For Debra Ziss, following her passions has meant following her palate as well as her talent for illustration. Ziss was in the Chelsea ‘hood last week giving tastings of lush Vermont cheeses and kibitzing about all things fromage with customers at Whole Foods.
The last time this illustrator, hand letterer and designer was in these parts was to attend High School Live. Dual passions were always on her horizon. Ziss has always had “a serious love for cheese,“ as well as for specialty food and beverages in general. “I started taking beer and cheese classes around town and became a certified Level One Cicerone while working as an illustrator,” she says. At Murray’s Cheese Boot Camp, she was the only illustrator. “I was just so fascinated with cheese!”
In Vermont and Wisconsin, where cheese makers would take notice, proving that good illustrations travel widely:
“When I finished a year-long design and lettering job, I took a break to build a portfolio of food illustrations,” says Ziss. “My idea was to create a portfolio for editorial and cookbook jobs. I had wanted to get off the computer and to reacquaint myself with traditional media while creating a body of work on something that interests me.”
In 2015 Ziss contacted a cheesemonger in the city and asked to do a collaboration. Ziss proposed to draw a cheese a week from the store’s cheese case. Together they would “cross-promote” on social media.
“I found myself doing these deep-dives into the stories behind each cheese I drew. From the animals who produced the milk, the land they grazed on, to the cheesemakers, affineurs (who age the cheese) and people who sell it. Every step of it was fascinating!”
Soon Ziss had three projects doing what she liked. “Sometimes the things you do quietly get you work and recognition down the line. There’s always an audience.”
After working on projects with Vermont and Wisconsin cheese companies, Ziss wanted to still work more directly with cheese. In 2017, she made the leap. She now works as a cheesemonger at a New York City cheese shop and as a brand representative for some of her favorite cheese producers.
“With every job, once I stop learning I’m sort of done. I want to change and do something different.”
Dealing with the public as a cheesemonger is the opposite, but also complimentary to what she is used to as an illustrator. “I have to be professional with my illustration clients so that carried over to helping customers,” says Ziss.
Being an illustrator can be solitary, she concedes. “My day-to-day interactions are few and far between. There are days that I barely speak to anyone! I didn’t know I had the skills to talk with the public, but it turns out I genuinely enjoy it. It’s lovely to be able to share my passion with customers,” says Ziss.
“My cheese clients for illustration give me a great deal of creative freedom and trust me to bring their ideas to life. Cheese people are kind and generous. I’m so fortunate to have found my way to working with them as both an illustrator and (cheese) monger.”
To see more of Debra Ziss’ work go to:
Images used with permission.