South Bay Painter Zen Del Rio Sketches an Enduring Career Rooted in Ease, Truthfulness and Grace

Finding Zen. 

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Jared Sayers
  • Photographed by
    Jeff Berting

Zen Del Rio drew on his notebook in school growing up. His teachers told him to pay attention. His mom said, “Keep drawing.” At age 13 he started surfing. Many said it was for bums and dropouts. His mom said, “Keep surfing.”

More than 60 years later, Zen is an artist whose work is predominantly influenced by life in and around the ocean. He has created a body of work that has made a unique imprint on our communal identity and one that lives alongside names like Rick Griffin, John Van Hamersveld and the McCaw family: Dan, John and Danny. How did he do it?

Mom.

His mother, Gemma Taccogna, was a world-renowned artist who was born in Italy and moved to America as an infant. She became famous for her papier-mâché pieces that hearkened back to a stint when she lived in Mexico City from 1954 through the 1960s.

Today Gemma’s work is highly sought after, and much of her tile work is considered a prized possession in many original Palos Verdes homes. A young, spry Zen, always at his mother’s side, would take a front-row seat to her artistic expression, sponging up her technique and approach during some very impressionable years. He was deeply curious, enmeshed in the process … and before long it was something he took to himself.

Then he turned 7. What was I doing when I was 7, you ask? Oh, I was probably drinking from the hose and learning not to stick my finger in my nose. What was Zen doing? He was painting. Under a master artist: his mother.

Then one day something clicked. After completing a piece in his mother’s studio, the impressionable Zen stood back and gazed at his work. With a pause and slight tilt of the head, he began to feel something come to the surface. Something deep. The light had come on, illuminating what had been there the whole time, only this time it had something to say.

As he continued to gaze and make a few final brush strokes, it had become clear. This was it. Whatever this was, he wasn’t entirely sure, but he knew this was going to be his life’s work. He was an artist. Young and with plenty of work and improvement ahead of him, he knew this is what he would dedicate his life to. And 57 years later, it is still what he does to this day.

So where exactly does the ocean come in? When talking to Zen and looking through his body of work, you can tell his art and his love for the ocean are inextricable. In his words, “The ocean washes away the noise and unnecessary clinging we do every day. When making art, you cannot lead with things like ego, fear or judgment. It is necessary to shed the baggage we oftentimes carry around and don’t even know it. Once shed, space is allowed. Space for things like gratitude. Things like truth.”

When done well, according to Zen, this is also the place where inspiration flows. The ocean refreshes, cleans the slate and puts everything in its appropriate order.

As a late teen, Zen began to feel a pull. A pull into a new frontier. Into expansion. And a pull to go see the ocean in other parts of the world. So one summer he proposed to his mom that he go live in Mexico for a few months to surf and follow the scent of salty travel. He was looking for more, and his mom knew it.

“The ocean washes away the noise and unnecessary clinging we do every day. When making art, you cannot lead with things like ego, fear or judgment. It is necessary to shed the baggage we oftentimes carry around and don’t even know it. Once shed, space is allowed. Space for things like gratitude. Things like truth.”

Instead of suggesting he work the family business all season or enroll in summer courses, his mom emphatically urged him to go see the world, surf his guts out and keep doodling on the proverbial school notebook. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, Zen would frequent the beaches of Oaxaca, in mainland Mexico, chasing large swells, pushing that inner desire to expand his capabilities in the ocean but throughout his art as well.

Each morning he and a small group of cosmic crusaders would rise at dawn to the thunderous sound of the ocean off in the distance. First things first, strong coffee. With a board under one arm and coffee in the other, they would walk the road down to town. With every step they could hear the Pacific thunderclap off in the distance getting louder and louder—giving them the eerie sense of what was waiting just around the bend.

Nerves. Few spoken words. Upon arrival, an observance of Mother Ocean in all her splendor. An internal cocktail of emotions welled up.

Even today as Zen recounts to me, I can see his eyes widen and pupils dilate some 40 years later. Awe, wonder and excitement mixed with a very real reckoning of fear and mortality would anoint their adrenals as they moved from land into water. Hours upon hours would pass by as they attempted to move in harmony with something so monstrous, so mysterious and yet with such beauty. The big waves of Puerto Escondido had Zen hooked.

Tired, sore, with a couple nicks and even better stories, the boys would make a triumphant return back to the beach and into town to fill their empty bellies on rice, beans, eggs, tortillas and fresh fruit before heading back home to break out the midday guitars, lay in hammocks and recount the morning’s salty adventures. During this downtime Zen would grab brushes, paints, pens, pencils and begin to create—just as he did at 7, only now with 20 more years under his belt.

But something had changed. Something was different. His stroke had a boldness to it. His approach to the canvas had become different. Risks were being taken. Creativity and inspiration leaped from his mind’s eye onto paper. There was something in the alchemy of the Oaxacan mixture of life at dawn, strong coffee, heavy water, rice, beans and a dash of homemade mezcal where real expansion began to take place. In him. And in his art. He liked it. But his mom … she loved it.

Fast-forward 43 years, and Zen is still making art. Every. Single. Day. He has never stopped. He has never held another profession.

It is the only vocation he has ever known, and his search for mastery continues. He has studied the greats in Michelangelo, Vermeer, a variety of impressionist painters including Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Tamayo, and the ink work of Aubrey Beardsley and Rick Griffin.

His work has been coined “the wonder of life, beauty of the natural environment and eternity of the soul.” Pure, simple and versatile, encompassing a broad range of styles and media from abstract through impressionism to realism.

Currently Zen lives in Manhattan Beach with his son, Roman, and fiancée, Diana. He and Diana met where? Yes, a surf adventure in Sinaloa, Mexico. Diana is also a creative with a long history of art and graphic design. The two surf just about every day while also finding time to volunteer with various surf therapy nonprofits.

It began 57 years ago at age 7, and over a lifetime of work and a life in the ocean, Zen has accomplished something very few artists do: identity. Not simply identity for himself but for the community where he has grown up. His work is the visual aesthetic that undergirds the new veneer of the modern-day South Bay.

The evolution of a community is something to be celebrated by the very fact that it is inevitable. Yet if we just take a second to pause, look around and ask ourselves what we love about this place, it will go far beyond the silly amenity of an electric golf cart ride to the sand. You will find more. You will find better.

And one of those treasures you will stumble upon is the work of Zen Del Rio, which is all around us. You just have to know where to look. Murals, paintings, timeless logos, posters, surfboards—he has given it all to us, and in turn it has become a presiding member of a true communal identity, rooted in a life in the ocean and a mother’s love for her son.

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