I had the privilege of knowing Kurt Zimmerman, a gentle, sweet man who moved through his world with kindness. Referred to as a folk artist, a visionary, and an Abstract Expressionist, I met him in the early 2000s. Impressed by his creative spirit, when asked, he willingly allowed my University of Central Florida students to interview and film him. We exchanged holiday cards and occasional letters. One of his images graced my 2004 co-authored book, Just Above the Water: Florida Folk Art.
He was born in 1925 in Plochingen, Germany, and immigrated to the United States when he was four. By 1929 he and his family had settled in Schenectady, New York. By the time he graduated from high school, he was a proud and patriotic American citizen. As World War II was raging, he joined the army and was sent to fight in Germany. Bombing his country of birth was difficult for him; it felt as if he were killing his family and friends. But he continued his service to his adopted country after the war, experiencing combat in Korea in the 1950s.
Once discharged, he attended Hudson Valley Technical Institute where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. Employed by General Electric, he was given an assignment in Germany. Living there brought back his discomfort over his part in the war, causing him to fall into depression. Hospitalized for three weeks, he began making art. Unfortunately, his first marriage didn’t survive.
When he returned to the United States, he was stationed on Florida’s Space Coast where he worked on the Apollo Project. He began thinking about the celestial world and experienced a UFO sighting. He remarried; Joan Zimmerman, who predeceased him, was also an artist.
After retiring, he dedicated his time to making art. Life was good. But in the 1990s, he experienced another bout of depression and underwent psychotherapy. It was then that he became convinced that the power of art could heal and his commitment to painting deepened.
Zimmerman’s artwork portrays his profound connection to nature, in particular animals. He claimed we didn’t fully understand their intelligence. He said that they interact with everything and everything comes from the same energy, which originates from the sun. He marveled at the way animals were used in space travel. Inspired by road kill, which he likened to someone being killed by a bomb, he painted animals with health and energy, thereby restoring their beauty. He also created imaginary animals by placing the front part of one animal on the back part of another. And some animals received special powers such as when an alligator was given wings.
He believed in a parallel universe and often painted it with color, intense vigor, and cosmic connectedness that soothed his soul and balanced his mental health. His frames
extended the dynamism, and his work in clay, found objects, and mixed media followed suit.
Zimmerman lived his messages. He fed small animals. He became friends with those he referred to as “street people” in Cocoa Beach. He liked to share his ideas with other artists. Unlike so many artists, he had little ego. Instead he moved through his world with curiosity and a strong and loving imagination.
It’s hard to put into words what a work of art from Kurt Zimmerman means to me. It’s about his exuberance for life and the healing he represented. But it’s more than that. It’s also an expression of unity and connectedness in the universe that we should all recognize and celebrate. And what could be more important than that message in our world today?
Professor Emerita, Philosophy and Humanities
University of Central Florida