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An Interview with Tara McPherson
Crows 'n' Bones
Published on 3/02/2010

New interview in rock 'n' roll web zine, Crows 'n' Bones!  You can check it out here, or read the transcript below!

An Interview with Tara McPherson
By Dimitris Kontogiannis
Crows 'n' Bones

Tara McPherson is one of the most interesting artists of our generation. She has created paintings, toys, comic book covers and numerous editorial illustrations. She has interned for Matt Groening’s Futurama and drawn posters for a huge number of artists (including Melvins, Depeche Mode, Mastodon, Beck, Isis, The Mars Volta, The Strokes, Supergrass, High On Fire, Torche, Kings Of Leon, to mention but a few). Last year, she was invited by The Breeders to create all the artwork for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. Her art was showcased in the film Juno. Her work appears sweet and cartoony at first, but a second look often reveals darker, subtly disturbing themes. The illustrations in the books Lost Constellations; The Art of Tara McPherson Vol II (Dark Horse) and Lonely Heart: The Art of Tara McPherson (Dark Horse), are perfect examples of this.

These days, Tara is based in New York. Her clients include DC Comics, Warner Bros, Kidrobot, Revolver, Knitting Factory, Nike, Pepsi, Fanta, Spin magazine, Punk Planet, House of the Blues and Playstation 2, among others. Check out her work at: http://www.taramcpherson.com/

Let’s start from whatever you've been doing these days. You are just back from a signing tour. Am I right?
Yeah, I am still at the beginning of it. I did a US tour. Afterwards, I was in England, and now I'm home for a couple of weeks, working on some paintings for a show in Barcelona.

Oh, nice.
Yeah, and then I do the Europe tour, which is 12 cities. After that, I go to San Diego for the Comic Con and then to Brazil.

That sounds exhausting, but fun.
Yeah, exactly! (laughs)

The British event, was it the All Tomorrows Parties festival, in Butlins?
Yes. I did all the artwork, from the T-shirts, down to the booklet and the badges, posters…

Yeah, that must have been impressive. How did it go?

That was really fun! It was a great event. I liked that we were all contained in one area. You sleep on the grounds along with all the people. It’s all in one area.

Yeah, I've heard about that. The organizers and the artists stay in the same area as the crowd. Sounds interesting. I wanted to go when Patti Smith was the curator but something came up and I missed it.
Yeah, it was fun. Well, there will be another one in New York at the end of September I think. I'll be just getting home, so I'm gonna go to that one.

Ah, excellent. Do you know who's the curator this time?

Uhm, I can’t remember.

I'm sure you've heard this question a thousand times before, but how did you go from studying to be an Astronomer (laughs), to being an illustrator?
Well, I started art in school in Jr. high, in high school, and then, when I got to college, all the art subjects were full. So, you know, I reconsidered and thought that this was something fascinating that I could do with my life and maybe this is what I should be doing. So, I did that for a little while, but eventually I thought: “What am I doing?” (laughs)! You know? I mean, I'm destined to be an artist for sure. But I think there is an interesting overlap between art and science.

I think one can see that in your work. I mean, there is the obvious stuff, like the fact that a lot of your images have to do with outer space…
Exactly. So now it’s a case of, you know, I love the science of astronomy and the theories, but the math is very, very boring…

(Laughs) I know what you mean!
Yeah, so I can combine the good element that I find interesting and put that into my art.

There is also the image of that woman that gets split into four different images, or four different perspectives.
Oh yes, yes…

It’s a subtler connection but the idea is based on Einstein’s principles, so it’s an interesting way of combining science with your art. How did your family take it when you told them that you wanted to be an artist, instead of a scientist?
Oh God, they were like: “What?” (laughs)! Well, you know, they supported me…

Was it a shock in the beginning?
Well, I've always been to art school, from Jr. High and High School. We have this thing called the Magnet Program which is exercises involving certain aspects of what you want to study, so they weren’t surprised. They had faith in me. I think they knew I was this wild, artistic type. So, they were like: ”OK!” (laughs)

Also, your dad used to do props for the Wonder Woman TV show didn’t he? And you are making toys now- among other things- so, perhaps it’s not too dissimilar. It’s a craft as well.
Yeah! Yeah, what my dad did was creative. But for me, it was really fun to run around on movie sets, with all these props and toys and stuff, you know…

Wow, I can imagine. Was that in Los Angeles? Are you originally from California?
Yes, yes. But my dad was on location a lot, so we travelled all over.

