Shugakuin (blue stretch), 2006. Ink and gouache on paper. 22" x 30".
Breath, memory. Think of the places you've been. Remember the sights you saw, the colors that made your eyes grow wide, the feeling of being at home, the knowledge of being far from it. Now, think of your dreams and abundant imagination: the seemingly unreal and uncharted worlds you've traversed, the living creatures you may have swam with, or from which you ran. Try to recreate them for someone. Would you use words? Images? Dance? Special Effects? Could you even map those emotions, convey those landscapes, return to those unmistakable but undefinable places?
Imagine that you can and that you do, on a regular basis. What's more, you've developed a singular way to get there, to recreate and convey these sites and senses, for yourself and others. Ann Tarantino, 32, explores the process of journeying from the abstract point A to the quite tangible point B mentioned above. Breath paintings. The process and product by which her Japan is pictured, her menagerie is set in motion, she gets to where she is and might be going.*
Given the environmental nature of her work, I decided to have the phone conversation in two key locales: in our favorite local parks (the first part), and then in our work places (her studio, my room). I believe this influenced the way our explanations and invitations to explore topics and tropes germane to her work manifested. Enjoy the "almost patterns" of the images and words stretching below. *
Introductions in the Park
CE: Hello. It's a long Sunday afternoon, in the middle of spring. I, Shahin Beigi, am at Boston Common. I'm speaking with Ann Tarantino, who is, where are you?
AT: I'm at Holmes-Foster Park.
CE: Tell me about the park.
AT: The park, well, it's not too big. Gosh, it's definitely smaller than The Common. It backs up on some people's yards. There are swings and this castle kind of thing. There are a lot of people out today, but I'm in a section that's pretty quiet.
CE: This is walking distance from your house?
AT: It's about five minutes from my house. I thought about going to a different spot, which is a funny grass alley behind my house. You can't really tell if it's public or private. It's kind of a funny in-between space. There were a lot of people, so I decided to come here. I might walk a little bit as we talk. I might end up back there.
CE: Does the alley have any resonance for you?
AT: Yeah, I mean I love the way that I don't really know if I'm allowed to be there, or if other people are allowed to be there. I don't know if it's part of my property or not. I don't know if I have to mow the grass, which I haven't done yet. I like it because it's a long strip of land that's unspoken for. You don't really know what it is, and that's so rare when, nowadays, every bit of land is so—everything has been claimed.
CE: So, it's by your house?
AT: Yes, it's right behind my house. I live near Penn State University with my husband, and we own a house close to campus. The alley is right behind.
CE: Great, so you're married. Can I ask you about how you met your husband?
AT: Sure. I met him when I was a graduate student at Penn State. He was studying mechanical engineering, and I was finishing up in the painting department. We only overlapped for a short time. I finished in 2001, and he was just getting started. We were both on the cycling team, so that's how we met.
CE: Bicycling team, as in competitive bike racing?
AT: Yeah. I was a serious competitive swimmer, from early childhood all the way through college. That's actually one of the things that sparked my interest in working with my breath, in painting. After I stopped swimming, I was looking for something to do and I ended up cycling for a few years.
CE: It's interesting how much bicycle culture is important to people these days. It takes on different forms, it takes on political forms, it takes on social forms.
AT: We just got back less than a year ago from couple years of living in Japan. I mean nobody has—well, not nobody—but people don't really drive. People ride bikes everywhere. You see women, elderly women—these 85 year-old women—riding their bikes to do grocery shopping. It's unbelievable.
CE: Your husband went with you to Japan?
AT: Yes, we went there because he got a job working in a lab at a university in Kyoto. We left a week after we got married, and we were there for about two years. During that time, I was teaching English and painting. That's when I started to refine the technique of working more with my breath, and blowing ink with the straw.
CE: Just to get years down: you went to Japan when?
AT: I was in Japan from fall of 2004 until summer of 2006. So I guess it's not quite two years. What happened was: I finished graduate school in 2001.Then I lived in New York for about 3 ½ years, got married, left New York, went to Japan, then moved back here. Now I'm working in the studio, doing various freelance things, and working as an adjunct professor at Penn State. You know, whatever I can, but mostly trying to focus on my work right now. I'm back in the alley now, by the way. The park felt too public.
CE: I just moved. I was in the center of this large quad. Then these kids came by and started laughing. It's pretty cute, these four young women are lying down: their heads are all together, their legs are out, like a star, and they're looking up, and they're sharing I-Pods.
AT: It sounds really sweet.
CE: It's pretty amazing. I get the biggest kick out of the smallest things. I take interesting photos of boring stuff, because I get a kick out of that sort of thing.
An Artist Prepares
CE: Anyway, this trip to Japan seemed to really influence your work and all the things behind your work.
AT: It really did. I think I was going in this direction before I left; although, when I was in New York, that wasn't a productive time for me as an artist, really. It was more like an incubation period. I wasn't very productive in the studio at all. By the time I got to Japan, I was ready to go. Even now, when I look at the work, it feels very Japanese, like it has a Japanese aesthetic. I had looked at a lot of Eastern landscape painting—Japanese and Chinese—and I was really influenced by that. Something really changed when I was there: something about the scale of the objects, or the colors. All the colors were different. The colors of the food—they had fluorescent pickles!—and the trees were different greens than I had seen before.
