“What happens next?” ask Tara Krebs’ beautifully rendered narrative paintings. Tara skillfully constructs open ended stories that challenge us to jump start our imaginations so that we can piece together our own meanings and reach our own conclusions. The fantastical fairy tale like imagery rekindles our childhood memories of stories read to us before bedtime and how transfixed we were on the illustrations which accompanied the tales. In the same way, the lush detailed brushwork of Krebs’ paintings pulls us into her world in a mesmerizing fashion and urges us to make sense of the unfolding narratives before us. In an era where the accessing of information is almost instantaneous and patience is a dying quality, Tara’s imagery reminds us to slow down, engage our imaginations, take pleasure from our curiosity and the fact that not all of life’s answers come to us straight away.
Tara Krebs is a Canadian native. She was born in 1985 and grew up in a small suburb called Thornhill, just north of Toronto. Tara currently lives and works in Toronto, where she earned her BFA at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Her artwork has been exhibited internationally and she has also painted figures and stop-motion puppets for television.
WOW x WOW managed to catch up with Tara during her hectic schedule filled with exciting upcoming projects, and she generously answered our questions about her creative process and meticulous image making.
Hi Tara, thanks so much for making time to join us for a chat, we really appreciate it. If you could please start us off by introducing yourself, touching on anything you feel has been relevant to shaping Tara Krebs the artist?
When I was quite little, my sister decided that it was not cool to share a room with someone who was almost a decade younger than her, and moved into the basement. At the time, I assumed it was because she needed her space to do whatever important things teenagers did, or because I had ripped her New Kids on the Block posters down from my side of the room, but now I understand that it was probably so she could make out with boys without a creepy little audience. I found myself, the youngest in an enormous family, somehow with a bedroom of my own, free to draw, play, or whatever weird thing I wanted to do with the door closed. I think that having that alone time in a pre-internet childhood really awarded me the precious time and space I needed to explore the potential of my imagination.
People have always complimented my on my artistic ‘talent’, which is very kind and nice to hear, but to be successful at anything, you have to practice. I’ve spent much of my life drawing, and I will continue to learn and improve for the rest of my life.
I feel that much of my life experiences have shaped who I am and what I do as an artist. I think it’s hard to separate the two, because so much of myself goes into what I create.
You hail from Canada and currently reside in Toronto, which is also the home of several other prominent members of the New Contemporary scene, such as Sarah Joncas and Jacub Gagnon. Can you talk to us about what you enjoy about living there and what the art scene is like?
Toronto is such an awesome city, especially in the summer when it can literally be stressful to decide what to do in my free time, because there are always way too many fun things happening at once. I love that I can walk or ride my bike to almost anywhere, and there’s been an enjoyable influx of restaurants that serve poutine. Although ask me this question again in the winter when my extremities are constantly frozen, and I might respond quite differently (ie – “HAAALP! get me out of here!!”). There are of course many things we could improve on here, and one of those things is the New Contemporary art scene. I feel like Torontonians as a whole have a pretty good sense of humour, and there are a lot of us who appreciate art that leans toward the surreal. But there aren’t a ton of venues here that focus on new contemporary genres such as lowbrow, pop surrealism, etc., and as a result, many Canadian artists have been showing abroad in places like California, where there’s a stronger community.
Do you remember the first piece of art you ever sold? How did the sale come about and how did it make you feel?
The first piece(s) of art I sold was a series of little paintings where I was making silly faces. It was a project I had done in my first year at OCAD University, and was one of the first things I’d ever painted. I can’t remember if there was a concept there, or if I was just having fun. It was on display at the school, and someone tucked a note in behind one of the panels asking to buy it. I remember feeling really good about it, especially since it proved to me that there were people out there buying art, who had a sense of humour, because I felt like people were always pushing me to be so serious with my subject matter. When the buyer came to pick up the artwork from me, I was living at home at the time, and I remember my mom’s expression reading something like “Huh? she can actually make money doing this?/oh god she’s actually going to do this.” Haha (I don’t think it’s most mothers’ dreams for their children to pursue a career in art). That was before social media was really a thing, and being so young and inexperienced as a professional artist, I wasn’t prepared to keep in touch with collectors and fans of my work, so I don’t remember their name. But thank you, whoever you are. You are a happy memory for me.
How do you approach the creative process? Talk us through how you construct a painting. Do have a concrete idea of what it will look like before you get started? What type of reference do you use?
