BELLEVILLE, NJ — Not all towns Belleville’s size have an official artist, but that’s because not all towns have a civic-minded local artist who is always willing to give back to the community. Belleville’s own Athena Zhe creates murals in town, paints town-specific images at local events, works with area youths to beautify the town and leads paint-and-sip fundraisers — all for Belleville. In return, Belleville named Zhe, who was born in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Woman of the Year in August at a flag-raising ceremony.
Zhe, who is known professionally for her painting on walls, canvases and people, rose to acclaim several years ago when she was featured on the Syfy show “Face Off,” a competition show that pits special effects and makeup artists against one another for a grand prize. Though she didn’t win, she showed her mettle and astounded with her phenomenal body-painting skills.
“I have always been an artist, but I discovered body painting in 2006 when I attended the Face and Body Art international convention in Florida. The concept of my art coming to life — literally — was very intriguing to me; that’s why I decided to try body painting,” Zhe told the Belleville Post. “I love to use bright colors in my art. I am frequently inspired by nature.”
Though Zhe does not often use her body-painting skills at township events, she does use the bright colors for which she is known and fully embraces nature, often working cherry blossoms into her pieces, as Belleville is the Cherry Blossom Capital of the United States.
“I believe that every town should be artsy. Belleville’s cherry blossoms have been inspiring me to beautify the town with my art,” Zhe said. “Being a part of the community is important to me. Belleville is my home, and I like to do everything possible to make my town better. I am lucky that my art is able to bring the community together and raise funds for great causes that help improve our town.”
Though Zhe has not lived in Belleville that long, she has clearly made it her home. When she was house hunting, she was looking for a town just like Belleville and was beyond pleased when she found this Essex County jewel.
“I was looking for a beautiful, developing, small town with unique characteristics. Belleville seemed like the perfect place that I was looking for,” Zhe said.
And just as Zhe has embraced Belleville as her home, so too has Belleville embraced Zhe as its official artist and its Ukrainian Woman of the Year.
“I felt honored to be named as a Ukrainian Woman of the Year,” Zhe said. “I am very thankful to (Mayor) Michael Melham and his team for believing in me and giving me an opportunity to present my art in this beautiful town.”
For Zhe, the opportunity to capture Belleville’s beauty and spirit in her art is life-affirming. It allows her to try new things, get her art out there and meet her neighbors.
“Every art piece I do has a special place in my heart, but I have a strong connection with the mural on Route 21 in Belleville because of all the positive feedback,” Zhe said. “I receive thank-you messages all the time from residents about how grateful they are that they get to enjoy beautiful art instead of looking at a gray wall.”
As Zhe grows as an artist, she is also growing as a businessperson. She has her own company, Athena Entertainment, which provides art-based entertainment.
“When I started body painting, my art very rapidly became popular among trade shows, music videos and at corporate and private events. This created a demand for more permanent art, not just temporary body painting that washes off,” Zhe said. “As a natural progression of my art I started creating costumes, giant headdresses and art installations that soon was named Athena Entertainment.
“Now Athena Entertainment provides specialty unique entertainment all over the world and provides jobs for many very talented people,” she continued. “I am very pleased to see how Athena Entertainment has grown into an art community where so many artists get together and so many new talents are being discovered.”
To discover more of Zhe’s artwork, all one needs to do is walk around town and attend township events. Belleville’s official artist is beautifying the town one blank wall at a time.
Photos Courtesy of Athena Zhe