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An Interview with Tara McPherson
FAZER Online Music Magazine
Published on 5/22/2009

I sat down with Mike Bax while in Toronto for my show at Narwhal Art Projects. You can check out the interview complete with photographs right here, or read the transcipt below!

An Interview with Tara McPherson –
Narwhal Art Projects, Toronto – May 8th, 2009

Interview by Mike Bax
Photography by Yves Lepage

Firstly, let me just say this. Tara McPherson is my favourite rock poster designer. I own more posters by her than anyone else (in my somewhat limited poster collection – capped lately by my lack of wall space to hang anything). I own five posters by McPherson – all framed, and all relegated to places of prominence in either my office space or at home. Two hang at home, and three at work. If there’s exposed boobage on said posters – then they stay at work; no boobage and they can hang at home. Considering casa-Bax is decorated in artwork that is primarily picked out by me and gets little interference from my wife, that’s a fair trade.

When I heard that Tara was going to come to Toronto and take part in Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2009, and that she was to have her first Canadian exhibition of limited edition prints and art figures I was pretty stoked. Finding out she was going to do a signing on the opening night of her exhibit – I was downright excited. I noticed a contact link for press requests on the TCAF website, and threw my name into the hat – thinking a polite, but inevitable declination would come my way, and I’d drive in for the evenings signing regardless.

So, when I eventually found out by email that I was scheduled to interview her, I was amazed. Then worried. And finally I got very quickly overwhelmed. Thoughts started running through my head… things like: “She’s so talented, and I’m so not”; “She’ll see right through me and my hollow questions”; “She’s supposed to be really hot… I’ll get flustered and make a fool out of myself” and “What can I possibly ask her that I haven’t read already in publications like Juxtapose, Esquire, Vanity Fair, HOW, Step & Communication Arts – real magazines I love and respect with a huge readership?”.

I looked up at my walls immediately behind my computer screen where both versions of her Mastodon / Neurosis posters loom omnipresent over me every working day – and knew immediately the experience would be awesome. That was the end of it.

I let my friend Yves know the interview was going down, and that he should feel free to come with, and take a few photographs. If it wasn’t for Yves, I’d likely not be a Tara fan. He has an early Death Cab For Cutie poster by her that I’ve admired for years. It was the first poster I’d ever seen of McPherson’s, and I’m sure it led me to her website, and eventually into buying posters for myself.

We arrived at The Narwhal Arts Project a bit early, and wound up waiting an extra half hour for McPherson – who had arrived in Toronto the night before only to get detained for almost four hours at customs, eventually getting to her hotel at 2:00am with some unfinished looming deadlines awaiting her attention. She strolled into Narwhal with a sizeable laptop bag (the kind that has an extendo-bar and wheels that you can drag around like a carry-on bag) and asked if any of us had any Canadian currency to pay her cab driver. She hadn’t left her hotel room for currency, and had worked her right through until twenty minutes ago. Tara’s appearance is instantly striking. Her body is covered in tattoos, and completely offsets her sharp attire – a black dress with pink accents and matching shoes.

I liked her already.

Cabbies were paid. She said some quick hellos to the proprietors of Narwhal, and went over some of the details for her press and the evenings signing, and then she walked over and introduced herself.

At thirty three, McPherson’s resume reads like an art students pipe dream. She earned a BFA from Art Center in Pasadena, CA in August 2001 with honors in Illustration and also a minor in Fine Art. While attending college, Tara interned at Rough Draft Studios, working on Matt Groening’s Futurama. Her posters and fine art have been on display worldwide. She teaches a class at Parsons: The New School for Design in NYC. What she has achieved in a relatively short timeframe as an independent artist is nothing shy of amazing. As both a viable and respected fine artist, her work speaks for itself. And she’s only just getting started.

A pair of folding studio chairs were brought out for us to sit on, and set up just in front of a few of her limited edition Giclee prints on display, and I was given about twenty minutes to ask a few questions.

Tara McPherson apologizing for being a bit late for our interview because she stayed up till dawn working on a deadline.

Mike: Hey, no trouble at all. I can’t believe that you’re that busy that you’re working while you’re travelling and you’ve got deadlines.