Usually an idea will come to me randomly, and I’ll scramble for a piece of paper to roughly scribble it down so I don’t forget. I feel like some of my best ideas were lost to me because they came to me at the most unusual times, and because I have a terrible memory, they’d fade away before I found myself near a writing utensil. There have actually been moments where I’ve thought “this would make an AMAZING painting!” and then later, I’ll recall having that epiphany, but have no recollection of what that idea was. My awful memory is actually maybe a little worrisome. Haha. I’m sure the manifesto of my career is locked away in there somewhere, because I got distracted by something fluffy.
I don’t generally spend too much time making beautifully detailed concept sketches because once I’ve already created an image, it’s a little boring for me to go through it a second time. So my initial sketches are usually pretty rough and blobby.
My reference sources are usually a combination of photos I’ve taken myself, images I have found and altered from the web, and my own memory. I like to look at a lot of images in front of me at once, so I’ll lay out some reference material on my computer screens so I can easily compare and combine things, and see how the different shapes and colours of my subject matter would interact in ways I hadn’t thought of.
I’ll usually end up adding things in later from ideas that come to me while I’m painting. Once I’ve started on blocking things in, and I’m sort of meeting these characters in person for the first time, I’ll get more ideas and add them to the image.
It’s really hard for me to finish a painting. There’s almost never a moment where I go “Yes! It is complete!” Most of the art I’ve made, I could have kept painting for weeks longer, but you have to cut it off somewhere. There is always something I could add, tweak, or move slightly to the left, and because my paintings are so intensely detailed, that could go on forever.
Storytelling and narrative are at the heart of your creative process. In your opinion, what are some of the most important ingredients that go into making a successful visual narrative?
Well, for much of the work I’ve been doing over the last few years, I’ve been very interested in creating narratives that leave a lot to the imagination. I want you to feel like you’ve found a page from the middle of a storybook you’ve never read, and you are forced to write that image into a story with no guidance beyond it and your own imagination. Viewers can’t turn to me for answers, or Google the answer on their phone.
When I come up with an idea for a painting and I’m sketching it out, sometimes I’ll stop myself before taking the narrative too far, because I worry that if I have it all figured out, it’ll come across in the piece and take away from some of the mystery.
It’s important for me that my characters imbue some kind of feeling or emotion, because I think that really fuels the rest of the narrative, and creates a sense of purpose in that character’s backstory. I also love elements of randomness, just because it’s fun and it really gets people wondering and playing with their own interpretations of the narrative.
I also definitely consider my colour palette and use composition as devices to engage the viewer, and allow for fluidity in how they take in the narrative. I want to tell interesting stories that also feel nice to look at.
As we move through life we continue to grow and change. In what ways have you seen your work evolve since you started down the path of being a professional artist?
After I graduated from university, I didn’t make much art aside from commissions and teaching art lessons for a few years. In university, I had felt a big push for me to move away from what felt natural to me as an artist, and then it wasn’t fun anymore. As what I’m sure must have been a reaction to this, when I started to paint again, I was very anti ‘concept’. I wanted to paint things for no reason, or rather without some heavy meaning behind them; things I thought were beautiful and weird and aesthetically interesting. I soon realized that everything I did had meaning whether I intended it to or not, and was derived from my own life experiences and emotions. As a natural story teller, I couldn’t get away from building these worlds and characters, and I started to recognize myself in them, and realized I had been exploring themes such as childhood, and feminism without really intending to.
Throughout my youth I used to create these stories on little pads of paper, which told tales of adventure, fantasy, love; themes and plot lines that were probably too mature for me at the time, but I think that’s what happens when you have 6 older siblings and always have to watch what they want on the television. I drew these stories daily. Each page was like a different panel of a comic book. I was really interested in human emotion and story-telling. When I didn’t feel like finishing the story, I’d flip the page and move on to a new one. It was almost obsessive. I think sometimes I was using these drawings to explore my own feelings and frustrations, but in another world where it was quiet and away from the chaos of living with a big family.
Your intention is to create works which are open-ended in their meaning, allowing the viewer to bring their own life experiences and imagination to the proceedings. What are your thoughts about the dialogue and conversation cycle which is created between the artist and viewer?
Sometimes people get frustrated when I won’t explain to them what a painting is about, and then usually, they’ll end up using their imagination and really getting into it. I always love to hear peoples interpretations of my work, because I’ll hear multiple versions from people who have viewed the same piece, and ‘written’ the story in their own different unique ways. A lot of people have approached me at exhibitions and told me that they haven’t used their imaginations like this in a long time, which I can understand since our lives are all so fast-paced and information is so immediately available for much of the things we want to know. It makes me really happy to get feedback like this, because that’s really what I’m trying to do with the work, and I think its important for people to remember to keep playing and imagining as they get older.
