Interview in GothamistGothamist
Published on 9/29/2005
Interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel. You can check out the article here
or read the transcript below! Tara McPherson, Illustrator and Painter
By Rachel Kramer Bussel
Tara McPherson’s art is striking and memorable, often filled with Gothic images mixed with childlike whimsy, animals and people grappling with emotional drama, smoking, crying, playing, sometimes with heart-shaped holes cut out of them. You may have seen her rock posters for bands such as Beck, Sleater-Kinney, The Shins, Green Day, Duran Duran and Modest Mouse or her album covers, or numerous comic book covers such as The Witching, The Sandman Presents: Thessaly and Lucifer #45. Her clients have included everyone from Fanta to Punk Planet to New York is Book Country and her work appears in several books, including The Art of Modern Rock and SWAG and has been seen on the sets of TV shows such as Sleepover, Veronica Mars and Point Pleasant. Coming this fall is a Lonely Heart Stationery Set from Dark Horse Comics, featuring four sheets of artwork which deconstruct the theme of a broken heart, literally tearing it up and rearranging it, adding vitality and nuance to this familiar situation. Her striking imagery is immediately recognizable, which is her goal. “I think the worst compliment someone can say is that my art looks just like someone else’s,” the 29-year-old painter, illustrator, businesswoman and bass player proclaims on her website. Gothamist spoke with the newly minted New Yorker, who moved here five months ago from Los Angeles, about limited editions, fans, being “sweetly creepy,” and artistic integrity, as she prepares to introduce her very first toy, a Circus Punk, to the world at the Toy Tokyo showroom on September 30th. How did you get started? What’s the first thing you remember drawing?
I’ve always been interested in art, for my entire life, so I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested or a specific time where I got interested in art. I’ve always done it. There’s no other artists in my family; I was the only one. On the west coast, they have these art magnet schools that I attended from elementary school on. When I started community college, I got really enthralled with astrophysics. I was taking all these astronomy classes and was so fascinated with it and thought it would be cool to be an astrophysicist.
It went against everything I’d been doing my entire life. I was pursuing that for a while and then had a realization that I didn’t think I’d be happy sitting in an observatory logging data in the middle of the night. Now, I do artwork by myself in the middle of the night. (laughs) At that point, I decided to transfer to an art school and really learn how to paint because I knew I wanted to be an illustrator. I know you often work 12 or 15 hours days. What’s a typical day for you like?
I work really late. I’m always doing something different day to day, so that keeps me entertained. Because I run my own business too, my responsibilities and my job duties entail everything from emailing to phone calls to the business side of being an artist that a lot of people don’t realize. It’s the boring part but the part that has to get done also. It’s always different—there are new jobs, new formats, and new challenges constantly. How many projects do you work on in a given week?
It completely depends. Paintings take me longer to do. If I’m doing a poster or a drawing for an art print, that’ll go fast. Sometimes I can get a job done in half a day, sometimes it’ll take me a month. It just completely varies. I’m starting this book for DC Comics next month, which is going to take me a year to do because I’m going to be painting an entire comc book myself. So that’ll be the same thing for a year, working on the panels, each page is gonna be really different, so it’s still really entertaining to me. Is there a difference in your creative process when you’re working on a comic book cover or something else where there’s a character you’re drawing that someone else came up with, versus your own original ideas?
I don’t think so. I pretty much treat everything with the same importance and respect whether it be my own or a client’s. Even for a client, it’s still my art, it’s still representing me, so no, I don’t change the way I work. I would say that’s my approach, and my interest and passion are involved in it. It’s all fun for me. You’re about to debut your Lonely Hearts stationery line and what’s interesting to me is that you take a general theme, brokenheartedness, and take it to a new extreme, but it’s still relatable. How did that come about and can you elaborate on your inspiration for the line?
Working with that theme, I try to make it not just this lonely person. Normally the person or animal I’m depicting fits into that lonely hearts scenario. With the stationery set, she’s a really strong character. You can tell she’s a really dynamic personality; she’s not depressed or anything. I usually try to make some kind of an empowered character. With the stationery set in particular that I designed, I thought of the name and I’ve been working with the lonely heart theme for a while. I laid out everything myself, I went back and forth with the main front page with one of the art directors, but pretty much it’s all me laying it out, and because my artwork thus far is really thematic. I was able to pick from different posters and paintings I’d done to make up all the sheets. There’s four different sheets inside of it.
What other kinds of merchandise do you have coming up?
I’m most excited about the toys I have coming out, which is a new area I’ve been wanting to get into. It’s tied into the art opening that’s on Friday. This is the release of my first toy; it’s called Circus Punks Rule New York, at Toy Tokyo. I’ve hand painted this toy but have a production run being released at the opening, from 7 to 10 this Friday.