Tara: Oh, yeah. I went to bed at 6:00am woke up again at 11:00am. It was very difficult, and I worked up until half an hour ago, forty minutes ago.

Do you find it hard to produce….I mean, it’s artwork, so you’re working on something that’s got aesthetic and you’re doing it under a deadline. Is it hard to maintain what you feel is your artistic integrity? So that when it’s done, you’re still really happy with the end result?

I would say 90% of the time, you know. This one I’m working on right now is for All Tomorrow’s Parties and its next weekend. I did the artwork a long time ago, but now it’s just like tying up all… like finalizing the separations for the poster and what goes to the printer and then it’s like three days to ship it there. I’m doing the wrist bands and the badges and the booklet and the whole shebang. So it’s just all these little things. And I still have to make this toy certificate after this interview before I’m signing. ‘Cause it isn’t finished yet…

Is that you’re laptop you’re walking in here with so you can keep crankin’ on it?

Yeah. So it’s like the artwork is done- I just have to like tweak things, you know? But it still always takes longer. It always takes me longer than I think whether I’m painting, drawing, or whatever. I’ll think, ‘This’ll take two hours…’, and then I’m still there working away and it’s six hours later… But I love it, you know?

Did you go to school for fine arts? Or did that kind of graphic design and photo aesthetic when you talk how your stuff is produced just come naturally?

I’ve got no graphic design training at all. I was an illustration major and a fine art minor. I absorb a lot too, through osmosis and through my friends and then just observing.

Well it’s something you sort of learn as you go.


So if you do something wrong, the next time you’ll be more serious.

Exactly. Looking at my posters from when I began, I don’t even want to look at them anymore (scrunching her face up).

I like looking at your older work. You can go look by year so you can see what you’ve done year by year & how your work has evolved. I like looking at your posters, it’s almost like a study where you’ll take a character or a certain hair style and you play with it over three or four posters and it eventually falls into a single image on a poster, and that’s the poster that sells out quickly, you know?

Yeah, with posters you get a chance to explore the characters and the scenes and stuff, but like what you were saying about the graphic design element, I think in the beginning I came from a naïve standpoint because I didn’t know anything really. I had one computer class, so I taught myself, you know, like Photoshop, which I use to make the separations and stuff like that. So that yeah, learning and trying to be inventive and trying to treat typography as an art form and trying to avoid the standard fonts. So I try and hand draw sometimes. I have these old books with fonts and I like those. I like scanning those in and hand placing them in my computer files because they’re a little awkward, they’re not perfect, and it’s your reproduction of a scan of a reproduction. So it gives it kind of a nice feel.

When you work on something, I’m assuming you sketch most of your stuff to start. At what point do bring a sketch to your computer and manipulate your work digitally by computer?

Umm, the posters? These (gestures to the artwork on display in the Narwhal gallery) are all oil paintings so they all get shot with an eight by ten transparency and then drum scanned. But you know I have to color correct them on the computer. Yeah, you would think they would come out perfect, but sometimes it’s a lot of work. There’s variances… and the edges of my work get darker sometimes.

How do you scan in some of your work? Do you have someone photograph it all for you? Or do you do it?

If it’s small enough. I have a big scanner, so if it’s small enough I can do it in less than four scans. Like this painting (gestures to the image used on the Popgun trade paperback and for her exhibit), I scanned it myself in four pieces.

You put this together in four pieces? It’s pretty seamless.

You know it takes like a whole afternoon.

Oh for sure.

Because it’s just like [moves her hands and imitates making it exact]

It must be monstrous undertaking, cloning and patching your files. And you’re putting it into a bigger photoshop file by doing all of the work in pieces, you know? These files would be measured in gigs.

But I’ve gotten better at that. I don’t like doing that. But if it’s small enough I’ll scan it in the studio. Other than that there’s a photography place. They have everything setup with the lights - the four needed lights - so you just put the painting up in front of them – and it’s done.

A lot of fine artists, they don’t really get to appreciate where you are currently – a lot of artists get an audience after they pass away… you are an example of someone who is doing well, doing something they like, and you’re also able to make a career out of it. I’m curious at what point in your life did you figure out you could be viable as an artist.

