Interview in Punk Planet Punk Planet Published on 4/23/2005
Feature interview by Dan Sinker in the Art and Design special issue #67. I also did a new illustration for the cover of this. Read the interview transcript below!
Punk Planet "Tara McPherson" Interview by Daniel Sinker May/ June 2005
Tara McPherson's artwork haunts you like an odd dream you can't shake even hours after you've woken up. Simultaniously beautiful and playful, yet slightly sad and eerie, McPherson's rich lines and muted colors are unforgettable; even if you wanted to forget them. In McPherson's world, heart- shaped holes are cut out of your chest, cartoon skulls grow out of rolling fields and sad-eyed balloons hang dejectedly just out of reach. It's a world that feels both oddly familiar and reassuringly mysterious all at the same time.
McPherson has been exploring her off-kilter images since graduating from art school three years ago. In that short time, she's made a name for hersefl in not just one highly competitive field, but three. A successful fine art painter, rock- poster artist, and comic book cover artist, McPherson is able to switch between these different worlds as smoothly as her lines flow onto a page. Which isn't to say it's been easy for McPherson; it hasn't. Her success is a testament to her no- surrender work ethic and the fact that McPherson doesn't shy away from a challenge. When contacted by an editor for DC Vertigo imprint with the offer of doing comic cover illustrations for titles like the Sandman spinoff Tessaly: Witch For HIre and The Witching (notice a theme?), McPherson didnt worry about the fact that she'd never undertaken a project like that- she jumped in with both feet.
With her artwork catching on and her career taking off, McPherson is setting herself up for a new challenge, embarking on a cross-country move that will transplant her from Portland, Oregon to New York City. It's a move McPherson says she's always dreamed of and if this dream plays out like her artwork, it'll be one she wont forget. Which came first for you, paintings or posters?
Paintings. I've been interested in art my whole life. I went to art magnet school and I decided to go to art school for college. I started painting there. The posters came way later. I didn't even think about doing rock posters until after i graduated. In college, I wanted to be a gallery painter.
So why did you leap into rock posters?
I started doing them for my band. I was an artist and it seemed like it would make sense to make our flyers. The flyers started getting more involved as they went on and people starting noticing them. The first venue I started doing posters for was the Knitting Factory in LA. Because I wanted to be a painter, I was totally in denial about the posters at first. I wasn't embarrassed of them, but they were just something I did on the side. I didn't put them on my website or anything. But I did post them on Gigposters.com and I got a lot of great feedback out of that. It dawned on me that this was a really great thing to be doing and it was OK to do both. I put posters up on my website and pretty much immediately the posters got more hits than my paintings did! Now I love doing both.
How do you balance the two?
I usually just go back and forth. I'm not the type of artist that can work on five things at once- I start a piece and I go until it's done and then I move on to something else. I'll work on a poster and when it's finished, I'll have a painting job I need to do or a gallery show I need to make work for. It's balanced out for me mentally because when I get sick of one thing, I can switch to another. Thats keeps me completely interested. But right now, I'm in between comic book covers, so I've booked a whole bunch of poster jobs. Right now I'm doing poster after poster.
Do you ever start a poster, get halfway through it, and think that it would have made a better painting? Or vice versa?
It's happened a few times where I'll use the original drawing from a painting and make it into a poster. There's a Blonde Redhead poster that was a painting first and there's a PJ Harvey poster i did that was also a painting first. I really liked the images and the painting sold, so I felt like I should use it again so the image could be out there. I've also done posters that I think would make really cool paintings. But at least lately, once I've made an image for a poster, I feel like I should let it live it's own life in the poster and maybe I shouldn't use it in a painting. It's interesting thinking about the audience for your work because you work in three mediums that are very distinct: the gallery world, the poster world and the comic book world.
I've been doing a lot more comics conventions recently, I go to Flatstock, which is a poster convention, and then I go to gallery shows and it's all different, but they're similar in a lot of was too. How did you end up doing comics stuff?
I was interviewed in International Tattoo Art magazine and one of the editors from Vertigo comics read it and e-mailed me. She said "Oh, I hope to find you something really soon." I figured it was going to be six months down the road, but she e-mailed me back a few days later and had something for me! It was perfect because I always wanted to work in comics. I don't go for the superheroes so much and it was a really great transition to move into. It was also great to be sought out. It's funny because the comics work you've done compliments your style so well.
Yeah, it's kinda perfect, huh? [Laughs.] It's a real collaboration working with my writers and my editor.
There is a really consistent base of images and tone to your work, no matter what medium it's in. It's rare that you see a piece that feels like it doesn't fit in with your other work. What is it about this type of imagery that is so appealing to you?
