Fine arts student pursues dream career at Pixar

Features Editor

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Jessica Van Zee dreams of using her visual art skills to create animations at Pixar.

On dull and breezy November mornings, it is common for the student center cafeteria at County College of Morris to be packed with dozens of students quietly studying while gobbling up a quick breakfast. Many of them are eager to finish the day’s assignments before taking off to their 11 a.m. class. All of them hold their head bowed to the tiny print of their textbooks in intense concentration.

Nineteen-year-old Jessica Van Zee’s strawberry blonde hair seems to be the only feature that stands out in the sea of sunken heads — the bright, vivacious color serving as a testament to her bubbly and magnetic personality.

Although only a first-year student enrolled in the fine arts program at CCM, Van Zee has already launched her career in the fields of visual arts and illustration. Fifteen of her art pieces have been featured in art shows across northern New Jersey, and Van Zee has been awarded five scholarships for her artwork from various organizations including the Knights of Columbus and the National Art Honor Society. In total, she has received $2,500 in scholarships.

“In math and science there’s almost a finite line, but art is so vast and wide open,” Van Zee said, a smile widening across her face. “Everything that’s created has to be planned out and drawn, and so art surrounds us. I like math and science don’t get me wrong, but I’m partial to art.”

Van Zee’s artwork has allowed her to achieve a level of fame within her local community. During her senior year at Mount Olive High School, Van Zee was selected to receive the 2013 Trish Barter-Varrichio Trustees Award, one of the four Mary Gill Art Scholarship awards, the only visual arts scholarship program for graduating seniors in Morris County, according to

In addition to receiving $400 worth of scholarship funds, Van Zee’s artwork was on display at the Morris Museum in Morristown, N.J. along with the work of the other three young recipients. It was at the exhibition that Van Zee first met CCM fine arts professor, Todd Doney as CCM’s Fine Art Portfolio Exhibit was being held on the same date that the museum was holding a reception for the four scholarship winners.

“He was like, ‘You guys should all go to CCM. We need you here,’” Van Zee said.

Doney first saw Van Zee’s work as a judge for the Mary Gill Art Scholarship committee and immediately recognized her talent. Upon hearing that Van Zee enrolled in CCM as a fine arts major, he was excited to have a talented, new addition to the department.

“I knew immediately that she was talented and… I was delighted to discover that she did indeed enroll at CCM,” Doney said. “She is doing very well and progressing well above average… Having a student like Jessica, who could attend any art college in the U.S. and do well, enrolled in our program, confirms that CCM is a worthy choice for art students in New Jersey. Jessica is not the first talented artist to attend CCM, and she won’t be the last. However, she is a talented artist and it is wonderful having her here… Not only is Jessica a terrific artist, she is also a wonderful young lady.”

Van Zee’s passion for art stems from her high school years, where she received overwhelming encouragement and support from her art teachers. This was around the same time that Van Zee’s pieces began appearing in various art shows held in areas surrounding her hometown of Flanders, N.J.

During Van Zee’s first year in high school, the teachers that were part of the school’s art department chose four students to submit work to the Teen Arts Festival at CCM.

“I was a freshman, so I was like no way he’s [Van Zee’s teacher] going to pick me,” Van Zee said. “He picked my piece. It was a pencil drawing.”

The whole situation motivated Van Zee to further explore her interest in drawing and painting, and hone her craft.

“I asked him, ‘Why would you pick me?’ and he said he saw a lot of potential in me … He wanted to encourage me to stay in the field and so he put me in the show. Just from seeing my piece up on display, it motivated me and I felt like maybe I do have potential,” Van Zee said.

Since her time as a high school student, Van Zee has expanded her portfolio, incorporating different stylistic techniques into her work. She hopes to be employed at Pixar Animation Studios one day, where she can apply her technique to movie and television animation.

“I draw realistically or surrealistically… and so a lot of what I draw in my classes are still lifes which are a display of objects that we set up and we’re required to draw it,” Van Zee said.

Although Van Zee’s artwork is the result of various sources of inspiration, Van Zee admitted what inspired her then and now is family.

“Family comes first,” she said. “I have a lot of support from my family; they always encourage me.”

Van Zee’s mother, Veronica Van Zee, is proud of the young woman her daughter has become aside from all her success.

“I think she has a brilliant future ahead of her,” she said. “Because she’s a self-starter and a self-motivator, she will be able to achieve anything that crosses her path.”

However, this is not the career path that Veronica Van Zee had originally hoped her daughter would take.

“At first my mom, she’s a computer scientist… she wanted me to do some engineering thing,” Van Zee said. “But then she saw my potential, and she started going along with my dream… Now she supports me and wants me to pursue it.”

Veronica Van Zee simply wants her daughter to have a mentor to guide her studies in the fine arts.

“I think she’s quite talented, she needs to be discovered, she needs a mentor,” said Veronica Van Zee. “She needs some type of mentor to show her more than what County College is offering her.”

Like many high school graduates of the Millennial Generation, Van Zee decided to attend her local community college.

“If I go [to CCM] under the NJ STARS program, which is free, I can hopefully transfer out after two years into Pratt University,” she said.

Many who know her, like 19-year-old Raymond Ferlazzo, Van Zee’s boyfriend of three years, agree that Van Zee will achieve much success while at CCM, and be able to accomplish even more once she transfers to a four-year university; not solely because she’s a talented artist, but also because she is an enjoyable person.

“I can find myself laughing with her everyday. She really makes everyone around her happy,” Ferlazzo said.

Van Zee’s bubbly personality, talent and self-determination have her attracting love and praise from teachers and professors, family members, friends and classmates; but, these are also the types of qualities that are bound to have her capturing the attention of numerous art connoisseurs and enthusiasts in the near future.

“I always strive to be better and do more things. I’m really a self-starter and I’m really motivated,” Van Zee said. “Any accomplishment that I make is just a building block for the next bigger task that I can accomplish.”

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