by Joey Phoenix | Images by Creative Collective
For the first time ever, Beverly, MA has an official Artist in Residence: Zooguu. The residency pilot program, developed by the Beverly Arts District (BAD), in partnership with the City of Beverly, Creative Collective, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), exists to encourage pandemic recovery in the area by bringing more pedestrian traffic to and support small businesses and bolster the economy downtown. In choosing Zooguu, they’ve truly chosen the happiest medium.
Nahant-based Zooguu is owned and operated by lead designer and faux critter creator Jen Gubicza (she/her/hers) and her illustrator/designer husband Brian (he/him/his), and the work that this small creative business comes up with will make you laugh and delight you with color, whimsy, and childlike wonder.
As of this past weekend, Zooguu has officially popped up and is open for business inside Chianti in downtown Beverly. Each weekend, you can walk inside to the enchanting space, pick up whimsical handmade faux taxidermy and fine art prints, add to the community art project – a quilt Jen is hand stitching from fabric remnants decorated by community contributors over the course of the residency, or take part in a fabric animal head scavenger hunt with participating businesses in downtown Beverly.
From plushies to mounted heads
The name Zooguu is a clever spoonerism from “Zoology” and Jen and Brian’s last name “Gubicza.” A graduate in graphic design from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) Jen originally called the business “The Sweetest Pea,” before an increase in Etsy sales led her to needing to create a name that she felt would stick in people’s heads a bit more readily.
Her work as an artist and maker didn’t take a linear trajectory, but instead moved from graphic design, to toys and plushies, to unique home decor that turns the taxidermy oddities trade on its literal head.
As a graphic designer she worked with the Boston Children’s Museum and Big Blue Dot, most well known for their work with Nickelodeon, where she would eventually become Creative Director. But, even with how busy that kept her, it wasn’t enough to keep her creative expression satisfied.
“I was working a million jobs with Big Blue Dot and the museum and other projects, but because I can never stop doing things, I thought: ‘I need a hobby.’ So I started hand sewing these round animal creatures,” Gubicza said.
This creativity hobby turned into a full-on side hustle and she joined Etsy as it was just beginning in the mid 2000s to sell what she made online. Her success quickly caught the eye of one of the Etsy founders, who invited her to share studio space in Brooklyn for an informal maker incubator he started, where she lived for two years.
“It’s still changing. It’s always changing,” she said about her work, “but the through-line in all of my work is that it’s fun, colorful, cheerful, and makes people laugh. And it’s not just for kids. My work is for everyone.”
When her early customers began asking if her plushies could be mounted on boards as wall decorations in addition to their existing role as adorable snuggle buddies, the transition to faux taxidermy became an easy progression. “Once I started [creating home decor] it completely outstripped the sales of the toys,” she recalled. “It really forced me to think about what I was doing and where I would go with this.”
All the patterns she makes for her animal heads are her own, inspired by a combination of her own internal artistic vault and helpful reference materials. Over time she’s learned not to perfectly trust her memory in regards to an animal’s true likeness, especially if she’s making one for the first time.
“I used to make things on the fly, and then be like, why does that sheep look weird? And then after selling 10 of them, and telling people: ‘it’s a sheep’ – and they still bought it – I eventually looked at an actual sheep and realized that what I made wasn’t really how a sheep works,” she said with a laugh.
Pop-ps and picture books
13 years later, Zooguu’s faux taxidermy trade is as successful as ever, and when she’s not planning for vendor fairs or applying to artist residency programs, she’s sharpening her illustration skills and starting to work on new projects.
“I started to write a picture book a couple of years ago. When the pandemic shut everything down I thought well, ‘let’s work on that and see how that goes.’” The process led to her falling in love with drawing again. “Now, I have a series of picture books that I’ve written and I’m going to be submitting to agents after the residency ends.”
Although the details of the books are still a bit of a secret, readers can expect whimsical themes with cryptids, creative critters, and peculiar characters engaging with important life lessons and getting up to unusual antics.
But while fans will have to wait for this next iteration of Jen’s creative prowess in its literary form, they can go visit her and Brian at the pop up in Chianti every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through the end of October. The residency is three parts: a pop up shop, a community art project, and a city wide scavenger hunt created to engage visitors with small businesses downtown.
“Brian and I are really inspired by the idea of letterboxing, and finding creative ways to get people downtown and into businesses,” she said. “The scavenger hunt to find my animal heads became the best option because it was more of a hands off approach for the businesses, and would bring people inside without too much effort.”
Curious residents and visitors are encouraged to stop by the pop up each weekend, shop Jen and Brian’s unique collection, contribute to the community art project, and engage with the scavenger hunt from now until Halloween. For more information, and to follow along with what’s happening this month at the inaugural artist residency in Beverly, check out Zooguu (@Zooguu) on Instagram and Facebook or visit their website at https://www.zooguu.com.
Joey Phoenix (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist and the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to firstname.lastname@example.org.