CCA Alum Tara Tucker Illustrates Her Own Personal History Through Graphite Feathers and Fur

CCA alumna Tara Tucker’s (Sculpture 1992, MFA 1994) artwork is honest. Intricate. Thought provoking and unnerving, yet simultaneously comforting and familiar. You could also call it ambitious and unwavering, and in this sense it is an accurate embodiment of Tucker as a person. The artist’s surreal depictions of animal creatures reflect a lifetime of memories, experiences, and observations. From the tender age of 13 Tucker had set her sights on a CCA education, and a combination of hard work, raw talent, and determination has led to a prolific career as a visual artist and educator.

Tucker really did decide to attend CCA (then CCAC) when she was 13 years old. On a visit to a Portfolio Day event in Los Angeles with her AP art class, she was introduced to CCA representatives. “They were thoughtful and encouraging. Not dismissive like many of the other art schools’ portfolio reviewers tended to be. I knew I had a terrible portfolio -- I was only 13, after all -- but they were constructive and took me seriously.” She proceeded to beg her mother to make the trek from Santa Barbara to visit the Oakland campus, and when they did, she was completely hooked. “People thought I was crazy to decide on a college at 13, but I just knew.”

Passion for Sculpture and Drawing Goes Far Back

Tucker’s degrees are in Sculpture, but even in school she was already experimenting with the drawing practice that now characterizes much of her creative output. “I have always worked in both sculpture and drawing. I drew a lot at CCA, but I didn’t consider it my ‘real’ work, so I tended to keep it hidden.” She was forced to go public with her drawing, however, when in her second undergraduate year, she contracted an illness that forced her to stay in bed for four months. Her instructors granted her permission to work at home instead of taking a leave of absence, and the illness proved to be a blessing in disguise. “It gave me a breakthrough with my artwork,” she says. “All I had strength enough to do was hold a pencil. I did a huge, very surreal drawing on four big pieces of paper, a large dog and some birdlike creatures. I drew solidly for those whole four months, every hair and every feather.”

This intricate drawing enabled her to pass her studio courses that semester, but she didn’t draw like that again for quite some time. “My work has changed dramatically since school. Back then I was trying out a lot of new ideas all at once. I fused antique kitchen tools into my wax sculptures. I made a short Super-8 film, I was all over the place! But that’s what art school is for, right? I still experiment a lot with materials, but I think my way of working and thinking now, when it comes to art making, has matured and become much more refined and confident. I no longer need to ask myself if something is possible to make, or ‘Can I actually draw that?’ I’ve got my skills and I’m not afraid to use them.”

Tucker's Artistic Process

Tucker’s process involves the translation of episodes and individuals from her memory stores into works that will stimulate feelings of familiarity—or discomfort, or both—in her viewers. “My own personal history has been dramatic at times, and those memories have given me endless amounts of ideas for new drawings and paintings. What doesn’t kill you makes for great art inspiration later!” She represents herself and the people around her as animals. “I’m always the dog, the miniature horse, or the bear. Monkeys are my awesomely bad-ass friends from high school and college. I put them in all kinds of autobiographical situations that I may never talk about in any other way.”

One of the works in her recent solo exhibition at Rena Bransten Gallery, If Wishes Were Horses . . ., was a drawing of a small oddity of a horse with short legs and a sweet, shy expression. On top of the horse are two monkeys, who lovingly primp and preen the horse. “It’s all about my teenage years in high school. I was pretty geeky, and needed a lot of help from my much more fashionable friends. They always had suggestions, but in reality, I was still just as frumpy and odd-looking as ever. That drawing is the ultimate self-portrait. Most of my work ends up being that way.”

The personal narratives and emotions that Tucker pours into her work are expressive, sometimes jarring, but always spot-on. “My favorite reaction is, ‘Your drawing is so beautiful, but it freaks me out!’ Each piece is a fragment of what we as humans experience in our lives. Since I’m hiding human identities inside animal bodies, viewers respond with a feeling of familiarity that is hard to put their finger on.”

