A Conversation Over Cotton Candy: A Chat with Tara McPherson

Vibrant colors, crisp line work and dark images catch the eye immediately. In fact, that was what attracted me to Tara McPherson’s art for the first time during (none other than) San Diego Comic Con many years ago. Since then I have seen her work in various publications and on gallery websites. Last year, however, I had the immense pleasure of working with this extraordinary artist, reinterpreting her visions in fabric. I was also thrilled to make it out to her 2010 solo show in Chelsea, NY, where we properly met in person and I finally got to see her original art. Her work is beyond impressive, every line has a distinct purpose, and vivid colors leap across the canvas, bringing the stylized characters to life before your very eyes; proving that McPherson is indeed a master of the “sweet and creepy.”

After her exhibit (and a well deserved vacation) I was able to sit down with Tara to discuss process, inspiration and cotton candy.

Lana Crooks: How do you describe your work to someone that has never seen it?

Tara McPherson: Well, I’d like to view it as art that kind of has a play between rendered and flat, sweet and creepy, illustrative and figurative. That can be fun and dark at the same time. It’s always a hard thing to do for anyone that hasn’t seen the work. The easiest way is to pull out my card and show them.

What artists do you admire / draw inspiration from?

Renaissance painters and I really love Viennese impressionists Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. The Flemish painters of the High Renaissance, because their work is rendered so well and there is great attention to detail. I like Japanese print makers; Hokusai, and also Yoshitoshi does some really dark stuff. Then a lot of my contemporaries that are working now, that I show with or work with a lot. Artists that show at my gallery, Jeff Soto, Mark Ryden, Camille Garcia Rose, Liz McGrath… I could go on and on and on.

How do you start a new piece and when do you feel you have a finished piece? Please describe a little about your creative process and how you keep from overworking a piece.

Well, deadlines are how you don’t overwork something! “I have two days to do this…” To make something awesome happen in two days. Working within the limitations of a deadline is a really great way to work and function. You can easily overwork a piece so it is nice to have a limited amount of time to see what you can pull off and what you can do. If you only have two days to do something, you don’t start something that is four feet wide…you have to be realistic.

I usually start a piece by doing some writing and little roughs. Writing and brainstorming to get my ideas out is always my initial approach (no matter what), whether it’s a fine art painting for gallery show, a rock poster or an illustration. The writing helps me solidify the concept and the direction I want to go in. You can make some interesting connections if you’re just brainstorming and throwing words out there…kind of getting a flow of consciousness.

Then I do little roughs, really tiny, because you know if its going to work at a small size then it’ll work, layout wise, with whatever size you blow it up at. It is really hard for me to start initially using a 14 X 17 sheet of paper; it’s too big. So, I do tiny roughs and then develop it from there. I’ll take my rough, scan it in and blow it up to the size I want to make the final drawing at. Then I put it on my light table and loosely trace out my rough on to the drawing paper so I get that gestural quality and freeness that was there in the tiny drawing. I found that when you try to redraw it visually, you lose something in the gracefulness in your line work.

Yeah, it becomes stiff.

It totally does! So then I turn off the light table and continue drawing to work out the drawing. If it’s a painting, I will stop here and transfer it to canvas. But, if it is a drawing for a rock poster I’ll refine it even more because that drawing will have a lot of rough edges and be a little messier; having a lot of erase marks. So then I’ll scan that in again, and retrace a nicer line onto a final piece of paper. Then I make a really tight drawing that will be good for a screen-printing. Process, process….

You seem to wear a lot of different hats—poster illustrator, fine painter, toy designer, etc—how do you maintain focus on each facet if you have multiple projects going at once?

That’s how I work the best, working on multiple things at once (the change and variety of it). For instance, I just finished my big solo show at the The Jonathan Levine Gallery and doing the same thing for six months gets really repetitive for me. So, it’s really nice when I can work on a painting, then I have to make a toy, then I have to do drawing and then I have to do a poster. That is actually how I function best. I like that diversity.

Under pressure.

Yeah, the pressure, the deadlines, the diversity. Because if I don’t have the deadlines and a millions things to do I just won’t do anything.

Yeah, I totally understand that.

Haha, like, I could just go to the beach!

Is there one piece, out of all your work, that was the most fulfilling to create? Why?

Currently, I’d have to say the “Safety of Water” painting that I finished for my last solo show. It is the largest painting I’ve ever done and the most complex because it has four characters all in one painting. I also filmed myself painting it with time lapse. I didn’t capture everything but I at least captured a quarter of the painting process on it and did it consistently enough to where the whole filming of it works without any huge gaps. To really document myself doing that and being able to watch that again and see it all go through in like five minutes. Three months worth of work in five minutes is pretty awesome. I’m really proud of that painting.

What inspired you to have Soft Sculptures in your last exhibit “The Bunny in The Moon”?

Well, for my solo show a few years ago I had done some life size sculptures of some of my characters. That was a really interesting thing to jump into. Since everyone has been asking me “are you going to do more sculptures”? This time I wanted to do something different and also something a little more accessible and a little more realistic. I do have a lot of fans that are toy collectors and they are interested in these very limited edition things. I felt like going plush, and having soft sculpture would be a really great way to merge those worlds and make that happen.









What place do you believe plush and toys have in the art world currently?

Good question! I do believe they have a place. These lines and boundaries between (with my field of art, too) commercial and fine art are really getting blurred and are very interchangeable in a lovely way. Like, MOMA has the Dunny in its permanent collection. That line has been crossed! So, it has a huge place. The fact that toys and plush are being incorporated into fine art culture, I love that entire cross over. I think it is fantastic.

When you are not creating what do you like to do?

