In the Studio with Tamera Avery

In the Wake Tamera Avery and TaVee McAllister Lee

Slipstream, oil on canvas,

Slipstream, oil on canvas, 84″h x 76″w

Tamera Avery and I are members of the Gearbox Gallery and the only figurative painters of the group.  I visited her in her spacious studio off of 3rd Street in San Francisco. 

We talked for nearly two hours about her painting.  Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

So it appears to me that you build and stretch your own canvases. Yes, I buy the large commercial stretcher bars, stretch and size the canvas but I’ve learned to build the supporting bars.  Very large stretched canvases need to be supported.  [I looked at the back of one of her large canvases and was amazed at the complex support she had made, very perfectly crafted and assembled.].  I’ve had to become very resourceful for myself.  I use a table saw to cut the back braces.

Borderline, oil on canvas, 78″h x 112″w

The first thing that blows my mind is how big your work is. I’ve always had the inclination to work big and bigger.  I like the physicality of it.  I find working very small very tedious.  I’ve been doing these large paintings with these costumes since 2016 and before that large self portraits. 

How do you approach your compositions? I have a studio at my home and this large studio here.  I work from photos I’ve taken or found on the Internet, cutting them up and laying them out on a table at home where I move all the pieces about until I get something that works and make a collage.  I bring that to this studio and do some preliminary studies before beginning the actual painting.

Your perspective is looking straight on.  Do you ever deviate from that? No, I work from photos that I take, where I imposes the perspective.  I’m not looking down on a scene but directly into it.

Does working large presuppose a certain kind of body language or process? These paintings are 84 by 76 inches.  Even though I work large, I use smaller brushes and the paintings are very detailed.  As mentioned earlier, I work from photographs and I make collages from them.  So, for instance, I took photos of my son in this costume that I made and then I placed him in different environments using photos culled from the internet.  I create the environment by putting all the pieces together.  [I think to myself that it must be a little like

doing a puzzle.  When all the pieces fit you know you’ve got it.]  I assemble the collage.  Once in my painting studio, I will often do small studies in paint to get the color palette and the image right.  Then I grid the collage and from that I block off the canvas, lay it out and then begin painting.  These large paintings take six to eight weeks to complete.  I begin with the background and circle around to get to the figures.  I haven’t done much landscape painting so these paintings, because the figures are set in landscapes, seem to direct me to begin with the background landscape and move toward the figure.  The excitement for me is in the act of painting.

You only paint in oil? Yes.  I think there is so much more you can do with oil.  If you’re using acrylic and try to paint as if you were using oils you have to use extenders and mediums and it’s a whole other process.  Oils are so much richer for me.

Coming back to your color palette, can you tell me about that? I basically use alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue and olive green.  Additionally, I mix my blacks from these three colors and this is what informs my basic palette.  I will use other colors,  but really try to limit them. 

palette and paints

Oh, that makes sense now that I think about it.  Your color palette creates a sort of homogenous color context. Yes, it unites the paint and in these large paintings it is even more unifying.  [There is a tonality to her paintings that establishes a synchronicity between them.]

I see those two, smaller landscape paintings without figures.  Tell me about those. I really don’t know where I’m going with these.  I’ve never done just landscape.  I suppose I painted these to get a sense of the color palette for the large paintings, work-ups or preliminary studies.  But they also interest me as completed paintings.  

They’re beautiful.  Even though there are no figures in them, they seem to have the same feeling as the larger paintings that have figures in landscapes.  There is something eerie about them.

Untitled, oil on canvas, 24″h x 32″w

Untitled, oil on canvas, 24″h x 32″w

Why are the figures masked? I saw someone post on-line about a carnival, “Celebration of the Savages,” that celebrates the end of winter, a time of transition.   And these people at the carnival made their own costumes and masks and I began to riff on that.  I was thinking that young people are being saddled with the problems of the world.  Climate change, for example.  That moved me to make my own costumes and my son or daughter or their friends model them for the photos I take.  I’m concerned with social and political issues, gender, inequality, and all of what seems to be going on in this time.

My tendency is to do portraits.  In fact I had done a series of very large self-portraits.  With these paintings, I began by making collage scrolls and creating stories with them.  The backgrounds might be scenes from Chernobyl, for example.  But the masks do something different.  The masked figures become the hero’s of the story.  They provide the hope or the mystery in the narrative.   Who is this person?  Why in this landscape?

For me there is a push and pull between something a bit ominous but also familiar, a little threatening but also lyrically beautiful. I’m trying to make more complicated paintings I guess.  I’m trying to tell a story.  There is a tension that I’m playing with.

As a painter myself, I love how you use your paint.  These paintings are so painterly.  If you take them out of the context of social commentary and just look at the paint, they are simply gorgeous. One of the things I have learned about working so large is that it allows me to indulge myself in the actual painting, of the application of the paint to the canvas.  As I mentioned earlier, I am excited when painting.  It is a language all my own and it moves me forward.

Where did you study? I’m basically self-taught.  I’ve taken some classes to learn technique,  the nuts and bolts of oil painting which is what I wanted to know and have always kept with. 

I see several art books on your table.  Which painters influenced you? Initially, Frances Bacon, Lucien Freud and that group.  Then I stumbled on Adrian Ghenie who is a brilliant painter.  I also like Jenny Saville’s work very much.   But I mostly work on my own and alone, six days a week; however, it would be nice to be part of a community, to have that connection with other artists in the studio.

Given that you work from photos, do you work with PhotoShop? I’ve tried but it suits me better to work directly with the cut up photos on the table and then into the collage.  Sometimes I paint on the collages but I don’t manipulate the photos in PhotoShop.  Even though the paintings up close are very painterly, stepping back they read more photogenically, not abstractly.

Do you have an idea or concept of where you will go with your painting next? I have ideas of what I might move to next,  but I probably have about two more years of paintings ready to scale up from collage from this series.  More may come and then two years could expand to three.   I have a lot of ideas.  I’m never at a loss for ideas.  But I work through one thing at a time.  I begin and finish a painting before going on to the next.  I’m unable to work on more than one painting at a time.  I lose my enthusiasm for the work if I try to work on more than one at a time.

Do you know when a painting is finished? No, sometimes I get into it so much and feel that everything has to be too perfect so I have to make myself stop or I could go on and on.

Do you ever go back and work on or rework an old painting? I try not to do that.  I try to keep moving forward.  I have so many ideas and things I want to do, it is hard to move back to the past.

Do you keep a journal? I did long ago but no longer.  It is as if the phone has replaced the need for a journal.  If I see something that gives me an idea, I take a photo of it.  I go through the photos periodically and sometimes find something that inspires me or that I want to work with directly.  Also, instead of working through something in writing when I am feeling confused or down, I just have to paint my way through it.

So, the biggest question, why do you paint? I have painted my entire life.  I don’t think I could ever not paint,  but some days I do ask myself that question.  When it comes.  I just get to work and paint.  I am so lucky to be able to express myself in this way.  Why wouldn’t I paint?

Tamera Avery, February 2020

Link to Tamera Avery’s website: http://www.tameraavery.com