When I was in art school, I saw so many students get into style immediately, but I felt lost because I didn't force a style. I didn't know what to do. I was scattered. But by the time I knew what I wanted to do, I had built up my own visual vocabulary. Now I don't even have to think about it. if I have to illustrate something, it just pops into my head how it should look. Now it just happens naturally; it's second nature.
Your imagery walks a fine line between being cute and creepy. How do you maintain that balance?
I want it to be subtly unnerving. Even if it's cute and innocent and sweet, I want it to be a little unsettling.
I think life is that way. Its a reflection on the complexities of the situations life puts you in.
One thing I think is unique about your poster work specifically - though I think it corresponds to your comics work too- is that your depictions of women are so different than the work of your poster-making peers. Your stuff is a far cry from the big-tittied devil girls of Coop, for instance. Are you making a conscious effort to create a different portrayal of femininity in what is a very masculine scene?
I just did a Blues Explosion poster that had more of a pinup style to it- it's kinda cheesecake- but in my mind, I was thinking that the look she was giving is very strong and confident. I want women and men to identify with the female character, so keeping in mind that I come from sort of a feminist background. I try to convey that with female characters.
There are so few women poster-makers. Do you wonder why?
There really aren't many. Sometimes, like if I'm at Flatstock, I'll think, Whoa, there are only two women in this whole convention, but it's not like I think about it all the time. I don't sit around thinking, "I'm the only female poster artist on the West Coast." Yes, it is a fact, but I try not to break it down like that.
You've chosen to work in both poster and comics worlds, which are both dominated by men.
Even gallery painting is very male-dominated. There are more female painters percentage-wise than compared to poster artists or comic artists, but still.
You're work has such a feminine quality to it that I'm almost surprised that you're held in such high regard in these worlds. You don't try to step up and "out macho" the dudes' stuff. Instead, you've staked out your terrain and let your work speak for itself and you've been very successful at it.
It's crazy. I didn't expect all of this when I decided to become an artist. I feel very fortunate.
How long have you been out of art school?
Three years now. When were you able to rely on your art to make a living?
It took about a year after graduating. I assisted a painter after I graduated, then I had this funny job retouching photos for a headshot company for about five months; I had a really good job with Photoshop. [Laughs.] I hated that job. It was one of those kind of jobs that if you came in three minutes late they gave you the stink eye. I quit out of sheer desperation. I was already starting to get more freelance jobs, and that was the last regular job I had. Did that feel like jumping off the plank into shark infested waters?
It totally did. It was very scary. I'd call up other artist friends of mine who were more successful and ask them, Oh my god, what did I do? It was hard work, but I worked a lot, and it started happening.
At this point, are you working steadily enough that you don't have to worry about where the next job is coming from?
Yeah, I'm booked up for quite a while, but it's always scary. I'm moving to New York in two months and that's scary, but between my regular jobs, freelance stuff and commissions for paintings, I'm actually booked up for six months right now. It's a weird feeling to have all this stuff planned out so far ahead and it's still nerve wracking, 'cause I worry if it'll still be like this next year or five years from now.
Why are you moving to New York? You've already made one move to Portland.
I really wanted to leave LA. I grew up there and I was sick of it. My sister lives in Portland and so I moved here. I've been here for a year now, and it just isn't my type of town. It's a little too slow and the art scene is really tiny. It's a really good music town though, I'll give it that. I've always wanted to live in New York at some point in my life, and it's kind of a perfect time. Work is going good and I'm still young and single. I figure what better time than now to just do it, so I am!
If you had to choose just one of the three worlds you're working in to do forever which would you choose?
Gallery painting, absolutely.
Why is that?
Maybe because it was my original dream going into college, or at least what I discovered once I was there. I really love painting. When I think of art, I think of painting. Part of painting is the drawing part of it and the thinking and writing and the working out of ideas and themes and concepts. I would love to be able to hang out and paint and show in galleries for the rest of my life.
Wanting to do paintings that will show in galleries is pretty much why everyone wants to go to art school, but not everyone three years after graduating is showing in galleries and getting commissions and living off their art. What do you think it is about your work that connected so quickly?
I have no idea! [Laughs.] Thats the part where I feel really lucky. I'm not really catering my work to the public- I'm doing what I want to do, but it just happens that people like what I'm doing. It's a happy accident, I guess. I like to create images that I think are beautiful and that people would like to own. If I were to draw something ugly, I'd wonder why I'd want to look at it more than once! I see some illustrations people have done for posters of weird, old men with growths on them, and it may be a cool image, but I don't want to hang that in my living room.