In The Studio is a series of occasional interviews with emerging artists talking about their studio processes and the things that motivate, frustrate and inspire them. For the third In The Studio I spoke to artist Tarragon Smith about his work.
Robbie O’Halloran – What is your background?
Tarragon Smith – Most people have a relationship with history such that they will make their background relevant, whether it is or not. It is hard to imagine otherwise. For myself, I was brought up in a family that believed in the arts, sciences, and most things in between. Except God. They had little patience for God. My father regularly told me and my brother that we could do anything we put our mind to. Foolishly I believed him.
ROH – Is there a connection between the different aspects of what you do; painting, drawing, ceramics?
TS – Everything is linked. Or rather, the various aspects of my practice are linked though my brain. Some media are better suited to some subjects, for instance I would rather express my love for my partner in a song than in paint or print. But that is entirely personal. That has to do with what potential I am capable of seeing in any given medium. Others see it differently. There are some artists who were born to paint, or sculpt, and their medium is their art. Most artists, if you’ll forgive the generalisation, and the phrase, were born to create, and they will do so regardless of the medium and they will change media as circumstances dictate. I am one of these and thus I hesitate to call myself a painter. People are seduced by painting aren’t they?! Maybe I should do more pictures.
ROH – Most of your work in painting has been what we might loosely term representational painting. Does this register with you when you’re working, and how important to you are distinctions such as abstract or representational?
TS – I would not travel as far to see a show of abstract painting. Strange, in a way, since so much attention in representational painting is given to the minutiae of paint application, to the point that many a representational painter is preoccupied with what is more or less abstract. I think abstract painting often seems unnecessary to me. What can be achieved in it that can’t be achieved in representational? No, distinctions aren’t too important to me. I love the magnificent world around me.
ROH – You’re a skilled draftsman with a natural facility. Do you ever find yourself fighting against this, and do you ever find that a gesture or a line comes too easily and needs to be re-thought?
TS – That’s very kind of you to say. I’ve never felt that I am. I do feel that I am a good mark maker but I have always separated that from the concept of draftsmanship. I probably shouldn’t. That is probably the shackles of realism weighing down my hand. Never have I felt that any mark making comes too easily. I long for such a moment! I long for the day that I go home feeling uneasy because painting has become too easy. Who in history ever felt this I wonder? People who make bad paintings perhaps. I have days when everything comes quickly, when my brain is working well, when I should just keep moving. Those are lovely days. Those are days of attainment. Normally it is the bigger picture that needs to be rethought. Composition. I’m not half bad at composition but it can be in conflict with content at times. Content can be cantankerous. I make mistakes with the composition/content relationship, which I then pursue for far too long because I am favouring one over the other. It is usually content I favour. It is usually composition that should be favoured. So it goes.
ROH – Artists are always interested in the working routines of other artists, whether they admit to it or not. Would you like to say a little about how you work?
TS – I love those books that are nothing but pictures of artists’ studios. They’re great fun. And I think they make me feel better about myself because I recognise that my studio probably looks pretty cool to other people. Studios are just such lovely places. Working habits are important to me. I value a routine. It’s a pity for me then that I have none. I hope this will not continue but for the past months, the change of pottery studio, taking up teaching, has thrown my regular routine into complete and utter disarray. So often we forget to value what we have; I’m sure I will look back at these months as a time of great freedom. Hmmmm, perhaps the best way to answer that question is to say that discipline is very important to me and my work suffers when I don’t practice it to some degree.
ROH – How and when did you get involved in ceramics?
TS – I started ceramics long after my interest developed. I finally got around to doing something about it a bit before the boom, so there wasn’t a ceramics studio in every warehouse around the corner. I remember that my brother had been purchasing ceramics for years, getting great pieces at out door fairs, that I only broke accidentally, and I remember at the time being unenthused by about half of them. I had no ceramic sensibility; I simply wanted to make things with my hands. All through my years of painting I’ve been attracted to 3D media. Probably I should never have picked up the brush. Oh well. But this stood me in good stead when I finally started with clay. I was very intuitive, my one agenda I brought with me was quickly discarded, and I let my hands lead me. Like anything else, there is a lot to know about ceramics, but the bare bones of making came quite naturally to me, and I think I’m quite good at it. My ceramic sensibility is now broad and subtle. I dived into it. My artbook library has received a third wind since I’ve taken it up.
