Tara Tucker

Artist, Berkeley // August 2012
A general obsessiveness for all things ‘natural history’ pretty much explains why I want to work the way I do.

I’m a sucker for animals, and I’ve always been particularly drawn to any kind of work (film, visual art, literature) that addresses both their physicality and the mysteries of their inner workings. Tara’s drawings do just that. Her West Berkeley studio is small but well organized, and full of reference material; she’s got quite the collection of illustrative books on flora and fauna and a binder packed with images she’s pulled off the Internet. She flipped through the binder with us, talked about how her ideas get sparked, and told us about her long-standing love affair with the natural world.

Tara uses the images and information she gathers as a guide to her work, so she can get details like the whiskers on a dog or the petals of an orchid just right. But its not just physical accuracy she’s after, her research imparts a nuanced understanding of animal behavior and body language: the curled upper lip of a pony and the heavy brow of a bear are rife with meaning. Tara informed us that when beginning a drawing she always starts with the face, and most importantly the eyes. This part of her process is central, because in the eyes is where animals most personify humanity.

Though Tara told us her work wouldn’t cut it in the world of scientific illustration, it is technically impressive. But what’s most appealing about her drawings is how delicately she’s managed to render emotional and psychological states and the complexity of relationships; there is such a range of feeling in the gestures of her animals, but it never seems over-the-top. Artwork with animals can sometimes run the risk of coming across as too sentimental, cartoonish, or shallow, but there’s a level of care to Tara’s work that mostly steers it clear of those qualities. This is partly due to Tara’s personal connection and love of her subject matter; growing up she had a pack of racing dogs and also spent a lot of time at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History tending to taxidermy bones. She said that since she’s been a kid she’s only ever drawn animals, and in a way I think Tara has kept a childlike sensibility to her work— the way in which she brings different species together, mixing both animals and plants, is highly imagined and playful, but still imbued with a loving sensitivity.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I mostly draw with graphite (pencil) on paper, but I did start painting last year using acrylic paint on linen. Some of these paintings I have stuffed and sewn into sculptural forms. I love sculpture and miss working with my hands in that way. When I was in school I worked a lot with microcrystalline wax and cast some of the pieces into bronze when I could afford it. I’m thinking about getting back into that, only with a less pricey medium. Because I work with fairly fragile materials, I long to produce something that I can put outside into the elements.

Animals are prevalent in your work, how do you go about choosing which animals to represent?
I think of myself as a portrait artist most of the time. Animals, for me are representations of myself, relatives, or friends. I don’t like to draw humans at all, so I use animal and plant forms to represent the “essence” of a person. I’m not saying that: “John over there is just like a parrot or a rooster.” I just think about which animals have the gesture and emotional body language that I’m looking for at the time. I also like to add into the composition plants and other animals that bring some kind of interesting visual dialogue or personal story that has meaning for me.

There is this one drawing that I did last summer called “Tongue and Groove”, it’s of two Malayan sun bears wrestling with one another. I made their already very long tongues even longer and entwined. My friend saw it and told me that it looked like one of her recent date nights! Awesome! That’s another reason why I love using animals for subject matter; the viewer feels free to read into the piece whatever they want. I can keep my own ideas of what may be going on and everyone is still happy.

You often bring animals together in an unexpected way, sometimes mixing both wild and domesticated species together, or certain plants with particular animals– what is the significance in these pairings?
First of all, I’m a strong believer in not having any rules in art. So, in my fantasy world where there aren’t any humans left on earth and animals have filled in that space, domestic animals have gained some new and fascinating symbiotic relationships with one another. I also love the subliminal idea of domestic animals meeting up with their much more wild and unpredictable buddies. I do admit to doing a little bit of research on my animals and plants so that they jive with one another…. But, no rules.