Well, kind of to the beginning part of your question, yeah, the business side. So many artists neglect that part and it’s such a huge part of it. Sometimes I feel bad if I’m spending all day doing e-mails, but it’s a necessity. If you don’t give time to that aspect of it then you won’t benefit from it later. So I tell my students that all the time, like don’t forget that it’s more than just painting – there’s the boring part as well. The selling. But sometimes if you want to procrastinate from painting you can do e-mails all day, it’s still work but you still need to do it.

[Tara laughs]

I used to manage this Japanese toy store in LA before college, so I was the buyer and I wholesaled toys and videogames and animation and art books. All kinds of stuff like that. And that really helped me learn so much about running a business and it directly applied to my art. And it was just coincidence, but you know, it’s good. I’m grateful that it happened because I learned so much from it. So after I graduated, I always wanted to make stuff, you know, whatever the role. I always wanted to make toys, buttons, and stickers, stuff like that. Then I knew exactly how to do it right away and it always had that passion.

I find that a lot of your artwork has an Asian influence. And when I look at your toys and shapes and just the characters of them, they look very Japanese to me. Is that conscious? Do you really think about that stuff?

Yeah, I can’t deny the influences. But also before I knew how to paint or draw very well, I got really into printmaking.

It’s funny, I never realized, or saw myself becoming a poster artist. I mean I love poster art and I love screen-printing. But I got really into etching and woodblock printing before college, when I was working on my portfolio, and you know, all the ukiyo-e woodblock printers in the 1800’s in Japan. I love, love those so that’s always been an inspiration and then working at that Japanese Anime shop, you know, definitely, definitely influenced. Then I just had a love for painting for so long and it’s Renaissance and its famous painters and modern painters.

I really was exposed to your artwork because of your rock posters and started buying them years ago. I love that you have so many different shapes and styles and colors on so many different genres of music. You must be into all different music.

Yeah, definitely. I love music.

I used to see posters at [pointing towards Yves, who’s shooting photos while we talk] Yves’ house all the time and I loved the artwork, but not the band. I didn’t like the music enough to buy the print personally. But I can get behind the Unholy Alliance! Posters for Mastodon and Lamb of God and Isis. I like their music a lot, and getting your posters for them was a no-brainer to me.

Yeah, I won’t produce a poster just for the art. I have to like the band, and if I really just like the art or the band it’s like, ‘mmm’, I don’t know… It has to be that perfect medium of artwork and cool band.

Do you choose which bands you’re going to work on? Do you just say, ‘I like your show, can I make a poster?’ or do you actually get commissioned for it?

Well it’s always a little different. Like when I first got started I did stuff for Knitting Factory, so I’d look at their upcoming shows and pick the ones I thought would be good to do, bands that I like, stuff like that. Then I worked for Goldenvoice, and it was the same thing but bigger acts. And that’s when I got to do really neat stuff, like meet bands like Duran Duran and they were like, ‘Whoa! Cool!’ you know? I never thought I’d be doing stuff with bands like that. And now because I’ve been painting so much and the posters have kind of decreased a little bit, now I’ve just gotten to be friends with a lot of bands over the years. So I’ll just say, ‘Hey, you’re playing in Brooklyn, can I do the poster for your show?’, and they’re my friends. I do it for free so the band has posters to sell so the band makes money, the venue has posters, and then I just sell the rest on my website and it works. And bands don’t have huge budgets for stuff like that, and the music industry in general is kind of like hurting because of music sales. The bands really rely on the merch while they’re touring so I feel really good about that and whatever I can do to help out my friends and give them cool art. And everyone’s happy.

Are a lot of your posters generated in advance so they’re available for that physical event?


I ask because I feel there might be posters out there by designers who will be like, ‘I went to this show and I’ll commemorate it with a poster instead’. After the gig, y’know?

Ohhhh. You’re not supposed to. (laughs) Well I like to do the artwork and get it to my printers. I really like to do it for New York shows so I can go and see the show. It’s not always the case but I like to bring them so my friends will have them at the merch table so they can continue selling them until they sell out or whatever. Then I wait until after the show is over to put them on sale on the website.

Do you run them off at a certain quantity? I noticed on your site there are posters that are two, three or maybe four hundred of a big band, are those the ones that are also printed and sold at their booth so you’ll do like a thousand of them – and the band gets a portion of them?