Ah- huh. And then, at some point you become an intern for Matt Groening, working on Futurama. Was that fun?
Yeah, that was amazing. I learned so much! That was when I was in art school, when it was time to take a break. I was about, like, half way through. I looked for some internships and I got that. I was having so much fun, that I took a term off college to stay there. And I needed a break from school because where I went, the Art Center, it was very, very intense. I was getting burned out. I actually had to reapply back to school (laughs)! A little formality because I had taken more than one term off.

Was it at the same time or afterwards that you started doing posters for gigs at The Knitting Factory?
That was when I graduated from school. I was like: “OK, what am I going to do?”(laughs)! Trying to get money and trying to get a job. I always collected rock posters but I never thought of doing that as a career. But then it dawned on me and I thought: “Wait a minute!” I was in a band with some of my friends and I was doing art posters. So it seemed like a natural evolution for me. I had a meeting with them and I said “Would you like posters done for our shows?” and they said yeah. I got paid a really tiny amount of money, like, 75 dollars or something…

It must have done wonders for your credibility at the time though, starting like this. It’s quite impressive.
Well, it was good because I got to do the shows that I wanted to do. If it was a band I didn’t like, then whatever, but if it was one I really liked, I was like: “Hey, can I do the poster for PJ Harvey?” And then, they'd contact the management and if they said OK, I'd do it.

Did you get to meet any of the artists, or does this sort of thing happen through the management alone?
No, I've met a lot of the bands. Sometimes it’s through the band itself- depending on how big or how small the band is. For The Knitting Factory, I would make posters and have copies for the bands, or I would hang out at the merch table and meet the band there. At All Tomorrows Parties, Kim Deal came to meet me and see the artwork and stuff. That was really cool, meeting Kim Deal. She’s so awesome and Breeders are super rad! It was really fun…

(Laughs) Did you meet Mastodon the same way, for a poster gig?
I actually knew them before I did the posters for them. I met them through my friend, who is in Isis…

Oh yeah! And they go way back don’ t they? They keep mentioning each other in interviews and stuff…
Yeah. I love Isis. So, my friend was in Isis and I did the posters for them and went to see them live, here in New York. Mastodon was in town, recording an album and they were at the show. We all hung out afterwards and that’s how I met all the Mastodon guys and we became friends. And then I was like: “Hey, let me do a poster for you when you are back in New York” and I did. Also, some of my best friends are from Atlanta and they know the Mastodon guys.
We're all good friends. Now I know a lot of people in the music industry. Because I don’t do so many posters anymore, I can pick and choose who I wanna do them for. I just did one for a band called Torche…

Oh yeah!
They are getting bigger but I love them! I love their music and I've met them. We're all friends now. I told them: “I want to do a poster for you guys sometime” and I finally had the chance to do it, in New York a few weeks ago.

I‘ve heard of them. The thing is, I keep hearing good things about them, but I don’ t know what they sound like. One of these days I'll have to check them out I guess.
Yeah, you should check them out. They are really heavy but… happy, you know? (laughs) They're amazing!

I‘ll check them out. I just needed an incentive basically. Oh, have you heard the new Mastodon album?
Yeah, I just finally got it.

Ah, it’s very, very good…

Love it.

I think Mastodon is one of the best bands in the world…
You think Mastodon‘s one of the best bands?

I think they’re one of the best bands in the world at the moment.
(Laughs) Nice! God, the album is fantastic. They were just here in New York, but I missed them because I was travelling. I keep missing them, but our tours match up in Barcelona this Summer, so I'm gonna see them at their show and hang out with them there.

Yeah, because they are always on tour, aren’t they? I mean, they've been to Greece three times. I've seen them twice and they are also coming this Summer with Slipknot and Down. It’s like they’re on the road all the time. I can’t imagine what that’s like.

