways. One day while talking about on the Morning Show, the crew was discussing tattoos they hate and wanted to get rid of. This nugget was heard by Sami, the Creative Director of Inked Magazine, who then reached out via her personal Instagram to offer a clean-up of whatever regretted tattoos she had. “He told me, ‘we can absolutely take care of anything you guys hate. Come visit us, and we’ll make it work,’” Gandhi remembered.

This led to a friendship between the two, and one day earlier this year Sami messaged Gandhi, noting how they showcased monthly art shows at the Chelsea parlor. He asked if they’d like a show, and connected them with Kevin Wilson, Inked’s resident curator. Gandhi was ecstatic.

She told me, “it was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ ‘Cause Brandon [Zornes] is all about tattoos and street art in general. And then we came here, and we saw the place, and it was like, ‘Oh, for sure, this is perfect.’ And for us, we felt like, it sort of legitimizes what we’re doing. Even though we’ve sold so many pieces and it’s great but having people who are in the art business, it felt really, really good to be validated.”

Since then, the two have been cranking out new works for ‘A Night in Color,’ brimming with enthusiasm and creative energy. I asked them about their vision for the show, in the lead up to the big event.

“We just want to provide color and happiness in the room,” Zornes said.

“Joy,” Gandhi affirmed.

He continued, “When we started it, it was the first thing that we said we wanted to do, just make it happy and fun…”

“Just good spirits and good vibes.” Gandhi concluded.

 

You can catch the opening of ‘A Night in Color: The ZoGa Exhibition’ on Thursday November 30th at Inked Tattoo & Art Gallery, 150 W. 22nd Street New York, NY 10011

T.K. Mills is the Editor-in-Chief of UP Magazine, a street art publication based in New York City. After receiving a Master’s Degree in Global Affairs, he discovered a love for graffiti while backpacking through Cuba and pursued life as a writer. Outside of UP,  T.K. enjoys writing poetry, personal travel essays, and occasionally short stories. His work has been published in The Smart SetThe Vignette ReviewGenre Urban Arts, and Eternal Remedy among others. Beyond art, T.K. loves reading and traveling.

    @t.k.m85

    tkmills85@gmail.com

    www.tkmills.com