I also have a Dunny coming out and this other toy that’s called the Qee and then this other toy called the Squert, and all these are coming out at the beginning of new year and that's new territory for me. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s gonna start me on a new path with my art, which I’m really excited about and I’m in talks with a toy company to make my own characters, like action figures. The other toys have been presculpted and I’m doing the design on this one character that’s already made.
This comic book that I’m painting myself is pretty much a longtime dream of mine, written by Steven T. Seagle, an Eisner Award winning writer, painted by me, to be published by DC Vertico Comics and we’ll be working on that over the next year. What exactly are Circus Punks?
They’re based on the old circus game where you’d throw a ball at these toys that were furry- they look like bowling pins. They're a plush toy with a wooden base at the bottom and these gentleman had collected them and always liked them and decided to start their own company where they’d get different artists to design each one. They release limited editions and they’re all signed and numbered, so they’ve done tons of different artists so they asked me to do one and then what this opening is, they sent out 100 blank ones to different artists. So the opening is 100 different artists handpainting on the blank toys. These are one of a kind paintings, but the regular toys that they do, the production run, they’ve been doing for years and years and mine is going be released at the event, so the first time anyone can buy it is at the opening. It’s an opening exclusive. And that’s an edition of 100, all signed and numbered. Anything that’s screen printed is limited edition.
Does it feel more special to do limited editions?
I’m used to paintings where there’s only one of each, so when I got into doing art prints and silk screened posters I thought it was really cool cause now I can offer something to people that’s nowhere near as expensive as a painting and the average person can afford it and it’s just as cool as a painting or maybe it’s a print of that specific painting. It makes me feel happier about it because it’s affordable to a wider audience and it’s not elitist. Sometimes I can’t even afford my own paintings, so I like to be able to do that, to make something for everyone. I have stuff that’s $1, I sell pins for $1, ranging up to paintings that are thousands of dollars.
But as far collectibility goes, if it’s a limited edition, it validates the artwork. If it’s a screen print and it’s something that you can make multiple copies if, if it’s not limited edition, people get the idea that they’re just gonna keep printing them and it lessens the value of it. If people know there’s only 100 of these made and they’re signed by the artist, it makes it more of an actual piece of art rather than just a print. Is there a typical fan of your work?
Because I do a lot of conventions where I get to actually meet some of my fans, I’ve come to realize that there is no specific type of person who likes my work. Like I’ll get kids to housewives to older men, there isn’t a type of person, which I found really crazy because I thought people who collected my art would be kind of like me, but it’s totally not. It’s normal people, people into punk rock, people into country music, the average Joe walking down the street, to people who are very very into art, and other artists and other musicians. The scope is so wide, which I think is great. You do a lot of concert posters. Who commissions you to do those?
It’s usually through the venue or it can be through the band, through another artist, or through the booking agent that wants a tour poster. Are concert posters bigger on the west coast than in New York?
Because I’m from LA and that’s where I started doing posters, that’s why most of my posters are for LA shows, even now that I don’t live in LA. I still work for Golden Voice and that’s who I do my posters for and they book for most venues in LA. There are many more poster artists living in LA. I only know a couple out here and they’re not even people who are only doing posters. They do it kind of on the side. I don’t know why. Do you have a favorite out of the posters you’ve done so far?
I don’t think so. It makes it way more fun when it’s a band that I really love, always, but I don’t have a favorite. I prefer working on bands that I like or that I respect.
What’s the process of working on the posters like?
I do some writing beforehand. I think about what their music’s about, what do they stand for, what connotations come to mind with their music and how I interpret it, like specific songs or a line in a song if that conjures up a really cool image. That’s why it helps me to write first before I start sketching, because I brainstorm. I’ll do word association and get ideas, and get a strong concept from that and then I’ll do sketches, and by then I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with that. And with band posters, I can pretty much do what I want. I have a lot of free range to create an image that I think is appropriate for the band. That’s always nice to know that I have that freedom. Those are the conditions I work best under. Do you ever get feedback from the bands themselves?
I think they like them. If I’m hired directly by the band, then I send them a sketch so they know what they’re gonna get, and they’ve never said, can you redo it? Most of the time I figure with any client, they know what they’re gonna get from me. They ask me to do it because they want my style and they want my interpretation and if you look at my body of work you can pretty much tell how my brain’s gonna work and what you’re gonna get. They come to me for me to do it in my way, so I get a lot of freedom with it, which is cool. Would you ever turn down a poster gig if it was someone’s music you didn’t respect? Like if Britney Spears asked you to do a poster (and that’s just an example, I don’t know how you feel about Britney Spears), but if someone whose political ideals you disagreed with came to you, would you still make a poster for them?
