Heroes in Art

A Journey Through Idols

Artist’s heroes and heroines

Heroes in Art is a wide-ranging survey into humanity’s search and celebration of the hero by outsider artist Dimitri Zoellin. It is not a mere replication of our idols, however. Instead, the artist brings out the intricate, ever-shifting relationship between hero and crowd.

The Hero Stands

The idea of the hero is always changing to fit our cultural moment. Where once we celebrated the cleaning of the Augean stables, we now celebrate the cleaning up of Gotham’s crime-ridden streets. But what never changes is our need for them.


Developments over the last hundred years have shown just how permanent the hero’s place is in our idea of society and ourselves. Myths of great men and women performing impossible feats have continued into new pop-cultural forms like comic books and movies — even psychology and self-help.

Perfect with their flaws

Joseph Campbell’s magnum opus Hero with a Thousand Faces outlined the archetypal hero’s journey for a mass audience. The widely read work influenced Hollywood screenwriters, spiritual seekers, and New Age psychology.

Now, we live in a world where children worship caped crusaders and adults work through their problems by envisioning themselves as a flawed human who has access to a Hercules inside them.

Through a Child’s Eyes

Raw artist Dimitri Zoellin has turned his outsider gaze to the world of heroes, not only conjuring them in his trademark style but allowing the heroes to influence his own work.

His approach is not the typical fine art game of critique, rather it is an evocation of our childhood fascination with larger than life figures. Found in the pages of comic books and on the covers of current events magazines, the child within us searches out heroes and finds them.

Expectations and desires

This relationship with these figures begins when we are young and continues uninterrupted until we pass away from our current form. It is a lifelong connection, one that goes both ways. We place on heroes our own expectations and desires, just as they send us their own agendas.

It is Zoellin’s capturing of this childhood obsession that allows us to look at this relationship all the closer.

Capturing the Hero

The subjects in Artist’s Heroes do not stand alone in a sterile space. They are accompanied by text, sometimes directly pulled from relevant media, and emblazoned with exuberant textures. Strips of color invade the frame, faces are assembled from a jumbled set of pieces, flags are deconstructed in the background.

Mixed media persons

Photographic collage and graffiti are employed, as well as tribal art motifs, sacred imagery, and stencils. The large canvasses dance with countless techniques and approaches, all coming together into a single sanctified savior, boxer, surfer, etcetera.

This inventive, eager energy brings them to life as they actually live in our heads: personified ideas rather than real, flesh and blood beings.

Heroes in Art

There is a surreal, shimmering quality to the works in Artist’s Heroes. Or even a hyperreal quality. The impact of these people and characters are so large that we can not fully grasp them as individuals. They are hurricanes of connections and beliefs and prayers for strength. They are mosaics in our mind, made up of a million glinting fragments.

Like me and you

As Baudrillard said: the map precedes the territory. When our heroes are actual living persons, their heroic stature exists more than the real human does. Their influence takes on a life of its own, but it is always connected to the person that is, after all, a human just like me and you

Cynism transcended

It’s why we need heroes. They carry messages inside their actions, a message that humanity is capable of great things. When we see the accomplishments of heroes, we know that we are able to carry out our own greatness — whatever that might mean for us at the time.

While this childlike awe could be called naïve, it is also hopeful. It transcends the cynicism of our times. How are we to face the enormous challenges today without heroes to guide us, to give us hope, to show the way so that we might become heroes ourselves?

The artwork series

What Zoellin is attempting with his Artist’s Heroes series is a return to a previous form of the artist in society. Artists used to produce things — objects that revealed a vision. But the rise of mass media and celebrity culture has turned the role of the artist into the producer of events and their own status.


Zoellin’s approach undoes this trend. In Artist’s Heroes, he participates in the childlike adulation of figures who take on larger meaning through the force of their presence. Rather than celebrating the artist himself, he uses art to celebrate the very idea of the hero. In that way this series has the same approach with the Doggies.

Figures in Color

Artist’s Heroes brings together in a single series of heroes from many fields.

There are Batman and Superman, who spring from their fictional worlds into ours with real force. There are political figures like Queen Elizabeth, her status connecting her to a long lineage of heroes.

Child’s innocence

There is Muhammed Ali, whose valiant in-ring fighting was surpassed only by his valiant search for justice outside the ring. There is Pope Francis, the supreme pontiff who carries on his namesake’s legacy of sowing peace and justice in a world needing both. These are only some of the heroes in the series, but they illustrate the wide field that we draw from for personal inspiration. Zoellin has captured its essence as seen through a child’s innocence.

Heroes’ outcome

But as we herald these people and hold them up, Zoellin seems to be asking us a question. The question isn’t why we have heroes but, rather, how do heroes change us? When we bring them into our lives as symbols for what we can be, what is the outcome? When we are children, we play with toys of our heroes. We have them do battle and save the city. But at the same time, what are the heroes having us do?

“Heroes in art” by Jonathan Clark