Zach Heffelfinger ’14 brings ‘Sensical Nonsense” to a solo exhibition at PCA&D

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Wednesday, March 2nd, 2022

When Zach Heffelfinger left PCA&D in 2014 with his BFA in Illustration, he says, he wasn’t quite sure what the next steps would be. A couple of months of R&R were followed by landscaping and home renovation jobs, then with a substitute teaching position. 

Then a trip to Florida “put my life on a new course of direction,” he says, “and I’ve never looked back since!”

That path has led the Los Angeles-based Heffelfinger to Nickelodeon Animation Studios, first as a freelance character designer and storyboard artist, and now as an official part of the Nickelodeon team. And it’s also led him back to his alma mater where his solo exhibition, Sensical Nonsense, opens March 4 through April 3 in The Gallery at PCA&D. 

In honor of his show we asked Heffelfinger about the challenges, rewards, and influences in his career — and a little bit about what Sensical Nonsense means to him: 

What was a recent challenge you faced in a project or assignment? How did you work through it? 

Zach Heffelfinger: That’s a tough question to answer because there are many challenges that come with this career. However, one of the biggest challenges I try to overcome daily is finding the proper work/life balance, and how to juggle staying a kid at heart for work while dealing with real adult responsibilities in life. Thankfully I have a great partner who supports me and helps tackle those challenges. No matter who you have supporting you, always remember it starts with you. You have to make a conscious effort every day to wake up and work through whatever it is you’re going through, and having someone to help balance you out is an added bonus. 

As far as assignments or projects are concerned, I would say the biggest challenge would be getting in my own way or self-doubt while working. It’s very easy to get in your head or think you aren’t good enough, but the hard part is stepping back from what you’re working on and not getting consumed by the fear of drowning in failure or rejection. That’s when you take a beat, care for your mental health, and tell yourself positive reinforcement to approach the challenging project with a new perspective. Always remember: Though this craft is by the hand, it is a game of the mind. 

For you, what’s the most fun part of what you do? 

ZH: The most fun part about my job is getting to go into Nickelodeon every day and have the opportunities to give back to my community. It allows me to help open doors and work with the outreach program where I meet people of all ages in need all around the world. Working with the children’s hospitals and schools is an extremely humbling experience. Also, an added bonus of my job is seeing the look on people’s faces light up when they hear what I do for a living. 

“My career started the day I decided to pursue my dream, not when someone or payment validated my career.”


When you were still in art school, who or what were your favorite influences? 

ZH: Professionally speaking I would say Dr. Seuss, Takashi Murakami, George Condo, Tim Burton, ’90s cartoons, Chuck Jones, and Tex Avery, to name a few. On a more personal level, all of my roommates and friends that I met while attending PCA&D helped shape me into the man I am today. And I am proud to say we are still family to this day and some are even colleagues. And to those individuals, I would like to say thank you for everything you have done for me up to this point and will do going forward. I wouldn’t be where I am without your support and I look forward to many more memories and our future together.


Sensical Nonsense branding for show of Zach Heffelfinger '14, Illustration

Sensical Nonsense

How did you develop the exhibition title “Sensical Nonsense”? What does it mean to you? What went into choosing the works that will be part of this exhibition? 

ZH: As I have developed my style throughout the years, I never knew how to describe my work. All I knew was that my art was a bunch of cartoony nonsense that made sense to me. There’s a lot of thought that goes into every piece I make. It’s not just random things slapped together to make a “goofy” image. Every factor is thought out and connected to make a funny picture. If just one piece of the puzzle was changed or altered then it would no longer be as funny or the punchline hit as hard. It makes for better writing and visual eye candy when you take the time to connect the road map no matter how off the rails you go. Complete randomness or too much randomness is not funny, but starting from a place of randomness and tying it all together makes for a better piece. 

The work you will see in this show is a mixture of my own creativity with my professional work. I really wanted to showcase what exactly it is I do for living, how it translates on screen, and then how the lessons I learned along the way influenced my own personal voice. Some pieces are simple while others have deeper meaning behind the humor or aesthetic. This show is a visual representation of my brain and how it works up to this point in my career. 


What’s one thing you wished you’d known 10 years ago that would have made your path to today easier? 

ZH: One thing I wish I would’ve known was that my career started the day I decided to pursue my dream, not when someone or payment validated my career. Also, I wish I would’ve known that everything I feared I wouldn’t accomplish or achieve was sitting right in front of me waiting for me to reach out and grab it as soon as I was ready for it. If I would have known these two things, it would have helped me to relax, mature, and grow not only as an artist but as a human being. I would have taken the time to prepare for it more and focus on what’s really important in life. 

Besides art, what are some of your other passions — like, when you have free time, what do you choose to do? 

ZH: I love to play and watch sports, ice hockey especially. I love to turn my brain off by watching television and movies. I also collect toys and sneakers, discover new music, and play Pokémon Go and other various games. However, the things I enjoy the most during my free time are spending it with my loving and supportive fiancée by trying new things, going on adventures, and exploring our beautiful home state of California together. 

Read more about Heffelfinger in this LNP/LancasterOnline interview