Tucker finds inspiration everywhere, too -- not just in her own experience but also in the public situations she encounters all the time. “People are always saying the most bizarre things that translate well into really dynamic compositions. I like to listen to Terry Gross on Fresh Air because of her ability to get into the juicy stuff about people’s lives. Trashy TV talk shows and really bad court TV are also great for that.”

CCA Influences

As a student at CCA, Tucker says she was hands-down most strongly influenced by Sculpture faculty member Clay Jensen. “Clay was always positive around the students and quick to help solve technical issues. He was the most approachable person and artist on campus. I learned a lot about how to behave as an artist and a person from him.”

She was also heavily influenced by longtime CCA faculty member Michael McClure. “Even though Michael was an academic instructor with his roots in poetry, theater, and writing, I thought his ability to see ‘outside the box’ in the visual art field was outstanding. I felt a kind of kinship with his surrealistic Beat poetry that led me to attempt to sculpturally speak to the viewer in a similar artistic voice.”

The education that Tucker received at CCA has had a major impact on her life, not only as an artist, but also as a teacher at Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, a professional studio and gallery for adult artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. “I won’t lie. It was often really tough being an art student. Many of my instructors were not soft with their critiques.” But what seemed like harshness was actually tough love, and often extraordinarily constructive. From these teachers Tucker says she learned to give constructive criticism and to follow it up with sound advice for a clear path forward. “In my job as an instructor today, I aspire to give the same respect and kindness given to me during my years as a student.”

Community Involvement

Tucker’s involvement at Creative Growth led directly to one of her big breaks: representation by Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco. “I had my work up in a staff show at Creative Growth, and they were seen by Rena Bransten and her then director of exhibitions, Leigh Markopoulous (now chair of CCA’s Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice). Galleries often choose their artists right out of grad school, but I’m very glad it didn’t happen that way for me because now that I’m in my early 40s, I feel like I know what I want from my art. I’m much more sure of myself in all ways. I was only 23 when I got my MFA and I still needed to explore materials -- and life, really. I have so much more to say now.”

Getting Your Artwork Out There

Tucker insists that it is possible to ensure that your work is exhibited, if you as an artist take ownership of making it happen and “keep talking to people about your art, showing it to friends, applying for residencies and calls for work that interest you. My work being noticed was pure luck, but it happened because I put it out there.” Tucker has consistently been “out there” since earning her undergraduate degree; she has long been (and rightfully so) a staple of the Bay Area art scene. She has shown at dozens of the most important local venues:

di Rosa Art Preserve in Napa
Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito
San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery
Kala Art Institute in Berkeley
33 Grand
Lobot Gallery in Oakland

This past summer she was a featured artist in the esteemed contemporary underground art magazine Juxtapoz.

Tucker ascribes a good portion of her success to the rising importance of craft and traditional art-making practices, particularly in the Bay Area. “When I was in school, I felt like there were very few of us who wanted to make things with our own hands. It wasn’t popular to paint, or work in the more traditional media. I appreciated instructors like the sculptor Bella Feldman, who championed the physical process of art making.

“I take joy in hard work,” she continues, “and it makes me smile when I come across artists with highly developed craft and technical skills. Today there is no shortage of them around the Bay Area. I really believe that the art scene here is taking a crucial role in the resurgence of craft.”

An Artist's Advice for the Next Generation of Artists

Tucker responds in a way that perfectly mirrors her intricate, profound, yet brutally honest artworks. “Stay positive about what you want for yourself in life. Don’t listen to people tell you that you ‘can’t’ do something or ‘shouldn’t’ try something because it is too difficult or outlandish.

"I’ve had some really awful encounters with people who told me my work was boring, or that I was too young or too old, or that I still had to pay my dues in life before I could expect any success. I think that’s a lot of crap. Just be a kind person, be happy and positive, and go through school, and life after school, as if you are already a big success.

"Try new materials and ideas all the time. Talk to people about your processes and ideas, don’t be overly secretive. There are people out there who can help you get what you need in life and in art if you just let them know. This is how I live, and it’s working for me.”