Oh, hang out with my friends and drink nice wine. I DJ sometimes; that is fun. There’s a club in Rio that has a rock night so I spin at that whenever I’m down there. I also play bass. I’m not currently in a band, but this summer I’m going to be looking to start something new and play with friends. Other than that, you know, going to see bands play, going to see gallery shows and museums.

Any new projects coming up?

The biggest project for my art stuff: I’m working on my third book right now with Dark Horse. That is going to be released in March 2012.

Then my next show is going to be at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Feb 2012. So I’ll be starting work on that this summer.

And then, most immediately, the new t-shirt line and the boutique called The Cotton Candy Machine. We just released 8 new shirts featuring my artwork and we are doing some fan collaborations (which are really cool and really special). I’m really glad we are doing that. Also, one of my posters that have long been sold out is getting turned into a t-shirt.

We are opening the actual space, we are calling it an art boutique because we are going to have various events. We are going to have art shows, book signings and events for artists that we love. In the future, we will be doing collaborations with other artists to create new product as well. So, the store opens in April and we have our very first event called “Tiny Trifecta” with 100 different artists. The opening is April 9th, 7 PM to midnight.

We’ll be having monthly events. Our second event is going to be on May 5th with Alex Pardee and Zerofriends. The third event is going to be a big rock poster show on the first Friday in June.

We will be having someone else running the store, too, so Sean (my boyfriend) and I can have a day off or we can go on business trips and such. We like to have pop-up events for the shop while we travel. I also have my assistant and hopefully we’ll get some awesome interns. I’m going to try to recruit some of my students. I teach one class at Parsons on Thursdays. It is just one term a year. I just teach in the spring, so it doesn’t interfere with my schedule too much and it is really fun. I love doing it. The class is called “The Dark Side” and it is an elective for junior and seniors.

What do the students study during your class?

Our first assignment is a monsters and demons project…so, pretty fun stuff. I get into marginalized artwork and just darker, more subversive content. Showing how personal art can exist in a commercial world and vice versa. Basically showing them what I do and how to merchandize their stuff and have it be darker and personal. To show that it is valid and there is a place for it in the art world.

I watched an interview about how you got started: how you went to art school but before that, you were studying astrophysics?

Yes, I was! I love…love science. I was a total tomboy and would ask for things like a microscope kit. That was my awesome Christmas present that I asked for and wanted. I love that stuff and I was always really interested in art as well. I left high school early, in the beginning of the 11th grade, because I was bored but I wanted to learn, so the only way I could go to college was by going to community college. So I did and I signed up for this astronomy class and I just fell in love with it. I was vice president of the astronomy club. One of the first shirts I ever made was the astronomy club shirt—I did the logo for it. I loved it, so for a year and a half that was my major. I made my major astrophysics and I was just taking all the class for that along with all the required classes. And then I really started thinking “am I really going to be happy doing this forever?”…because I really love art too. And then it was just that decision of can I really make it as an artist? Can I make a living doing it? Can I be real serious about doing it? I just wanted to so bad and really had the desire and the drive. As I started taking more art classes I really fell in love with it. Then I decided “I want to learn how to paint”…that was my specific goal. Then I worked on a portfolio for two years and applied to Art Center and got accepted and started there.

Have you been able to merge those two aspects of your life together?

Oh yeah, for sure. A lot of my themes are kind of centered on space and exist in weird different galaxies with weird space characters. I also incorporated theories in some of my artwork. I have this one painting that I did for my 2009 solo show at Levine, there is thing that Einstein theorized called gravitational lensing…and it was proved to exist and be real later on. It is when, because of a black hole or something really massive, light actually physically bends around it. When perfectly aligned, you will see a bright star or galaxy behind the black hole, directly in front of it, and you’ll see four other duplicate versions of it directly above, below, and to the left and right. It’s also called the Einstein cross. To think about that impossibility being possible, I have this painting of a girl where you see her original and then you have 4 other versions of her in one line.

Thinking about that existence, that multiple existence, being able to occupy these different spaces. The impossibility of it, but it is possible, and we are shown that through the gravitational lensing. No one would ever look at that painting and really guess that. Well, I guess you could but it’s based off of Einstein’s theory, how I came to that multiple views of her in the painting. It definitely addresses time and space. The piece is called “The Fractioned Second.”

I bid Tara farewell shortly afterwards, as she was off to Brazil the following morning to promote The Cotton Candy Machine with a few pop-up events and was also preparing to move into her new studio and the new retail space.

The permanent location for the new Cotton Candy Machine art boutique is at 235 South 1st Street, Brooklyn, NY. If you are in the area be sure to pop in or visit online at www.thecottoncandymachine.com!

The spaces opening gala and exhibit, “Tiny Trifecta,” promises to be an amazing event with 100 artists creating tiny art pieces for $100 (I am honored to also be participating along side 99 amazing artists). April 9th, 7 PM to midnight.

And, if you frequent San Diego, Tara will again have a booth at Comic Con. Stop in and say hello! To keep up with her plethora of projects, releases and all around awesomeness visit: www.taramcpherson.com.

Lana Crooks loves the antique, the creepy, the cute and the mysterious. She began her artistic life as an illustrator but became a sculptor of fabrics and found objects. She constructs all kinds of creatures (commonly those from the deepest oceans but even the ones from under your bed). These cuddly monstrosities have been spied at places such as: Munky King, Rivet, Rotofugi, G1988 and Art Basel. Lana has frequently been spotted teaming up with other artists to help create the monsters within their heads. She has also partnered with the OhNo!Doom collective and operates a gallery in Chicago, IL. But, on an average day, you can find her at the studio surrounded by model ships, books, skulls, faux fur, glass eyes, a menagerie of stuffed friends and a cat named Tanuki.


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