How important do you feel your subconscious is to your creative process? Do you have any practices or habits to encourage creative ideas to rise to the surface?
I think I’m only now scratching the surface on understanding where some of my imagery comes from. My subconscious is a big part of it, definitely, but I try not to analyze things too much.
I think I feel most inspired when I visit a gallery or museum, or the big group studio where my boyfriend works, so I try to get out there when I can. It’s not really that I’ll see a particular piece or imagery that gives me an idea to work off of, but just being in these places, these shrines to creativity, that remind me that there’s a whole varied and exciting creative world out there, and I want to be a part of it.
I work from my home studio, which can be a bit lonely and uninspiring at times because it’s just me, painting and eatin’ snacks without much human interaction. Financially, this makes sense for me right now, but I crave the creative energy of others. It almost seems like something tactile that you can feel when you’re around it. I’ve considered renting an external space in a shared studio, like I had back in thesis. The nice thing about having my own studio is that I can have chaos when I want it, calm when I don’t, and don’t have to listen to anyone’s weird butt music (real example, although to be honest, it was surprisingly beautiful and hypnotic).
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, one which you feel has contributed to shaping the person and therefore the artist you are today?
When I was little, I used to play a lot of real life ‘role play’ games with my friends, where we acted out certain situations, or used Barbies or other toys to perform these little plays. This was important to me because I found suburbia to be quite bland and uneventful, but in your mind you could basically go anywhere you wanted to. Most of my friends were interested in the types of themes little girls have traditionally been kind of trained to find appealing, like ‘house’ and ‘getting dressed up and going to prom’. I was always like “well, what if there was a monster that crashed the prom? And maybe it ate some of the Barbies, or took them back to its lair?” I learned pretty fast which friends were interested in being shipwrecked on an island that held a dark secret, and which ones wanted to keep their imaginary homes clean, smelling of imaginary fresh baked bread, and monster-free. Looking back on all the crazy plots we came up with, it’s amazing I was as well-adjusted as I was. Haha. I was a happy child with the darkest thoughts. I was just really interested in telling compelling stories, and trying out situations I would never experience in real life. That is something that has definitely carried on throughout my life, and has branched out into my art.
What is your relationship with art history? Do you feel that it’s important for an artist to have an understanding of what has gone before them?
I feel that it is important to familiarize yourself with history of all kinds, but when I started to learn about art history in high school, it really brought it all together. When you read about the structure of a society in a certain era, politically, socially, how people thought about things, etc., and then you learn about what was happening creatively at that time, it rounds things out to provide a better understanding of that point in history. History helps us understand how we got to where we are now, and how to improve and evolve for what comes next. There’s still so much I want to know about history, but there’s also a ton I want to understand about the present, art and otherwise, so sometimes it’s hard to keep up!
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
Oh man, it would be hard to decide. I started a little ‘fantasy art collection’ a while back, which is basically just a file on my computer of mainly contemporary artwork that really stood out to me. There are so many amazing creators and works of art that speak to me for totally different reasons, and if someone were to offer me my pick of any of them for real, I would probably um and ah until I realized everyone had already gone home.
What’s next for Tara Krebs?
A whole lot! I’m just coming off of a group exhibition I curated and exhibited in called New Contemporary here in Toronto. It was definitely a crash course for me in learning to run a gallery (something I’m interested in), and I got to work with some amazing Canadian artists (Steven Chmilar, Sarah Joncas, Nichlolas Di Genova, Jamiyla Lowe, and Troy Coulterman). My goal for this show was to get Torontonians a little more familiar with the genre, and to grow the community here. The show had a great response, so I’m hopeful that things will be moving in that direction.
That was a huge job, so now I’m focusing on playing around with a lot of projects that have been on the back burner for a while. I’ve also finally got around to starting the final illustrations for a picture book I wrote a few years ago. It’s a big project, so it’ll take some time, in between other projects. My fella Laird is a toy designer, and I’m working with him to create some little designer toys as well. I also have a graphic novel on the go, but who knows if I’ll ever get around to finishing it. There’s a lot of other stuff too in the early stages, and I’ve got a bunch of paintings I have to finish for group shows. So yeah, I’m kind of all over the place right now, trying to figure out what to focus on. Haha. I just love sharing stories through different mediums, and its sometimes hard to organize which ones should make it out of my brain first.
I’ve always said that it can be harder when there’s too many things you want to do with your life, rather than not knowing what to do at all. There could be bizarro Taras in other timelines, happily working as archaeologists, primatologists, or police detectives. There are so many things that I would love to do, and you kind of mourn for the paths you didn’t choose, but through my art and my painted worlds, I can go places and meet characters I never could otherwise.