Apart from Mastodon and Torche, what else are you listening to these days? It would be stupid to ask what are your favorite records or something, because the list would probably be huge…

(Laughs) Well,… I definitely like heavier music, heavy metal, a lot. My tastes range… I love Billy Holliday and Django Reinhardt and I love a lot of indie music. Depends on the mood. A very eclectic mixture of music. And, oh, I love gangsta rap! (laughs) It’s fun. And, you know, I DJ sometimes too. Like, this Saturday night. I‘ll do some work, so that I can take the night off. I have all these things to do and it’s all work, work, work. So, Saturday night is good cause I can get the night off and I get to play some music. It’s a dance party, so it’s going to be dance-oriented stuff, not metal. But you know, I listen to everything.

And you ‘re in a band as well, aren’t you? You are a bass player.

Yes, I play bass.

Do you guys ever get any time to rehearse? If you are on tour all the time, it must be difficult.

(Laughs) We all have things to do. The other members, well, one is an actor and the other two are writers, so, we are all creative people. Our personal art comes first, and then the band. So, we make time. We usually play once a month.

That doesn’t sound too bad actually.

Yeah. Once a month, once every two months… Cause if you play too often, none of your friends want to come to the show in the end! (laughs)

Going back to your work, you have certain motifs that pop up again and again, don’t you? The most famous of course, is the woman with the heart shaped void in her chest.
As an artist, I think it’s important to explore a motif, delve deeper into that idea and see how much deeper you can explore the concept. Turn it around…

That’s true. You do that a lot actually. I am thinking of images of young women, whose thoughts appear to be… external. So, you'll have a flower, or a knife coming out of the top of someone’s head, or something similar…
You know, for those things I was thinking about the physical manifestation of thought. What if thoughts were visible to the world?

You've often mentioned that the missing heart motif is about loneliness and loss. Is that a correct way of interpreting it?
Yeah. And I wanted it to be open to interpretation. I wanted the viewer to have that leeway. Life has its cycles, its ups and downs and you never forget that they're there. But it’s also a symbol of strength sometimes too.

Well, the women seem confident… I mean, it’s a dark subject, but it’s not depressing, you know what I mean?
Yeah, definitely…

Which is funny actually. I was thinking that if someone tried to explain your work to somebody who hasn’t seen it, it would probably come across completely wrong- as something cutesy and a bit whimsical (but not in a good way). But it’s not like that at all, in fact…

Yeah, it’s hard to describe. When people ask me about my work, I ‘m like “Uhhh…” (laughs)!

It can be very sweet and it’s easy to look at. And then, after a few seconds, you realize that there is more to it. It’s not self conscious in a sort of goth way. It doesn’t try to be dark…
I hate it when people say it’s goth. I mean, I guess it has a darker element, but I've never been goth.

I know what you mean. I think goth is a word that people use too much. Anything with a dark feel, whether it’s a movie, a book or an illustration, gets labeled goth. As a term, it doesn’t mean much anymore.

Your work does appear to be very personal. It’s never political.
Yeah, sure. There’s no political agenda to it. It’s social commentary but not political commentary. I have no other way to function as an artist, apart from externalizing my thoughts on life as I observe and perceive it.

Perhaps that makes it more universal. I think you can have good political art and bad political art. But, perhaps the fact that your art is about personal themes, makes it easier to relate to.

One of my favorite pieces of your work is the Mastodon poster. I thought the idea of the KISS makeup on either women or, you know, cute animals, was a stroke of genius. What was the idea behind that?

Well, I've always thought it was interesting that bands have taken makeup and masculinized it. So, to have a woman taking that masculine element back, brings it back full circle, but in a different format. It’s interesting to me.

The Mastodon poster is a very sensual image and- although I like KISS- the last thing that I would think by looking at Gene Simmons’ make- up, would be that this imagery could be used in a sensual way. It’s also a very rock ‘n’ roll image. Perhaps the Viking horns have something to do with it, but I think it fits the band very well somehow.
Yeah. It’s a harder image, but it’s also soft, with all the soft colors. It’s not exactly taken from KISS though. It’s mostly from all the black metal bands and all the sexist bands that do it, you know? But I tried to change it, make it different.