Yeah, the ones that I give to the band aren’t signed and numbered, occasionally they are signed sometimes, some of them I sign but it’s not part of the limited editions I’m selling on my website. A lot of people want the band to sign these posters at their shows and stuff like that, and I feel that’s more important for the fans to have the band version. But it depends, like the Melvins, they want signed and numbered, they want a certain amount of the full edition and it’s just depends on who you’re working with.

That’s cool. I’m also a big comic book guy and I’ve been watching your artwork pop up on the covers of different books for Vertigo and I understand you’re working on an extensive graphic novel for Vertigo at the moment?

No, I’m not anymore.

Oh! Really? I wondered. That was a big undertaking - 128 pages of painted artwork.

It was a big choice and I decided not to. Because I want to do more posters and I want to do gallery shows. I love comics and I can definitely see myself doing a short thing I did in Fables, you know?


Like twelve pages or something and stuff like that. I really love doing covers… this one (gestures to the wall) is for the new Popgun.

Recently, there were two or three pages included in the Dark Horse MySpace compilation. Think it was called How To Mend a Broken Heart.

Yeah, yeah. A little two-page thing.

I loved that, as well.

Thank you. And, you know, I just like doing comics, but the Dark Horse thing is more like the poster style. I did that because another thing I like doing if I just do like a two page or a three page comic is to kind of take it out of its comfort zone and make it into an art print. So that one, I have to finish the separations on it so that the two-page comic is going to be printed probably the size of those (gestures to a few 24×36 inch prints in the gallery) or a little bit bigger. And made into an art print and just changing the format and even pushing comics as a more perceived art form even more. You can put it on a fridge or look at it on a wall.

There’s some text in that story I think. So you would remove that when you’re making it into an art print?

No, I’d leave the text on. I think I might re-hand-write it – make it a bit more stylized.

So aside for not coming back to Canada for five years, what have you got to look forward to in the next year?


Well, I’m on tour all summer promoting the book, so I’ll be in Europe and Brazil and the San Diego Comic Con then I go home and I have to paint. And then a solo show at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in October of next year. So when I get back in October I’ll have a full year to prep for that, so I’ll have to do a little over twenty paintings and that’ll take me a while.

Do you still get to play a lot of music?

Oh yeah. I’m still playing music. We have a show on May 30th at the Four Leaf, but our drummer is an actor and he has a play in Boston or something all summer as well, so he’s gone. It’s great playing with them because they’re my friends.

They’re not all like, ‘She’s gone, what are we going to do now?’

No, not at all. We all have our careers that come first and then the band is like fun time for us.

Yves: One thing that you mentioned was that you used to manage anime shop, like Kid Robot, did you approach them, or did they approach you?

Well, it got me wanting to make toys, because the toys that we carried, a lot of them were from this company called Future in Japan and they just did such cool figures. And obviously accessories, you know that’s what made me do character-based stuff and I knew I wanted to make toys. Well I got asked to do a Dunny, an LA artist series right when I moved. That was the first one and then it just grew from there. Then I got another offer from another company, but I kind of held out for a while because I wanted to go with Kid Robot. And then I moved to New York and they had this money show, like a benefit. So I Hand painted a toy. And we’re in New York so I can finally check out the Kid Robot offices and then I got to meet the president Paul and he was like, ‘Wow! This is great! Do you want to make more toys?’, and I was like, ‘Mhm!’, and he was like, ‘John set up a meeting’, and then it went from there. It went to fun places for me as an artist.

And that was it. The Space channel was already in the gallery getting ready to interview Tara, and we wanted to wrap things up. The bit I mentioned about Tara not coming back to Canada for five years - is a customs thing. She was given a hard time over an infraction from when she was younger - and it will sadly prevent her from coming back to Canada until 2014.

Tara McPherson’s artwork can be found at both her website and MySpace. She was brought into town by the Narwhal Arts Projects, which is a new boutique space just up the street from Magic Pony, where McPherson’s toys and merchandise can be purchased. McPherson’s art exhibition will remain on display until May 25th 2009. Links for both the Narwhal Art Projects and Magic Pony are below.