The Chaotic Optimism of Zoo Cain

Zoo Cain’s self-constructed studio space is comprised of countless found license plates, a chair befitting of a bishop, and other found ephemera he has collected over the past quarter century he has been sober. When he is not making artworks in his basement studio, he devotes his time to reaching out to people struggling with addiction, whether it be AA meetings, jails, mental hospitals, or the countless personal friends who call him for help when they’re in fear of a backslide. Zoo allowed me to spend a day with him in his studio in Westbrook, Maine, listening to Queen’s soundtrack to Highlander, and Bob Dylan. “He really missed the mark when he started his own line of whiskey,” he says of Dylan’s recent venture. He is particularly keen on music history and its sordid affair with substance abuse. “All of them, I don’t care if it was accidental fentanyl overdose like Tom Petty and Prince, or Kurt Cobain with heroine, AA would have saved them all.” 

He still has vivid memories of his introduction to hard substances. “You could say there was a period where I was a wino who didn’t know when to stop, but that wasn’t near the effect of the hard end of the spectrum I saw. I’ll never forget the first time I shot cocaine when I was in the Army in Panama. I had the answer to every question after that,” he remembers. Part of what drives his mission to reach out to those struggling with toxic coping mechanisms is his own experience with it, namely the two decades he spent living a derelict existence with no thought of the next year, or the next day. Part of Zoo’s positive influence with the addicted is his own experience with that struggle, but more so, it’s his relentless joie de vivre in spite of that past. “You’ve got a good energy; onward and upward,” he tells me as I pack up to join him on his daily hike to a nearby frozen-over lake. His benevolence seems to come from seeing the good in everyone, but also in his constant focus on the favorable of even the most dismal situations. He can easily be spotted outside of his outreach work, with his Big Lebowski-esque facade, his constantly-attached headlamp, driving his truck with the custom swirled paint job.

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