I guess so, because the black metal bands try to use face paint in a more scary and masculine way and you went towards the other direction.

What about your comics work? I think the first time I came across your work was when you were doing the covers for Thessaly, the Neil Gaiman character…
Uh huh.

And then, there were the covers for The Witching, which I liked a lot. A few years ago, I came across that poster you did for a book exhibition, featuring Morpheus and Death (New York Is Book Country). Are there any plans for new comics work?
Well, I did a story for Fables…

Oh yes, the hardcover thing! That was excellent!

Yeah, the anthology (1001 Nights Of Snowfall). The thing is, I like doing covers better than doing comics. I get kind of bored with sequential work. For me it’s too much repetition and I need to be more excited about what I'm working on, you know what I mean? The Fables thing, that was, like, 14 pages, so that was perfect. I don’t think I could do more than that. I'd need something new! (laughs)

So, you wouldn’t do what Frank Miller or Mike Mignola does, both writing and illustrating a story.

You have described yourself as a pop surrealist. Is that a good way of putting it?

Yeah, I like that term. I think it really describes the difference in my art. I want my art to be inspirational and to elevate emotions and the mind. I think the term accurately describes what me and my friends are working within.

In the past few decades there haven’t been too many illustrators who are doing what you are doing, working on several different media. You have toys, you’ve done that a lot with the Kidrobot stuff, there’s the comic cover work, posters, paintings… Have you ever in your career been treated as if you belong to a cultural ghetto? Because not everyone considers pop art to be equivalent to high art. I think they should, but…
What, the toys?

Well, the toys as well, presumably. They are a craft and I think it’s important work. The same applies for people like Miyazaki or Dali. They all worked in different media. Was it difficult, being recognized and appreciated?
No. And it’s like I said about sequential work. I get bored with it. I think that’s why it works so well with all the different media. After I work on a bunch of paintings, I want to do a poster. And then it’s “Oh cool, I get to do a toy”. And then, it’s a drawing. I am constantly entertained by the work. It’s not redundant, it’s not the same. I think if I did the same thing all the time, I'd burn out. The key to my personal success is variation. Being able to focus on a body of work and then do something different.

Yes. And yet, it must confuse critics, because you have famous poster illustrators and famous painters. You seem to be able to do all this. It’s impressive.
It’s fun! (laughs)

Guess so. What about your tattoos? I mean, you have lots of them!
(Laughs) I do!

At what age did you do your first one?
Well, here you have to be 18. A friend and I have our birthdays the same week, so, when we turned 18, we went to Hollywood Boulevard to get our first tattoo. (laughs) And then it went from there.

Do you have any plans for new ones?
Yeah, but I've just finished my back this year.

Have you regretted any of them?
No, never! (laughs) But you know, I'm an artist, so I love the decoration aspect of it. I think it’s really beautiful. I love the art of tattooing.

Do you have any based on your art?
No, I don’t want my art on me. They are drawn by the tattoo artist.

And yet, a lot of people actually have tattoos of your art on them. It translates very well to skin art. Like the skull flowers for example.
Yeah, I ‘ve seen so many amazing photos! So cool! I just redid my website and now we have a proper photo section and I can’t believe how many tattoos there are of my work. It’s fantastic. Beautiful. And those are just the ones that people sent me. I know there’s a lot more.

I was looking at your website today, at the blog and I saw that you did your first tattoo on a friend as well.

Was that difficult? Were you nervous?
Uhmm… Yes (laughs)! I was very nervous. I've seen how it’s done and I have so many friends that are tattoo artists, so I felt like I kind of knew what to do. They were giving me very good tips. In the beginning I thought I wasn't going deep enough, but in the end I got the feel for it. It’s such a strange feeling, working on skin, you know? Oh, it was fantastic, it was fun! To get into tattooing would be a whole new career. But who knows! Maybe I can do some tattoos too.

