Imagine you’re reading a story filled with quiet women surrounded by animals, little men with human bodies and elephant heads, and copper-and-ceramic horses that look a little steampunk, a little classical.

That, in a sense, is what looking at the work of Virginia-based painter and sculptor Aggie Zed is like. She seems to have tapped into some element of art-making that allows her to spark her viewers’ imaginations, igniting their own creativity. Zed has concrete proof of this, although she would never go so far as to call it that: A collector of Zed’s ceramic figures once sent Zed a story she had written using the little figures as characters.

But instead of calling herself a storyteller, Zed thinks of herself and her work as a catalyst. “I’m like the person who shows you one page of a story and lets you guess the rest. I see my paintings that way, like you’re opening a book at one page, and hopefully you think there’s a whole story there, and you’d like to know what it is,” she says. “I think it’s great to just come into the middle and be provoked to think about it.”

Zed grew up on Sullivan’s Island in a big family made even bigger by the many pets they cared for. Dogs, cats, chickens, donkeys, goats, horses, and ponies accompanied Zed and her seven siblings at different times during their childhoods, and animals continue to play a large part in both her life and art now. “There were always animals around, animals with names. I loved them and loved taking care of them … It’s a natural thing that they would be material for my work. You work out of what you know, and in order to reach other people, you really have to work out of what you know.” As a child, Zed drew constantly, especially horses, and she wasn’t all that long into her young life when she knew that she would be an artist. After that, she says, there wasn’t anything else she wanted to become.

Zed received a BFA in sculpture and painting from the University of South Carolina and has pursued her dream of working as an artist with a commitment that is inspiring. She moved to Richmond, Va., and set to work figuring out how to continue making art without having to get a “regular job.” Having had some success with designing and building chess sets in the past, she decided to make a living doing that. “That’s [the part of my work] that people found accessible at the time, and I wanted my other work to be free to be whatever — polite or impolite, or too weird to understand, or whatever.” The chess sets are what led her to work with ceramics and create the small ceramic and mixed-media figures that she is most known for today.

Those figures are striking in both their surrealism and their humility; somehow, despite their strangeness, they are deeply sympathetic. Zed, of course, says it best, speaking about the figures she creates that have human bodies but animal heads. “I started by combining a horse’s head with the people, and it was so poignant seeing that beautiful horse’s head on that pathetic human body.” Perhaps that is what is so affecting. Zed’s human figures, molded out of pale clay that looks soft and pliable even after firing, are so vulnerable, so naked, that they seem to show us at our most ridiculous. But instead of being laughable, they’re endearing. After making a few of her first figures, Zed says, “I just fell in love with these people. They’re a little strange, a little pathetic, but also a little funny.”

The Halsey Institute will be showing sculpture, paintings, and installations by Zed, who is thrilled about the exhibit. The pieces that will be on view are almost all new, created with an absolute freedom that was encouraged by the Halsey team. “Mark [Sloan, the Institute’s director and senior curator] said, ‘I just hope you surprise you and me,'” Zed says. “The thing that’s really different about this show is that I doubled the scale of my work almost overnight … It’s absolutely wonderful to be able to have a show in a space like the Halsey, with the team that’s working [there], and in my hometown. I’m so excited to share this work that I really love.”

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