That hasn’t come across me yet, but if there was a band whose political ideals I really stood against, definitely I would turn the job down. If it was a band that was racist or sexist, of course I’d say no way. But if it’s a band that I’m not that into their music or I don’t really care for, that doesn’t bother me; I treat it as a job. When it comes down to it, I’m a freelance artist and I do art for different things and people and ads and editorial stuff and whatnot. It is still my job. But if it comes to a point where it offends me, yeah, I would totally turn it down. Fortunately that hasn’t happened yet. I think any artist would say the same thing.
Is the world of poster art a competitive one?
I don’t feel that it’s competitive, but I come at it from a completely different angle than a lot of other artists. If I was a graphic designer, maybe I’d feel like it was more competitive. Because my style is so distinct, I don’t feel that much competition. If I was a graphic designer with a loose graphic layout, then maybe I would feel a little lost in the sea of poster artists, but right now I feel my stuff kind of stands out and honestly, I do what I do and I create what feels natural to me, so it comes across an individual style. I discovered your work through Canadian band The Weekend, since you drew the album cover for their recent album Beatbox My Heart. How, for instance, did that come about?
It’s all different. I think it was the band’s manager or the label when I was at SXSW for Flatstock, a poster art convention held during SXSW, and they came by my booth and saw my art and I guess they bought a couple posters and bought some stickers off me and brought it back up to Toronto and showed it to the singer and I believe she wanted me to do the cover, so then they emailed to do the cover. He actually met me in person, but I get jobs through so many different avenues.
How often do you travel and do you like that aspect of your job?
I usually go out of town about once a month, and I do a lot of comic book conventions and the Flatstocks are twice a year, once at SXSW and then at Bumbershoot and sometimes there are other ones. I was a guest at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to do a poster expo during CMJ there, so I do travel a lot. It’s really fun because I work alone so much, all the time and I work such long hours, it’s great to get out and go to a new city and just sit there all day and meet people and hang out with people for a 3 day festival. I really enjoy meeting the collectors in person. That’s the opposite of how I normally work and I take great pleasure in being able to travel and meet new people. “Sweetly creepy” is a phrase that’s been used to describe your work, and it does capture the very cute elements but also the darker, gothic side to your work. Do you deliberately seek to blend those two aspects?
I love that dynamic because it creates a certain tension in the work where you’re drawn in but you kind of want to push it back. I think that balance and that dynamic works. I like to see it in other people’s work and I like to do it in my work. I don’t want it to be an easy read. This doesn’t happen with every piece, but I want my art to provoke thought. I hope that it does. I hope that I’m giving something that engages the viewer and makes them think or feel or just anything to provoke a strong response and reaction in the viewer. That sweetly creepy dynamic and the theme I’ve worked with with the lonely hearts, that opposite, hopefully engages the viewer. Is there a specific emotion or outlook you want people to take away from your work?
There’s nothing specific. My work, for me, is cathartic, so what happens in my life is going to be reflected in the art I create, no matter if it’s deliberate or unintentional. It’s going to happen, it’s going to show. What’s reflected will definitely change, from one minute to the next. I’m still learning about it so it’s still fun to investigate. In your profile on Gigposters.com, you list one of your occupations as “Cotton Candy Machine Operator.” Is that for real?
No. I just really like cotton candy. If I go to any place that sells cotton candy, I have to buy it. Are you in a band now?
I used to be in a band. I’m looking to start a band, I play bass. How do music and art interact in your life? Are they separate, or does one fuel the other?
I think it’s kind of separate. Music is just fun for me to make. Art’s fun to make too, but I take it more seriously. I’ve been playing bass since I was 15 so it’s definitely important, but art is more important and I know I’m better at painting and drawing than I am at playing bass, so I do that more. Has being in New York helped advance your career? Does it matter where you’re located?
It doesn’t really matter where you live because of today’s advances in technology, but since I’ve lived in New York, I’ve had so many cool things happen, so many great opportunities have come my way because I’m here. All the art directors are here, so instead of sending an email they say, hey come into my office, and you can have lunch with them. It adds to being able to see and interact with people in person. Nowadays, it’s so easy to forget because you can sit behind your computer and email forever. Here, I like it because pretty much everyone has an office. Human interaction has come back, plus there’s a great art community and art scene here which I love. LA’s so spread out. I really like the layout of New York. You’re forced to interact with people here because of the nature of the city and that’s the complete opposite of Los Angeles. I’m really enjoying that inherent quality of New York.