Interview with Tara Deacon

Tara Deacon is a South African illustrator and painter living in Berlin. Her work explores the naive and simple nature of everyday observations, a nostalgic mix of memory and place – both real and imagined. Her curiosity to play with colors and how they work with one another in a composition express a cohesive flavor of optimism and vibrance reminiscent of her homeland. In this interview, she speaks about her inspiration and her approach to painting with fountain pen ink.

Peter Koval: I know you do love to discover and learn new things. What was the most interesting thing you discovered or learned during the recent lockdown?

Tara Deacon: With a sense that the world has slowed down and been put on pause, I realized that taking the time to acknowledge and reflect on a lot of feelings of discomfort, uncertainty, and isolation was a vital part of the process. I have learned to observe the changes in society and appreciate what this “new normal” has to offer. Confronting feelings of anxiety and just how fragile we all are has been incredibly eye-opening, which I hope to use as a source of inspiration for new works.

P.K.: Can you tell us what are you working on at the moment? What’s on your drawing table?

T.D.: I’m currently working on a series of paintings for a group show in South Africa, titled “Things behind the sun”. In this series I have been exploring more somber and melancholic themes in my work, juxtaposed with my ever so sunny disposition of vibrance and color.

P.K.: You work not only on paper but you also did art in public space. Is there something you never did but you would like to do in the future?

T.D.: Oh absolutely! My list of new things I want to try is endless, and grows by the day! I would love to learn and work with the process of screenprinting, which I think would translate really well into my style of illustration. One of the things at the very top of my list would be to illustrate a children’s book. I love collecting picture books from some of my favorite illustrators and have hundreds of concepts and ideas, the only problem is which one do I choose! I have given myself the breathing space to slowly develop concrete ideas and continue to develop my skills as an Illustrator to one day make this happen.

P.K.: I noticed that wine glasses and bottles regularly appear in your pictures. Could you imagine seeing your artwork let’s say on a wine label?

T.D.: I really love the shape and form of glasses and bottles, and of course, do enjoy a glass of wine every now and then. I admit it can get a bit out of hand sometimes with glasses of wine appearing in almost every character’s hand, which I’m much more conscious of how to steer away from occasionally. With that said, I could absolutely imagine an illustration of mine adorning a wine label. I dabbled a bit in painting with red wine some years ago and could be curious about what that could look like as a label.

P.K.: Painting with red wine, that must have been exciting! For the Surroundings series, you worked exclusively with the Berlin Notebook No.1 fountain pen ink. Was it new for you to paint and draw with ink? How did you enjoy working with this rather less than more controllable fluid?

T.D.: The mediums I usually work with, being gouache, are far more easier to “spread” and paint with, however, I really enjoyed playing with the limitations that the ink initially imposed. After experimenting with the medium extensively on differnt papers and with different tools, I tried to find the best way it worked for me and found its similiar to that of a marker or edding, which I also enjoy drawing with. I found a brush pen, which is a brush that has a container for liquid attached to it, worked really well for spreading watered down ink. Painting with the ink in its natural state, withut adding water, was probably my favourite part, watching it being absorbed into the paper and seeing the end result give off a kind of purpleish shimmer when looking at it from just the right angle.

P.K.: The colorfulness of your drawings and paintings stands out. How do you approach color?

T.D.: I’ll often keep my eyes open for any inspiring color combinations from my surroundings and keep a note of them in my sketchbook. I like using bright contrasting colors, like purple and yellow or blue and orange, and continue using them throughout a piece to balance it through the repetitive use of color. I have about 10-15 unwashed palettes full of color and sometimes use this as a starting point to decide a color palette of a piece.

P.K.: When I browse through your artworks, I can immediately recognize your signature style. Can you describe the process of finding your own visual language?

T.D.: I was always drawing still lifes and objects, in a playful and oddly proportioned way. I was never very good at drawing figures but loved drawing people in the parks and public spaces in my sketchbook. Gradually I drew figures more often and started to make scenes theatrical with different characters. It was never a conscious decision to create small heads and broad shoulders for the bodies but as my husband recently pointed out that I have a small head and the broad-shouldered clothes I wear give me that silhouette. I think my color palette also has a very distinct flavor which I have my homeland of South Africa and its vibrance to Thank.

P.K.: You are originally from South Africa, from Pretoria, living for six years now in Berlin. How does the place influence your creative process?

T.D.: I grew up in Pretoria, a big city but always reminded me of the monotonous suburban lifestyle behind it all. I grew up very sheltered from the ideas of the world and was incredibly curious about other places and people. Berlin has always given me a sense of freedom and a place where I can breathe. In the past few years, this has enabled me to take my creative practice slowly with intention and create a lot of room for experimentation and play!

P.K.: Where else do you find inspiration? Is it discovering the works of other artists, musicians, or enjoying cooking new recipes or watching the tragicomedy called news…

T.D.: I am always observing my immediate surroundings, which serves as a big source of inspiration, and I often take reference photos, which I will use at a later stage when planning new works. I also love collecting found objects and packaging, from chopstick wrappers, matchboxes, picked flowers, and plants, which I stick on my wall in my studio. I am also a big reader of the magazine “Apartamento” which is where I go when I need a bit of interior inspiration and see what weird and wacky artifacts people collect and display in their homes. Of course, there are also the artists that have always inspired my creative process and color combinations from Matisse, Gaugain, Milton Avery, and William H Johnson.

P.K.: What was your most beautiful detour?

T.D.: I’m inclined to say how I first ended up in Berlin, but that is also linked to how my husband and I ended up traveling South Africa for three months, meeting the most interesting people, and experiencing different cultures and forging new friendships. I look forward to another extended trip back home!

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