I did represent my mother and myself into one spider monkey. She’s holding the arm and hand of another older, screaming spider monkey (my grandma). It’s kind of a disturbing piece actually. My grandmother was sick with dementia at the time I drew this piece. I used an orchid that her husband, my grandfather, had genetically crossbred using two parent plants from South America where the spider monkeys are from. It’s beautiful like she was, and he officially named the orchid after her. I intended the plant to be a kind of dying and broken corsage on the animal’s wrist. There’s another of the same orchid on the younger monkey’s wrist that is in better shape, but for me, the roots are grasping its wrist in a painful way. It was a difficult part of my life, but I could see that my mom, grandmother and I were all going to go through the process of death together.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all? Is there a personal history between you and the animal kingdom that’s relevant to the work you make now?
Oh yes. The animals I use for myself are often really quirky and not usually very beautiful in an obvious way. I tend to see myself like that. I’m an only child and was raised by my mom who was single for most of my childhood. When I was eleven we got our first dog, a Whippet (looks like a small Greyhound). We ended up joining an amateur racing club and got a few more dogs. Those dogs were a huge part of my life and I could read their body language pretty well. It’s like they were speaking to me and I could see what they needed or were about to do.

Also, my mom volunteered at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and took me all of the time to the lab where she learned how to do taxidermy on birds. I got to number bones and catalogue them. There was a Chanel Islands fox in the lab that used to steal the “projects” from the taxidermists if it could. I thought that was so funny. I was able to see things in that lab that still influence me. Like the two black bears that were shot by rangers after they decided to repeatedly come into town. They were skinned and hung on hooks to drain in the larger lab. I thought they looked like two big men hanging there. It was really awful, but mesmerizing for me as a child to see that.

My childhood really plays a lot into what I use for ideas in my work now. My grandparents were huge orchid enthusiasts and my stepfamily owns an orchid nursery in Santa Barbara. So, I have always had a fondness for unusual plants. The dog racing and the taxidermy days with my mom and a general obsessiveness for all things ‘natural history’ pretty much explain why I want to work the way I do.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I work three days a week at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. It’s the best job in the world for me. I’m surrounded by artists all day. Creative Growth is a giant art center for adults with disabilities. It’s possibly the most famous one of its kind in the world and I’m so proud to be a part of it.

My job there is to run the rug-making department. We make beautiful one of a kind rugs out of designs from within the art studio. Textiles were never my thing, but now that I’ve been at CG for about 12 years, I have learned a lot and have embraced textiles. It’s even been working its way into my own artwork. I made my own traditional style hooked rug out of recycled wool clothing. It is around 5 x 10′ and now resides in the American Embassy in Madagascar. I was really bummed that I couldn’t fly over there to help install it! That’s one place I’d love to visit.

Have you had to make sacrifices in order to live your life as an artist? Do you encounter misconceptions about that life or choice?
Mr. Audie Love, my high school art teacher said it best: “When you are an artist, you are always in a recession.” Truer words there never will be for me. I don’t make tons of money being an artist but I am super happy.

I have never had much money. If I’m making sacrifices, I’m not feeling it. I’m a very happy person. My family is the most important thing, then art, then my job.

The only thing that kind of pains me is, that I’ve noticed some friends and family seem to peg me as lazy. Over the years, people have told me that I have a nice hobby with art, or that I’m just not quite doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Mostly they act as if I were wasting my time. I’ve never felt that way about myself, but I’ve been told to take a different path in life a few times by people I hold near and dear. So, I’ve always mentally flipped them the bird and gone my own way. These days I think most of them seem to approve of my life choices. But, I don’t live my life so that I can have people approve of me.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
The studio I have right now is new for me and really small, yet cozy. Most of the doodads in it are old. Like my 1986 electric drafting table and my collection of animal books that I’ve had since I was a kid. A couple of months ago I was in West Oakland sharing an amazing space with two others, but I felt that I needed to be closer to home in Berkeley and wanted to have my privacy. There is something to be said for just knowing that I won’t need to pick up after myself or that I can listen to all of my bad vampire, werewolf, sexy mystery thrillers on CDs. I love that stuff, but it could be off putting. There is a little corner desk for my husband David. But, since we’ve been together for so long, I feel like he’s part me anyway. He knows about my CDs.