Maybe in the future! (laughs)
I can do it all! (laughs)

So, what are your plans for the future? You'll be in New York for a couple of weeks. What are you working on right now? Is it toys, paintings, or something else?
Right now I'm working on a few paintings for my signing in Barcelona, in Iguapop Gallery. This summer is… Well, I think a lot of artists don't realize the importance of touring and backing up your work. When a band releases a record, well, you go out and tour and you meet your fans and you go and perform your art. I love travelling and sometimes I need a break from work. This summer is about promoting the book and the new toys, travelling and meeting new people. Seeing old fans and hopefully getting new ones. It’s part of the job and an important aspect of being an artist. I am travelling for three months. Long time! (laughs) Then I come back to New York. I have a group show in Los Angeles at the end of the year and a couple of group shows at the beginning of the year. Then, I have another show at Jonathan LeVine’s Gallery at the end of 2010. So, I'm just going to be here painting. That’s why I am enjoying my free time. I'll have no time next year! (laughs)

How long does it take you to finish your works when you have a gallery show?

Well, it depends. For this show in Barcelona, they wanted three paintings. I knew I was only home for two weeks, so I'm not going to make a big, tall painting with three - four figures in it, you know what I mean? You have to know how long you have. I'm gonna be working on all three at once. They are portraits and I can paint faces faster now.

Which reminds me, is there a theme for that show, like Lost Constellations was (which had a lot of space imagery)? Are the paintings linked?
These three paintings involve these little creatures that are kind of embryonic. Reminiscent of human embryos. The paintings feature these little baby creatures. I think I ‘m going to call the show Silent Heroes. They are in the orifices of women. One has one of them in her mouth. The other one has no eyes, but the creatures are her eyes- because eyes are the window to the soul. It looks like she has eyes, but it’s really the little creatures in her eye sockets. And in the third one, they are all inside her helmet.

Oh, is it like one of those space helmets that you draw occasionally?

Yeah, yeah.

The works sound fairly optimistic…
Well, they ‘re all different. One of them is kind of darker. She has a weird expression on her face. Another is very happy.

You don’t shy away from drawing monsters. Is there any science fiction literature or film influence in your work?
I wouldn’t say that I ‘m a huge sci-fi fan, but I like the idea of monsters and human anomalies as an inspiration. Who knows what’s out there! (laughs)

A lot of your imagery features women with a kind of unicorn-seahorse creatures coming out of their middle.
Oh yeah…

Which is a cute image, but often, there’s blood and the juxtaposition is interesting. What was the inspiration behind that?
I thought it was interesting, the idea of someone pretending to be something else. Also, the richest part of a woman’s body being the abdomen… being able to produce life, but instead, producing some kind of anomaly. Not exactly a monster, but a sort of creature coming out of her.

You said, you'll also be at the San Diego Comic Con…
Yes, the end of July.

Lately, there’s been a ton of films that were based on comic books. What’s your opinion on them? Are you interested in them at all?

Yeah, it great! I think comic books are a great source for films. There’s so many amazing stories out there.

The majority is superhero stuff…

Yeah, I'm not really into the superhero stuff. I'm more into indie comics.

Like Ghost World? Not that many films are based on indie comics unfortunately. You have your Dark Knights and your Watchmen and Wolverine and so on…

Yeah. I haven't seen Watchmen yet, but I've just seen The Dark Knight and that was fantastic!

Yeah, that was very good. Have you seen Wolverine? I didn’t like it at all…

No, I haven't seen it. I wanted to see it, but my friends were like: “SUCK!” (laughs) I don't have too much time to see movies, so I've been kind of left behind on films and books. I don't have too much spare time. (laughs)

So you have to be choosy about what you watch. I think your friends were right about Wolverine (laughs)…

Have you been reading anything lately?
I have barely enough time for books. You know what I really love though? Art books. Looking around my studio, it’s full of them. They inspire me.

What type of art inspires you these days?
My art books range from Renaissance artists to Japanese woodcut artists. Or my friends’ art, or books on typography, comics, all kinds of stuff, but it’s all figurative artwork…

I think I come with a different sensibility to designers. I never took any graphic design classes, so I have a kind of “naïve” take on it. I look at things from an illustrator’s standpoint, not a graphic designer’s standpoint. I like that about my work.