I’m sitting outside whilst I write this. The wind is being windy, pulling at the sleeves of the two big trees like an irksome child. The flower bed that one of my flatmates sowed a month or so ago, looks distinctly like a bed of weeds. There are some few flowers now but most of those are coming from between the cracks of the flagstones. My partner and I, who have nothing to do with this flower bed, are a bit greedy with plant life. Perhaps that makes us an on-trend couple; ceramics, plants, … she’s a milliner and works for the Barbican to boot. I don’t mind. One side of ceramics is that it lets me bring my domestic life to work. I make planters for our growing collection of green things, cups, bowls, the other day I made a colander. Very useful. And very pleasant to go into the studio and feel productive without always having to think a piece through.
ROH – You said that when you started making pottery you thought you would paint images onto the vessels you were making. This didn’t quite turn out the way you anticipated. What went wrong, or right even?
TS – I let my hands guide me for quite some time before integrating the ceramics into my art practice. Originally I had thought to translate some of my large ink still-lives onto porcelain vases. That was, as I said, quickly discarded. And discarding that idea was the best thing to have happened. Had I pursued it I might have found myself with the same problems I have had with representational painting, a stifling of the imagination. The freedom I felt in pottery has had a very positive effect on my painting. I find myself on the other side of a green hill, where I can frolic in the sunshine, the hard work of climbing done. I lose sight of what I’m talking about.
ROH – Your current series of amphora has a Mediterranean look and theme. But these beautiful, raw vessels are not what they seem. They immediately evoke the sun of the Mediterranean, the ancient history of the region, and to me at least, the indulgent dreaminess of Lawrence Durrell. But they’re in fact more layered than that. Can you say something about this series?
TS – It’s been a long time since I read Durrell. I remember being very bored by Mountolive. I’m pleased with your reaction to them. It is important to me that art works that way – no one ever expects complex food to taste bad at first bite. So, the amphora project came about as a natural fusion of my interests in ceramic vessels and the international news. I saw a sinister similarity between amphora, crammed tightly into the holds of ships to maximise profit, and migrants who were crossing the Mediterranean, crammed tightly in ships to maximise profits. Just as amphora were used as disposable containers for the transport of commodities, so too have migrants been treated as disposable commodities by the traffickers who load them into boats well past their limit; the amphora and human are being used as vessels to propel wealth. It is no irony then that amphora were also used as funerary urns. The shape of the amphora, with a swollen belly, a neck and arms, has great anthropomorphic resonance. My recent paintings are intimately connected with this project, focusing on a key element of it, water, which has a great symbolic power. Well, you know, it’s about the beauty and the sorrow of the Mediterranean Sea.
ROH – Where does poetry fit into your work?
TS – Poetry. It’s a great way to receive new and old ideas. Good poetry sends me to work. It can serve as a spark or an end note. I go through phases, as most of us do I should imagine, but the incisive beauty of poetry lingers in me and I strive toward it always.
ROH – What inspires you as an artist?
TS – Everything. The sea, the sky. Texture. Human fragility. Human shame. Politics. Picasso. Pattern. Music. Leonard Cohen, whose later work, the last three albums, is some of the finest art I have enjoyed. The late work of many artists: Picasso, Hockney, Degas, Titian, Goya, Manet. Novels. Pottery from so many places; that timeless energy-filled pottery found in deserts, in the museums of Japan, at the bottom of the sea; fired in pits and inefficient kilns and decorated by the world. Bicycle rides. My partner, I love her.
Tarragon Smith in his studio – April 2017