CE: I'm sorry. You said fluorescent what?
AT: Fluorescent pickles, because they pickle everything. You could get pickled eggplant, daikon radish, and carrots, everything. Some of the pickles were this crazy, fluorescent pink. They're pickled in miso. I was really taken by the colors, so I started using fluorescents, and a lot of pinks and reds, in the work I was doing over there.
CE: Yeah, I have questions about your colors, later on. I'm really taken by them.
Okay, now I'm not going to ask you questions about your background in painting, as well as your life in State College. It could keep getting tangential from each question, though.
The first one--it's three questions in one.
How did you end up doing what you're known for-- painting?
How many years have you been doing it?
Does it satisfy a childhood passion or interest?
AT: Well, can I start with the last one?
AT: I definitely always felt, as a kid, that I wanted to do something creative. It took me a little while to figure out what it was going to be. I was obsessed with magazines and with making collages. I was always tearing things up and gluing them together. I was just really into color. I was always drawing. I think I knew as a kid that I wanted to be an artist. It was definitely a childhood passion. But I came to painting late. I didn't take my first painting class until I was a sophomore in college.
It was the second semester of my sophomore year. Where I went to school, you don't have to declare your major until the end of your sophomore year. I finally got into a painting class, and decided that it was so fabulous. It was so great. It was this big, funny, emotional thing. I went shopping for my paints, actually, at the Pearl Paint in Central Square [in Cambridge, MA ]. And I started crying in the store, because I was so happy. I just sort of looked at the paint, and I hadn't even made a painting, I didn't know what I was I doing, and I was crying in the store—not weeping, but with tears in my eyes. It was this really ridiculous thing, but I knew that that was the right thing for me.
CE: Brown has amazing departments for everything, just about. Who are some of the artists that you worked closely with?
AT: I worked most closely with Wendy Edwards. She's an abstract painter. She is an incredibly warm and generous person. She gives her students a ton of leeway to--- this is a very Brown thing, I guess—figure things out on your own. So it wasn't like, in a lot of programs, where you start with color theory and you do a lot academic drawing. We just kind of started and made paintings. She was really supportive and gave me a lot of encouragement and guidance. She was definitely a mentor figure for me. I worked with the other faculty--took some printmaking classes, some drawing classes. I worked a little bit with Jerry Mischak, who is now at RISD, and took a drawing class at Mass Art. But when I think about undergrad, I think about Wendy.
CE: Are there any phrases that she said? I had a few mentors, but one was something of a father figure, and he would say, maybe ten phrases, over and over and over but it didn't matter, because, to this day, they stay with me.
AT: I wish she did, it would make for so much of a better story. I think it was just more kind of a general openness, and acceptance of exploration. Even when the paintings were very bad--and there were a lot of bad paintings.
CE: Did you feel comfortable in school critiques, or is that something to which you didn't look forward?
AT: As an undergrad, I didn't. I didn't particularly enjoy it. It was hard for me to give criticism, and hard for me to receive it. Then in graduate school, it was like being totally ripped out of this warm and cozy environment and being thrown to the wolves. Critiques were so tough, and really, really hard. That was tough to get a handle on. But now that I'm out of school, I miss it. I want someone to come into my studio and say, "This is terrible. You need to change this, and this, and this." Or, "This is what you need to do." Now, I really like it. I try to get people into my studio whenever I can. But as a student, it was really difficult.
CE: Do your friends influence your work or your relationship to it? Have you ever made a piece while thinking about someone in particular?
AT: That's a good question. To be perfectly honest, I don't think about somebody else until after. When I'm done, that's when I figure out what it's about. I value the conversations I have with all of my artist friends and non-artist friends. I love having people in my studio. I tend to have a small number of very close friends. So, if I talk to someone about my work, or have them in my studio, then it's probably going to be someone I really care about, someone whose opinion I really value. So yeah, I do feel influenced by my friends and peers.
CE: In hindsight, tell me about a project that you're most proud about. That now, you're like, "That was really good that I did that series, or changed this about my art."
AT: I feel really good about the way I was able to use my work to explore Japan. Actually, it was the first time that I really felt like I had subject matter, or like I had a real connection to a place and that my work was about that place. Before that, it was like I was just making things. Of course, there were formal concerns, theoretical concerns, and that sort of thing, but I never felt totally committed to one thing or another. I felt like the work I did in Japan was much more cohesive, and that I used it to teach myself about the place and to make for myself a place in the culture.
CE: There weren't a lot of options to enter the culture?
AT: Yeah, there was a huge disconnect. I got to the point where my Japanese was pretty good and I could carry on basic conversations. I could go shopping, pay the bills, and go to the doctor, but I couldn't read anything. You know, they use kanji, the Chinese characters, and so I was effectively illiterate, even though I could speak. There's only so far you can go when you can't read. So I used my work to make sense of everything I was seeing and doing. That made me feel like my work had more of a purpose, instead of just kind of being there.
If You are in State College, and You Like Cheese
CE: I'm invested in this "making home" idea. To me, State College is where my friend Katie Ochs grew up. You know, people and stories make places more real. Consequently, you're living in that dot on the map. So, I had a few questions about State College . How is your life there, what are some places or locales there that mean a lot to you? The ones that you think are great.
AT: This is a funny kind of place. It's not like any other place that I've ever been. And it's not even like other college towns that I've ever been to. I grew up, have always lived, and went to school in and around cities. So, when I got here, I wasn't prepared for it to be quite so rural, which actually, now, I think is something special and cool.
Some of my favorite places are places that I've been on my bike rides. There are wonderful hills here. They stop short of being mountains, really, but there are really steep hills that are great for cycling. There are a lot of hidden spots that I like to go to, like one hiking trail where wild blueberries grow.
CE: Is there any good food out there? Any places that you like to eat?
AT: There's not the restaurant scene that you would expect from a town with so many students. There's this new Korean restaurant, which is really good. There's this little place that's run by a couple funny guys from Austria. The food is delicious. It's called Herwig's Austrian Bistro . I actually work part-time at the local cheese shop.
CE: You said tea, t-e-a?
AT: Cheese—fancy cheeses. We sell different kinds of imported cheeses and pates and chocolates, things like that, and we also roast coffee. It's not a restaurant, but that's probably one of my favorite places to eat. I think the best eating you do here is in people's houses. The art faculty and people I know really love to cook. So I think that's the best eating in town.
CE: What's the name of the place where you work?
AT: The official name is W.C. Clarke Fine Roasted Coffees, but it started as a cheese shop before adding the coffee, and everyone just calls it The Cheese Shop.
CE: So the faculty comes together and they cook eat together?
AT: Yeah, Well, there're a lot of potlucks. Yeah, artists and their potlucks, man—it's the best!
CE: One of the guys I sent you a link to, Stephen DiRado, he's a friend and professor at Clark. He's getting bigger, hopefully. He has a few series. One of them is about taking photos of people eating and enjoying time together. At least once a week he has this salon. If you're: a graduated art major, from this extended pool of professors and artists, or are a visiting artist or lecturer, you're invited. They all hang out for hours. Then he will cook, or someone will cook. Then he'll take these photos that are semi-staged, with him often staring back at the camera. Sometimes, they're not staged at all. They're done with 8 x 10s cameras, so they're very detailed. They're something else.
AT: It sounds great. That's exactly the kind of gathering that I have such fond memories being a part of when I was a student and then here now, again. Food and eating are very important to me. The ceremony of food it, preparation of food, eating with people, and sharing that is a really powerful thing. It's a great way to connect, you know?
CE: Speaking of connecting with people, tell me about a good conversation that you've had recently.
AT: I had a really nice conversation, on Friday at lunch, with a woman I recently met. She teaches screenwriting and film production at Penn State . We met randomly, through a mutual friend, and later found out that we both went to the same high school, which is really bizarre. Anyway, I just kind of met her and we ended up having lunch. It's not so often, in my adult life anyway, that I make a new friend that I feel I really connect with. We had a long conversation about art and film and our lives, and I found it really energizing and engaging. It was interesting to talk with her and connect with her on a personal level, and also as a fellow creative being.
CE: About working with other creative beings, you've been in a few exhibitions here and in Japan. Share an experience of being in a group show that you were excited or proud of, then one that was a nightmare, the way things turned out.
AT: Ha. I'll tell you about one that was a total nightmare that was in Japan. It was a small solo show and it was the most stressful thing. The person who was coordinating things and in charge of the space kept touching my work, like picking it up with his hands. I was showing a bunch of tiny little drawings, they were very delicate. I couldn't tell him well enough in Japanese that I didn't want him to do it, and it was pretty bad. I almost started crying because I was so frustrated.
As for the other part of the question, I'm in a couple group shows coming up this summer that I'm excited about. One of them is at Mixed Greens in New York. They're actually showing some of the work from Japan . The show is called "Road Trip," and it's on work that's about travel or a place, about location and dislocation, this kind of thing. It opens in July.
CE: Sounds interesting.
CE: Do you listen to music when you work, or is it a much more solitary experience--just you, the straw, and the inks? When you do listen to music, what do you listen to?
AT: I usually listen to music. It really depends. It's kind of all over the map. The other day, Grizzly Bear. And before that, I was listening to Astrud Gilberto. And then something that my brother sent me. He's a music producer and he worked on this album of this young woman playing the ukulele. He sent it to me, and I was psyched about it. It was fun.
CE: Cool, cool. Then the next few are just about the pieces. If you're tired or want to skip a question, just let me know. I wrote these questions and comments off the cuff, after looking at your work a few more times. They're going to be subjective questions, while also inviting you to talk about your work.
Your work makes me think of my senses and the mixture of them. It brings to mind the feeling of synesthesia, and at the same time, the sharp, strong possibilities of each sense. I feel a mixture of the senses when I see them, but then I also, because there is such a sharp shift—you know where there is ink and where there isn't—it makes you think of senses and think of color and placement. As in: "this hint of pink here could really hit your eyes in a certain way." It makes me think of music, actually. Some of the musical ones seem to be like landscapes, too (i.e., The City Was Still There and Invisible Cities).
Could you just talk about the role of the senses in your work?
AT: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that once I started working with the ink and the straw, I became more aware of sensory stimulation and the delicacy of things. It's a very personal, intimate act, to be so close to the piece of paper or surface and actually using my breath to move the ink, so I kind of become more aware of what's going on around me. Some senses seem to sharpen, like my sense of touch and probably hearing. With these new pieces, I want people to feel that sense of—almost like touching grass or feeling someone breathe on your neck, you know?
CE: Yeah, then there's one that looks like flowers. It made me think of what happens when you close your eyes and you open them, and then you close them again. You see, like the shot of the flowers, it hits you when you close your eyes then half open them. It's like a film effect; it looks like a suggestion of flowers, bam!
Ink and gouache on paper. 22" x 30".
AT: Mmm. That's such a wonderful description, thank you.
CE: Definitely. In the most simple, practical terms, what is your process, with the straw, the ink, and the paper?
AT: I guess I'll try to describe the process first. Actually, my process is really changing right now, so things are pretty fluid. I'm starting a new body of work that's more physical. With the pieces that are in New American Paintings, I used some wonderful inks in Kyoto. They were in little bottles with droppers, and I would draw with the ink dropper. I would leave a little extra ink or lay the ink on heavier in some spots, and then use the straw to get the inks to move in certain places, or to create a delicacy you couldn't really do with your hand. So I would kind of start like that, by making a few marks, and use my breath to expand the marks, and then to expand the little bit that I had done by hand. Then I would work on top of that: sometimes with more ink, sometimes with more gouache, with watercolor a little bit, and fill it in and flesh it out. That's how they became these little creatures, you know?
CE: The watercolor doesn't enter the straw?
AT: No, no. The ink isn't actually in the straw. The ink is dropped onto the page. I'll put it on the page and then I'll blow through the straw. I'm starting to experiment with maybe putting ink in the straw, or using different kinds of tools, like atomizers, or syringes, or all kinds of weird things. Like ways to blow the ink, using other kinds of "not-tools."
CE: That's really, really interesting. I take photos and I use an old 110 camera and old land Polaroids. A few years back, I just started putting them in flasks. I put the photos in them, or I do things with them, like cut on them or put other things in there, like sand or bottle caps. It's interesting, using these other elements to tweak what you're doing, but also your way of relating to it becomes even closer. You're almost closer to the ink because you're using it with these specifically chosen things, like the straw.
AT: Yeah, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of using other tools because, on the one hand, I don't want the technique to become my shtick. I want to explore other kinds of marks. At the same time, as you were suggesting, there's much more of a removal if you're, I mean, there's something about the act, I mean it's so intimate and private, to know that you moved something with your breath, as opposed to pressing a button or pulling a lever, or something like that. So, I'm interested in it, but I'm a little wary as well.
CE: The straws you use, are they standard restaurant straws?
AT: Yeah, they are, I just grab extra straws every time I go some place that has them.
CE: So they're not especially thicker or thinner than standard issue straws?
AT: No. I tried experimenting with all different kinds of straws. I tried using really small ones, the kind you use to stir a cocktail, and I found that the results weren't really all that different. The standard restaurant straw, there's something about it, it's perfect. I don't know if it's the circumference, or what it is, that allows it to really amplify a single breath . It's kind of amazing because it's a super low-tech tool that harnesses this energy from the body and makes it really, really powerful.
CE: And is it a traditional Japanese technique, blowing with the straw and ink?
AT:Well, no. I had thought, in this kind of self-congratulatory way, that this was something totally unique. I started doing it a little bit before I got to Japan, but I didn't really explore it until I got there. People started coming to my studio and they would say, "You know, that's like cave paintings. Like the cave paintings at Lascaux." People would blow through tubes, these hollowed out tree trunks or something like that. That was an early kind of mark-making. And then in Vermont, I met a Korean woman who said it's actually something that children do in Korea. It's considered a kid's game and it's a kind of mark-making tool.
I do think that the technique itself has a relationship to parts of Japanese culture, in terms of the ritual and repetition and the quiet physicality of it. It reminds me of their calligraphic tradition, or tea ceremony. Doing something over and over, and trying to get it perfect, but recognizing that it might never be just right—but you still keep trying, because you might get it right, just not for a long time—that, to me, speaks to an element of Japanese culture.
CE: And you say that you're inspired by landscape painting of the East and West. Could you spell that out a little bit? I would imagine it would take a while. Maybe just share some examples.
AT: Well, I have recently been looking at Chinese landscape painting from the Sung Dynasty. What I really love in a lot of Chinese landscape, in particular, is the funny shifts in scale and just how something will be really, really tiny, or really, really huge. It's sort of comic-booky, in a way. And I love the scroll orientation and the sense of gravity.
I'm also interested in some young painters who are making work that is loosely rooted in landscape. Not traditional landscapes in the sense that people think of it but work that's kind of sinister and funny and energetic and witty, but also landscape-based. There's a wonderful show in Chicago recently, this really young woman, like in her 20's, named Claire Sherman. And I also love Nina Bovasso and Laura Owens. There are references to landscapes in their work that I really love. And I also look at a lot of photography and installation.
CE: Wow. Wow. I'm going to look up all these people. Wow, as in a sound of excitement. When I was young I was worried that people thought I was trying to name drop, but it's different. The one thing I'm really good at is sharing culture and such with people. When I mention something, it's out of this, "I'm so fascinated by this thing and you can check it out and know!" And see the connection between Tom Waits and literary theory, or whatever it is. These conversations, these confluences are made up of different things you can see, share and consider again. Yeah, landscape to me is very, very, very broad.
AT: Okay, good. Sometimes I wonder if people understand what I mean when I talk about my work in terms of landscape. Sometimes it's just an easier way for someone to enter into the work if there is a concept there to grab onto. And I know exactly what you mean about wanting to tell people about other artists. That happens to me all the time and then you think, you don't want to sound like a jerk but you have all these ideas of: "You know, you could look at this person," or, "This is really interesting." I love that. I think that's the best thing we could do for each other, really.
CE: I was wondering about some of the titles in your work. The Japanese phrases, is—what is—I'm just going to try to pronounce it.
AT: Shugakuin [laughs]. Shugakuin is the name of one of the neighborhoods I was living in Kyoto. The first series I did was Ichijoji, which is the name of another neighborhood nearby, and we were living in a tiny apartment—like 200 square feet—so I made tiny little drawings.
CE: Is that another place, or is it within, or while in Shugakuin?
AT: Kyoto is made up of all these tiny little neighborhoods and you never really know when you are in one or when you're in another. We lived for a while in Ichijoj, and then we moved to Shugakuin, which was literally only half a mile down the road. We had a bigger apartment, so I could work bigger. I organized the work by the neighborhoods because they're about place.
CE: Definitely. Well, about color. It's funny because with art, you always bring your own self to it. With anything that was green [in the work], I thought, "Oh that's like grass!" Because I'm obsessed with soft, lilting grass, and the Emily Dickinson world type of thing. And anything that was pink, I was like, "That's flesh!" And then my art history side came out. In a couple places it looked like Philip Guston pink and I was like, "Oh that's like Phillip Guston!" Do you get "obnoxious" folks who say things like: "This must be like Phillip Guston"?
This is to say, I want to hear more about the colors.
AT: Well, it's interesting that you picked up on the greens. I was really interested in the fact that the trees were really different. There were a lot of different greens that I hadn't seen in the U.S. Kyoto is in a valley, with mountains all around. We lived in the north-eastern edge of the city and you could look up into the mountains and see trees that weren't like any colors I'd ever seen. I don't know if it was the quality of light, or if it was different foliage. That's why I used a lot of greens when I was there. There were moss gardens that I visited a lot, and I was interested in the colors there, too.
But with the pink, there were all kinds of foods, which I think I talked about earlier. The pickles and candy, and especially the traditional sweets, were fascinating in terms of shape and color and texture.
Ann in the Studio
CE: It would be good to talk about your paintings and drawings closely.
AT: Sounds good. I'm in my studio and I have a computer and I could look at whatever images, assuming they will be on the website. So yeah, we could look at and talk about it at the same time.
CE: Let's start with the work from Vermont. They seem to be larger than your other work.
AT: They're really big. The two that are vertically orientated are 72 x 60 in. and they're on canvas. One of the things that I focused on in VT was working big because—certainly when I was in Japan and even since I've moved back in the US—I wasn't able to do that. I was limited by the size of my space, and just by the fact that I had been working small, and also on paper, for such a long time. Conceptually that's a huge jump to make. This was a really nice opportunity to make bigger paintings.
CE: You enjoy working small and working big, in different respects?
AT: Yeah, definitely. It's important for me to do both. I always refer to the works on paper as drawings and the works on canvas as paintings but I don't know if that's such an important distinction. It's all coming from the same place. It's painting on canvas or painting on paper.
CE: You mentioned that you don't really think about what you're doing until it's done. Yet, what was the aesthetic you were exploring with in the Vermont work?
AT: In addition to the big paintings, I did about 15 or so drawings and then maybe six or eight very small paintings, 10 x 12 inches. They maintain elements of the same aesthetic of the works on paper, but they're different, obviously. One of the things that make them really different is the physicality. With these paintings, I started out with a big bottle of ink, and started by making a pretty aggressive gesture toward the canvas with the inks. Throwing the ink onto the canvas as it was standing up, and then working as the ink was flowing and dripping, following that ink with the straw, seeing what would happen, and then going back in and painting the little areas that got blocked off by the little lines of ink that I blew. Does that make any sense?
AT: It feels more bodily and sort of more about growth. Some of the older works share some of the organic feeling, but it was more, it felt more like landscape-y. And this to me feels more biological, and more sort of bodily.
CE: Let's see. By biological, do you mean echoing the human form, as well, or just, more kinetic in the way you made the pieces?
AT: Anytime you have something orientated vertically the way these are—they're basically tall, skinny canvases—there's always going to be a relationship to the body, to the figure. In the same sense, when you have something that's a landscape orientation, there's a tendency to want to read it as always a landscape. So I meant that. But also, in formal terms, they feel like under water forms or something that's growing in the sea, or weird plant formations, or coral reefs, or something like
this. I guess that's more of a reference to biological than to body.
I guess that's more of a reference to biological than to body.
CE: Yeah, the lines that go up.
AT: Yes, the lines that drift up feel important, like they have their own identities and personalities, somehow.
CE: You were saying about the time in at the Vermont Studio Center . It's one of the largest artist residencies, and you live in these—
AT: It's a tiny town, called Johnson, and the studio bought a bunch of the old buildings on the main street. Some of them are houses; some are old, bigger buildings
Growing Green, 2007. 72" x 60".
that the studios are in. My studio was in an old church, which was fabulous. Big windows, you could see the mountains outside. They have visiting artists and writers come in and give talks about their work and conduct studio visits, which is great. It's a chance to totally focus and not think about anything else. Someone else is making your meals, cleaning up, and doing everything else for you. It's this idyllic, otherworldly setting.
AT: I met some wonderful people, and really connected with a couple in particular. One of the best things about it for me was being around writers and other like-minded folks, and seeing the overlap and the intersections between the two
practices. To think about how a painter and a fiction writer might be grappling with similar issues or have similar subject matter. It really wasn't something I had thought about much before.
CE: It's hard to speak about your work without seeing it in person, you know, without having lived with it a while, or seen it a few times. Yet, it seems that your pieces allow the viewer the possibility to make something up to go along with them. Is that wrong, or would you prefer your work to have specific narratives and ideas attached and expressed?
AT: No, I think that's great. I love the idea and hope that that's true. I hope that that's what people do. I mean, that's the ideal, that's like a perfect world kind of scenario.
Breath Portrait (blue and yellow pod), 2007. 22" x 30".
Breath Portrait (blue and yellow pod)
CE: I was wondering, to go back to the VT paintings, about Breath Portrait (blue and yellow pod). What's going on there, visually or personally?
AT: Well, this piece, to me, bears a relationship to a couple of the first drawings that I did from the "Shugakuin" series. Blue Stretch is actually the first one of those pieces that I did. That was when I was trying to see how far I could blow a single drop of ink across the page . This piece bears a formal relationship to that one, although the reason I was calling these pieces "growing" is because things are going off the page and actually extending out in to another space in ways that the works that I mentioned earlier—the "Shugagkuin" pieces, anyway—really aren't. They're more contained on the page and they seem like they're growing or expanding, but they're also kind of enclosed.
With Breath Portrait (blue and yellow pod), I actually used gravity to move the ink, and the blown line goes all the way off the page. I turned the paper to the side and let it drip and go on its own. I coaxed it along a little bit, but I didn't want to control it too much. So, I guess these pieces—the whole lot of the drawings that I did in VT anyway, are sort of about not trying to control things, working more with chance.
CE: Does this mirror your relationship with where you are in life? In Japan, you were saying that you were grappling with situating yourself there and, at the same time, building a home, finding comfort, and finding a relationship with the space. And maybe, now in VT, at least, if not in your life, maybe things.… Is it a representation of how you're approaching things these days?
AT: That's very insightful. Yeah. I think that's probably true, on a couple of different levels. Part of it is the obvious, like when I got to Vermont and had a great studio where I could do whatever I wanted. I could throw ink at the canvas and not worry, not be in a tiny little apartment studio and worry that I was going to get evicted for making a mess. So, part of it is that physical freedom. Along with it—for me, at least—comes a huge psychological and artistic freedom as well. Ellen Gallagher is a favorite painter of mine, and I remember hearing her say once—she works on top of children's writing paper from school—and she said, "I love rules. I love having rules and restrictions and I like to work within the restrictions and kind of make something new." She was referring to the safety and comfort in the lined paper and the fact that it was already sort of mapping out a structure for her. So the rules can force me to be more creative. And I enjoyed that about working in a different kind of environment with more limited resources. But now that I'm out of that and I have more control over what's going on, I don't feel like I need to control things so strictly.
AT: No, not necessarily. I think that there are conscious and subconscious connotations to a lot of different things. But really, I don't want to make something that's already there; I want to make something new. Something that is-- some kind of creature or something that you haven't seen before, but you think you maybe might see sometime. You're not sure where, you don't know what it is, but there is something familiar about it.
CE: Definitely, definitely. So you could enter into figuring out what it might be by what we know, but it's like nothing we know, because it's not, it's yet to be.
It's interesting, without the artist's statement, or without your explanation... I'm just thinking if this wasn't me looking at this. If someone were to see this, or your work in general, with no explanation, in a gallery. It would be interesting to imagine how they would see it, what they would come up with. Also, I wanted to think of the oval as being either a window or a mirror, and the stuff inside being a landscape that you get to see. It works, if you cut it from everything else. It's really neat,how there's an openness to what it can be.
AT: I want there to be. I hope that's true.
* Image of painting at top of article. *
CE: To return to the Japan work: are there any of these which mean the most to you?
AT: Let's see. Yeah, I suppose Blue Stretch, which I mentioned earlier. I will always look at that piece as being emblematic of a certain time in my life, and like this moment where I was trying to figure out where I was going to go with my work and life. I was starting to refine the process of controlling my breath and working with ink. I felt like I was just scratching the surface of it all. This piece feels like it's trying to hard to extend off the page. You almost feel, looking at it, that if another gust of air could come along and sort of push that line across the page, it would continue, but it's not quite getting there on its own. So, in a way, it's a sort of failure, but its a nice failure. It's contained, but it doesn't feel limited at least not to my eye. The piece, I suppose has a special place for me. I'm fond of it, for sentimental reasons.
CE: Hmm. Yeah, it's very beautiful, the way the two ends--the two parts that are connected to the line--could be so many different things, you know? It could be movement, from the left to the right. Wait, it almost looks like a map to me (some of the other pieces do, as well). A map connecting these two things. It doesn't seem like one is necessarily better than the other, it's just connecting (I don't have the words for it) two disparate things: maybe one is an object, a tangible thing, and the other is an intagible thing, like a "getting there." Like you were saying,, if it's going from left to right, the right side is the physical representation, perhaps, of closure. It can go off the page, almost. It seems to say, "Dot, dot, dot."
AT: Yeah, it wants to.
CE: It wants to. Wow, wow. Do you have these up around your house?
AT: No, I don't. Some of them are in shows, so they're in various places across the country. Some of them have sold. The ones that I have left are in my portfolio. I decided that I'm going to keep one of them, but I haven't decided which one. I like to do that with each body of work, hang on to one piece.
CE: That's a really great idea. I don't know what it's like to give up your work, consecutively and professionally, year after year. I mean, it would be hard not to be able to look at your work in person, to no longer live with it and have it shake you.
AT: Yeah, it's really wrenching. You send your work out into the world, and you don't know — I mean, for all you know, someone could be buying it because they want to tear it up and throw it away. Probably not, but it's kind of devastating every time something leaves. Actually, I have a tendency to destroy things that aren't perfect. For every piece that is successful, there are probably seven or eight that I've deemed unsuccessful and that I've destroyed. I decided, because I was being so mercenary about it, that I was just going to have to save a few things. You know, I just couldn't let everything go.
CE: Do you still have Blue Stretch, so far?
AT: I do, I do.
CE: That's good, that's good.
Shugakuin (greens), 2006. Ink and gouache on paper. 22" x 30".
CE: The Shugakuin (greens) piece, what's going on there?
AT: That piece was really different from some of the others. It's denser and there's a lot more activity. There's a different kind of density and engagement with forms. I was interested in connecting these two forms, and showing almost a symbiotic or parasitic relationship between the two creatures. Are they growing together? Are they fighting? Is it an adversarial relationship, or is it some kind of partnership? The colors. I made several visits to a couple of the moss gardens in Kyoto. I went to one where there were hundreds of different kinds of moss. I was looking at all the shades of green, and wanted to incorporate that into the piece.
CE: This one, when I first saw it looked like two creatures running: the one on the right running in front of the other one.
AT: Yeah, they're kind of holding hands, too. That is really funny. I hadn't thought about that.
CE: But I could also see the fighting. I could even see, just because the one of the left looks like it's more stable, physically, to go back to Blue Stretch,, it's almost like one is jumping from the other. Pieces like this one lend themselves to narratives, along the lines of: children's books, short story collection, even indie rock or avant-garde concept albums. Have you ever written a little story for these?
AT: No I haven't. That's a fun idea, though. They are getting more and more like little creatures.
Pink, Pink, Pink, Pink, Pink
CE: Pink seems to be a color that is close to you, color that excites you. It ranges in its incarnations, tones, and meanings in the paintings.
AT: There's something so bodily about it. I find it to be a very human color. And I love the huge variety of pinks. You can have these almost obnoxious, flourescenty pinks, or pinks that are comforting and warm. To me, pink is the equivalent of when I think of a circle. This very safe shape, it's sort of enclosed and there's something about it that's safe. I know that sounds funny, but I feel that way about the color pink, which is why it's shown up in so much of my work.
CE: Is it a color that, as a kid, filled your life? Was your room pink? Was it a color that meant something to you?
AT: Oh yeah, I liked all the girly stuff. Everything was pink and purple. Even now. I got married in a pink dress. There's just something about it. It's such a wonderful color. It makes me really happy. I just think it's beautiful.
CE: So you were married in a pink dress? That's amazing! Did you have to order it?
AT: Well, it wasn't actually a wedding dress. It was more like a party dress.
CE: That must have been great.
AT: Yeah, it was cool.
CE: When pink comes out in your images, there's just so much severity to it. It's this recurring motif for which you have a reverence. The Ichijoji (Pink Balloon) looks like such a beautiful use of pink. In other ones it's playful, like in Ichijoji (Shocking Pink). At times, you seem to be focused on body parts, as in Shugakuin (Pink and Brown). That looks like a lot of body parts put together.
AT: Like ganglia or something?