When I get down to the process of working, I need to think hard about what I’m going to do for each mark on the paper. There isn’t really any going back once I draw in the eyes. They are so dark and embossed into the paper that I need to have a lot of concentration, or else I can screw it up. Also, I study the pattern of an animal’s hair by using my old animal books and photos that I print off the Internet. Each hair has a direction and can evoke a movement or emotion that makes or breaks a piece. So during this time I listen to music or just sit in silence. The new space is great for that.

Have you recently encountered an artist or artwork that you felt strongly about?
Yes! My friend Sara at work just emailed me a link to an amazing South African photographer by the name of Daniel Naude. He just blows my mind. He has photographed landscape and portraits of animals in his native South Africa. They are incredibly emotional photos, without being sappy or overdone. They are breathtaking. I actually wrote him a fan letter.

Also, I had a wonderful stay at the J.B. Blunk Residency in Inverness, CA. I had never encountered Blunk’s work before the residency. He isn’t alive anymore, but his art is. I stayed by myself for two months in the house he built by hand, surrounded by his art. I used his studio too. While I was there, I know that he was watching me as I soaked it all in. A light downstairs in the kitchen would turn on by itself in the middle of the night and I could always feel something hanging out with me. It started freaking me out at night, so I tended to ask him to go away and let me get some sleep…. Perhaps I’m just silly, but I tend to believe that he is still in that house.

J.B. Blunk was a wood sculptor mostly, but worked in ceramics and painted as well. At first his aesthetic was so overwhelmingly beautiful that I wanted to try making something similar, but I used the inspiration to create something of my own. The work I did make was all about my experience there. And I still feel that living around JB’s work has changed me for the better.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Before I went to the Blunk residency I had sketched lightly on a large piece of paper an idea about two miniature horses with dwarfism. The guy horse is kind of being a prick and the girl horse looks a bit offended. They are prancing together with long flowing manes and the female horse is going to have an entire orchid plant growing all over her body. I had completed a drawing of another mini horse for a show last winter and wanted to do one more. It’s a large drawing for me. Maybe 3 x 5? It’s graphite on paper. I love that this piece is just totally nuts. What the heck is it about?!: Love, wacky encumbered, bizarre mini horsey love? I don’t know…? I’ll figure it out while I’m making it.

I want to explore some more painting. Maybe on wood panel. I tend to paint like I draw on paper, so I’ve called my previous paintings: drawings in paint. Paint also makes me want to use color, so I’m going to explore that a bit more.

How do you navigate the art world?
Truthfully, I wish I were much better at doing the things that people say one should do to succeed in the art world. I want to spend all of my time making art, not applying for things or showing up to receptions, or arty scenes. But, I try to make myself go sometimes, and I always keep up with my correspondence. People are so nice out there in the world. I love to get an occasional email from a person that saw my art somewhere and thought to send me a kind word.

My two galleries do an amazing job at representing my artwork for me and I trust them so much to let me know about events or shows that I should apply for, but it does take a lot of my personal time to look for myself and think about how I can expand on my art career. My job at Creative Growth Art Center has been my biggest asset to my art career. It’s like a magnet for creative people. So, through working there, I’ve met some exciting people and friends. It has become a kind of social network for me. I’m beginning to think that Creative Growth is my own personal art world, and through being there, I’ve learned how to speak about art (mine and others), I met my gallery people there, and have a constant think-tank to draw on for what is important out there in the art world.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events?
I just had two solo shows at both of the galleries that represent me this last winter, plus a two month long residency at the J.B. Blunk residency program. So, I’m just working in my studio a lot right now trying to get some new ideas going and participating in group shows here and there. Sometimes, I just need a little time to regroup.

To see more of Tara’s work: