The Crown seeks to give exposure to local and international artists through The Crown Gallery, and hosts new artists each quarter. The Crown Gallery is currently accepting submissions for the first quarter of 2021, and is seeking artists who approach issues related to environmental sustainability, intersectionality, the City of Oakland, and of course, coffee.
As curator and Creative Director here at The Crown, I’ve decided to do a series of interviews with our artists so that everyone can hear what inspires them. The coffee industry is comprised of people with multifarious passions, and during my time as a coffee professional I have encountered people steeped in disciplines as disparate as music composition and astrophysics. It only seems fair to give time to one group I have met most frequently in the coffee industry: visual artists. So join us for an exploration of the natural world, Bay Area culture, and our favorite beverage with the resident artists at The Crown Gallery.
I met Tara Tucker way back in 2010 when I was working as a barista at Local 123, a multiroaster café on San Pablo near University in Berkeley, California. Tara would come in frequently, and sometimes bring in her wonderfully ornate drawings to work on in the café. One day, I couldn’t help but notice the bag she was carrying, which was adorned by an amazingly detailed drawing of a boar. When I inquired, she grinned and said ‘I drew that!’ Her work stuck in my mind, and I was privileged enough to see it shown around the Bay Area frequently in the past 9 years – and especially privileged to have her as the inaugural resident artist at The Crown Gallery.
Tara’s work focuses on the confluence and interplay of plant, animal, and human. The symbiosis of flora and fauna in her world is of the highest degree: sapient creatures are fused with and adorned by orchids and other epiphytes. Spider monkeys and whippets with human expressions look out at you from the frames.
Many of the plants and animals in her work come from the coffee growing world, and to my mind, having these wonderful creatures in The Crown couldn’t be more fitting. Formally, the work she presented was monochromatic and filled with natural lines – a perfect counterpoint to the geometric jewelbox of The Crown.
Evan Gilman: When did you start making art? Was there a first medium you fell in love with?
Tara Tucker: I decided that I wanted to be an artists when my mom and I were volunteering at the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara, and it was because my mom volunteered to do taxidermy for the museum, and she brought me along once a week. I did my homework, then I numbered bones! I got the know the scientists that worked in that lab, and they were all biologists. There was an illustrator there who worked there, illustrating papers and books and all that. He also went out to the jungle with the biologists for weeks at a time, where he would draw their specimens on site. They would also bring back bird specimens that he would draw from, like the ones my mom was working on. He was also super dyslexic; he hadn’t gone to college, and hadn’t done a lot of the typical things that you’d have to do to get that job – but he was such a good illustrator, and somehow he just made his way into that profession. I’m also super dyslexic so I was really inspired by that. I thought “there’s something I can do!” Art had always been something that I was good at as a little kid, so I just decided that I wanted to be just like that guy. That was when I was about 8 or 9 until I was about 15.
EG: Getting into the flow of making art is a very specific feeling. Can you describe the feeling you get when you have creative inspiration?
TT: Well there’s my process when it’s my day to go to the studio.. I’m pretty regimented. I wake up, have my breakfast, say goodbye to my family, then walk to the café to get myself a latte. Then I sit there, and sometimes sketch some, read a book, or have a conversation with some friends, then walk to my studio a few blocks away.
EG: Does coffee influence your art or the way you make it?
TT: It’s weird, it’s partly physical, but I think it’s also mental. If I skip going to the café in a rush and go straight to the studio thinking “oh, I’ll get that latte later,” it never, ever, ever, works out as well as if I stick to the routine! Get the coffee, chill out, empty your brain from all the stuff going on in life. There’s something about coffee being warm. If I skip that, it always feels like there’s an art supply missing.. if I don’t have the coffee, my hand can’t do the tiny work. Sometimes I think “oh man, I’m just so addicted to caffeine.” But maybe it’s not that bad; it’s the routine, and it’s also the ritual.
Coffee is very social for me. It makes me go out there into the world and have a conversation with the barista and my friends that might be at the café. Being an artist is super isolating, for me anyway. I’m in my tiny little studio by myself for 7 or 8 hours, and if I don’t have that social interaction in the beginning, it can be just too much.
EG: Cafes have been central to many art movements; what are your favorite cafes in the Bay Area that function as meeting places for artists?
TT: The Berkeley Bowl café is super close to a lot of light industry, and there are a lot of artists that live in that same neighborhood. It just seems like a place that’s affordable, it’s light and airy, and there’s people of all types coming in and out since it’s next to a grocery store. It’s physically set a bit apart from the grocery store, so you can feel like it’s a real cafe and hang out forever. I’ve met people there who I didn’t know before who are now very close friends.
EG: Do you have any current projects you’re working on that you’re particularly excited about?
TT: I’m super glad to be finished with the large installation that I just completed at Facebook. It was really fun – I was out of my element. It was 35 feet of my artwork, 17 feet tall at the tallest. It was a full-on installation like a mural, not just hanging pictures on the wall but making the wall into a piece of art.
But my next adventure – and I always find a way to challenge myself with materials – is sculpture. I have two degrees in sculpture, even though I mostly draw. I want to figure out how to make large cement sculptures, but also incorporate textiles into them! We’ll see if it happens. I put it down in one of my sketchbooks, and I figure out how to make most of the things I write down there. So I’m thinking about how I can make large animals out of a cement type of material, like hempcrete. My brain is bubbling with ideas right now!
EG: Time to get wacky. Say you were on the Captain Planet team. What element are you?
TT: So I didn’t know what Captain Planet was, so I had to look it up. After looking at a few videos, it’s still a tough question! I kind of like the guy from the Amazon, who deals with the earth. The earth is obviously super important. Like clay; you can mold things from it, and it becomes other things, and things grow in it. Everything comes out of the earth; things that grow in it capture carbon from the air, but also produce oxygen. It’s all connected! But I like that guy.
EG: What was the best part about showing at The Crown?
TT: It was super fun to have this space to show in. It’s so beautiful that it made my artwork look even better! When it was up, I was like “yeah!”. The architecture and interior design worked so well that it made me see my work in a new way that I hadn’t been able to before, because I show a lot in galleries. I don’t ever get to see my work in a place that is more of its own entity – The Crown has a look, and it was good to see my work in a different context. I really enjoyed that, as I don’t even get to see my work in other people’s houses very often, except for at my mom’s or my mother in law’s! This place is so thought out, and it just melded so well with my artwork. It was a surprise and it was awesome!
EG: You seem to have a knack for cryptozoology. What sort of mythical animal do you see living amongst coffee shrubs?
TT: I thought about that for a while. Maybe 5 or 6 years ago I was asked to make my own cryptozoological animal by a German artist for an exhibition. I made a dog/weasel combination, with a big orchid growing all over its back that attracted a specific type of hummingbird. The animal would lie in wait for hummingbirds, and it had a super long tongue like an anteater, and it would ZOT the hummingbird out of the air and eat the hummingbird.
So I was thinking of the type of place where coffee grows, and the rainforest and where coffee grows near to wilderness. Something like this animal would live underneath the coffee plants on the forest floor, with the same sort of epiphytes that grow in that part of the forest living in its fur. That would be cool; like maybe it’s a weird type of sloth that has adapted to living in coffee plants – because sloths have a ton of lichen and mosses growing in their hair, along with a bunch of insects that live in its fur. It’s a whole ecosystem on an animal. Something like that living with the coffee plants would be awesome.
EG: Your work focuses pretty thoroughly on the natural world. Is there a place for technology?
TT: I hadn’t thought about this a lot until I started the project at Facebook. When I was installing that piece, there were things that were installed in the wall that I didn’t know would be there like outlets, televisions, and security cameras that I had to work around. At first I was really irritated, but all these things are connected somewhere. To me this represented the ‘all seeing tech,’ but I think I integrated it pretty well into my work. One of my characters is a cat with its paws in its pockets, staring right at the viewer – and so is the security camera.
I think tech is becoming more biological. I hear things about tech being absorbed
EG: Tell us about the orchids and bromeliads in your work. It seems that quite a few hail from coffee producing countries!
EG: You’ve been at Creative Growth for some time now. Who are some of the most remarkable artists you’ve worked with?
TT: They’re all pretty amazing! I would say my favorites that I’m just wowed by consistently are Terri Bowden – she’s just incredible. She makes animals and people in ceramics, and she draws a lot. She also makes her ‘friends’, which she carries with her: they’re big drawings and collage constructions. She also takes photographs of people she knows and transforms them to look albino, because she’s fascinated with albinism. She has a lot of friends who are albino who attend the same camp for sight impaired people with her every summer. I have sight issues myself, and if I hadn’t had a lot of surgery when I was a kid, I would also be legally blind like Terri. She does amazing works without her full sight, so I’m always wowed by that.
There’s also William Scott, Dan Miller, and Dan Hamilton who is from Argentina originally. He’s one of the first people who started working at Creative Growth as an artist, and has been there for over 40 years. He is such a great ceramicist who makes these crazy beautiful animals. He used to do a lot of people, but now he’s more about animals and abstract forms. They’re super colorful, and they really inspire me! When I look at his work, I think about the future work that I want to do; it really directly inspires what I’m going after.
EG: What’s your go-to coffee drink? What do you think that says about your personality?
TT: I’d say the reason why I like lattes is that I’m addicted to milk. I also love coffee, though, and I think it’s a good combination of sweetness and making the coffee not as acidic. I used to drink eight cups of coffee a day, but I cut back to just one latte a day! It’s a good combination, but I also like things that are rather sweet, and a latte is sweet without any sugar added.