CE: Yeah, yeah. Or like a lot of small photos of someone's flesh, put together. Like a congregation of flesh. I just can't get over Pink Balloon! I just want to hear its sounds and walk with it, if it walks, if it can walk. And from the body, it looks thoroughly feminine. Do you hate readings like that?
AT: No, no. I get a lot of that, actually. I get people saying, "I looked at your work. I didn't know you, but I knew that it was made by a woman." People say things like that. I think that it's always interesting. I mean, that's kind of a dangerous territory. But definitely, I'm trying to work with a delicacy and kind of elegance that a lot of people associate with the feminine. That's not problematic for me, not at all.
CE: I guess the thing I want to clear up is that the piece seems to be very feminine, but it doesn't necessarily mean that a woman would have to make it, so to speak. But I could see how you get that sort of critique from your work.
Michigan, Japan, Boston, and Elsewhere
CE: You've been in a bunch a group shows. Are there any pieces that your work was juxtaposed alongside, or grouped with a specific artist, that made you say, "Wow, that's great! There's this conversation going on between my work and this person's work!"
AT: That's a good question. I haven't seen anything that's really jumped out at me. Although, several of the shows I've been in recently, I haven't been able to see, because I'm not always able to travel. I was in a show at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was excited by what I know about the other work that was in the show. I wish I could have seen the juxtapositions.
CE: With gallery shows, there are cards and this sort of thing, which are sent out. Have you ever had a chance to design your work for prints or cards?
AT: Well, this is kind of different, but in Japan, I showed at this gallery called Neutron, and it hd a small store and a café attached. I designed t-shirts that were for sale in the shop during the show. It was really, really great. I love the idea of taking a painting, something that would normally just hang on the wall and sort of sit there, and make it into something useful. So we used images from a couple different paintings. On one of the shirts, I put half of the image on the front left of the t-shirt, and then the other half wrapping around the side. If you were wearing the shirt, it would be wrapping around the right side. Then I painted a line in between, around the back, so each one was little different. We did limited runs of two different shirts, and each one had a different painting on it. It was really really fun.
CE: Wow, that's amazing.
AT: Yeah, it was cool. It was such a great idea.
CE: I have friends who make stenciled shirts. Shaun Kessler, a friend from college, did a few series of different characters he would incorporate with art or everyday objects and sites. In one series, he would go to the supermarket and place animal character stickers on all the food. In another one, he put a baby bird stencil in various public spaces. Its fascinating to me, the mixing of art and other objects, like fusing fabric with "art."
AT: Yeah, it was a real eye-opener, going to Japan and seeing a totally different conception of the function of art. A lot of traditional Japanese artwork would be considered craft, in the west: useful objects, like ceramics, fabrics, or kimono. As a result, you might find a gallery in a department store. I saw a Paul Klee show in a department store in Osaka. You woul never do that in the West. We think about it so differently. There, it made perfect sense. It was fun, to get to do that, to actually use painting to make a product. It was a really interesting experience.
CE: Definitely. Another question. We were talking a lot about your paintings as these landscapes, sometimes with animals, but always as these spaces you could enter into and interact with. Are there any art works that come to mind that you wish you could physically jump into and enter those worlds?
AT: Great question! It's hard to answer, because there are so many... but I think I'd like to step into a Sarah Sze installation, a painting by Nina Bovasso, or a photograph by Justine Kurland.
CE: Wonderful. On the topic of people and warping to other places, whom do you miss today?
AT: Today I miss my mom, who is a great friend. I miss my brothers today, too. And, one friend of mine that I've recently fallen out of touch, and I really regret that, so I feel that I need to do something about it.
CE: And you want to get back in touch with her.
AT: Yeah, I do. She's really important to me.
CE: Have you been interviewed before, about your work?
AT: No, not formally. I've talked about it and given lectures and presentations. That's always you against the world. You're up there one your own, with people interrogating you or looking at you. This is very different. It's totally relaxed and easy and fun.
CE: Good, good. What is the last thing you smiled about?
AT: Last thing I smiled about, before this conversation? Because I've been smiling for the last while, now. That's really hard to answer because I smile a lot. Recently, a wonderful piece of chocolate that I ate this afternoon.
CE: That's exciting!
AT: Yeah, I love chocolate and I eat a lot of it. I had this particularly amazing square of chocolate this afternoon. That would have to be it. This was a Vosges chocolate bar with ancho chilis and cinnamon, and it was really delicious.
CE: Wonderful, hmm. I'm so glad I raninto your work. Well, if you're ever in the Boston area...
AT: I'm sure our paths will cross. Thanks, Shahin. Have a good weekend.
CE: Definitely. Take care.
AT: You, too. Bye-bye.
Ichijoji (pink balloon), 2005. Ink and gouache on paper. 7 1/2" x 7 1/2".
* Both above images are Pink Balloon . CE has chosen to allow
balloon to multiply, dance, sing (as you choose to see it).
* "Breath paintings" and "almost patterns" are phrases taken from Ann
Tarantino's arist statment, found at www.anntarantino.com. "Breath,
memory" is an invention of the author, coated with a semi-obvious nod
to a famous butterfly collector.