Best in Craft: Tara McPherson

Best in Craft: Tara McPherson
Ultimate Ears Talks With “Best in Craft” Artist Tara McPherson About Art, Music, and Daisies



Our latest “Best in Craft” collaboration is with Brooklyn-based contemporary artist, Tara McPherson who has a distinctive style and approach to her craft.  A former Astrophysics major and Parsons professor (where she personally developed an elective called “The Dark Side”), Tara’s approach to art has a deeply spiritual and philosophical connection with formats spanning murals, paintings, posters, and designer toys.  


Raised in California, Tara now lives in Brooklyn, NY where she runs an art boutique, The Cotton Candy Machine.  With features in The New York Times, Esquire, Spin, MTV, Vanity Fair, Playboy, Elle, Marie Claire, Juxtapoz, Hi-Fructose, and The Los Angeles Times, Tara’s signature style has also landed her brand partnerships with companies like Pepsi, 1800 Tequila, Nike, and Swatch.  She has won numerous awards from American Illustration, Society of Illustrators NY, Communication Arts, and at the 2018 Designer Toy Awards for a limited edition of Kidrobot x Wonder Woman figure. Tara has also painted covers for DC Vertigo Comics and published a series of Art Books with Dark Horse Comics. 


Formerly the bassist for the band The New Detectives, Tara draws inspiration from listening to music and collaborating with musicians. She has been referred to as the “Crown Princess of Poster Art” by Elle Magazine, working with bands such as Beck, Green Day, The Pixies, The Melvins, and Metallica on highly collectible concert posters.  Tara’s art is now part of the permanent collection of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 


Ultimate Ears is thrilled to welcome Tara to our “Best in Craft” family with her special edition collection of designer faceplates, available now for purchase here. Each of Tara’s UE faceplate designs has a corresponding print available at her online store, and so we are encouraging collectors to consider purchasing a print to match!  


Read our full conversation with Tara below.


Tara McPherson Faceplates Ultimate Ears




What are you? If you were at a cocktail party and you said, "I'm an artist," and someone said, "What kind of art do you do?" what would you say?


I definitely consider myself an illustrator, but also a fine artist. The beauty of it nowadays is there's such a big crossover between those two fields. If I'm hired for advertising illustration, I can really incorporate themes that are very personal to me that transition and translate really well into the commercial field, and vice versa sometimes. Sometimes characters will be invented for certain things. I've done a lot of toys with Kidrobot, and that's more on the commercial side, but somehow that can wind up into an oil painting or fine art that I would show at a gallery.



What is your superpower?


My superpower would be the ability to evolve and work within any given situation, whether that be artistically or mentally.



How would you describe that to someone? 


I like to think of my art as illustrative and figurative -- definitely focusing on the female form and the beauty of nature, and how those tie in together.



Something that I was struck by is that you taught at Parsons for a few years. What were you teaching there?


I started teaching concept illustration to second or third term students. Towards the end, I taught an elective called the Dark Side, which was my own class and my own invention, and that was for Juniors and Seniors.



The whole purpose of this series that we're doing is called “Best in Craft.” What does that mean to you?


Being “Best in Craft” for me is not compromising. It's giving your all. It's giving 150%, trying to do the best that you can do and really busting ass. I mean, that's what it boils down to, right? When you're doing something you love, you work hard and you make sacrifices for it. That's “Best in Craft” to me.



What would you actually say that your craft is? You have so many skills. So, busting your ass is definitely what's going to deliver best, but what is your specific craft?


The term “artist” is such a wonderful term and is great because it's so broad. It can mean many, many different things. It’s a lovely freedom as an artist to not be pigeonholed or tied down to one specific avenue. You can do photography. You can draw. You can sing. You could perform. There are all these wonderful things under the umbrella of being an artist, and the freedom to experiment and try whatever you want and still be an artist. It's wonderful.  


Tara McPherson


If you were going to just say, "Here are a few things that I've been super obsessed with recently," visual expressions in the last few years, what would they be?


One of the main things that has always really captivated me is science and space. I've always been drawn to astronomy, physics, and science. I think it's the opposite of art, but it also complements it in the same way as well because obviously there's a beauty to nature. 


If you think about fractals, the macro versus the micro, or how a galaxy looks the same as a hurricane, these natural forms in nature really inspire me. For instance, the aurora borealis - I find it really funny to make it flow out of people's eyes in this fun, inventive way to re-explain beautiful and mysterious things in nature.



How do you actually make your art? Backing up, you said you were fascinated by daisies and that it was an open eye. What happens from there? What is your process?


When I begin, I like to start writing first without any restrictions, just brainstorming word association. What happens when I take these ideas and kind of break them down? There are no restrictions. I just write down anything that pops into my head or any correlations that may lead me down a different path, and then I sit with that for a little bit. I also love to research, by going online and looking at books to get different ideas, how to expand those ideas, and find inspiration. Then I'll start to do little doodles and drawings and see how those play out.


I pick my favorite drawing and make a more refined version of it, and then it grows from there. If I'm going to turn it into a rock poster, then I work on my final line art, I'll scan it into the computer and then do the file separations and the color layers in Photoshop. If it gets turned into a painting, then I take my final drawing, project it onto a panel on my easel, and then begin the oil painting from there. Everything starts out with a similar process of exploration and generating different ideas just to see where they will take me to ideally get a strong concept behind the art.


What do you see in the connection between what you studied and how you think about art?


When I was younger, I went to some Art Magnet programs in Los Angeles. I took the California Proficiency Test so I could start community college early. When I got there, all the art classes were booked up and I knew that I was going to need to take my basic classes. I saw this astronomy class was open and I thought, "That sounds awesome." So I signed up for that, and I loved it.


It was so fascinating to me, so much so that I switched my major from art to astrophysics and I started taking all these math classes and the subsequent astronomy classes. 


At that time, I was working in a Japanese animation store in West LA and was getting turned on to all these really cool Japanese artists. I started taking all the art classes again at the community college and built my portfolio to apply to art school. I ended up going to the Art Center, which is in Pasadena, California. As time went on, I thought to myself, "I'm not missing out on astronomy. I can put all these aspects of science, nature, and the things that I love into my art." It was the perfect evolution for me.


Cut to just two years ago, I finally did my 23andMe DNA test. I never knew who my biological father was because my mother had been artificially inseminated. When I got my results back, the first thing that I saw was my biological father, and in his little description under his picture, he said he was an astrophysicist specializing in different shaped galaxies and binary star systems. I was like, "What! Oh my gosh." Getting to know him and more about that whole side of my family, I found out my grandfather was an illustrator and a fine artist. He was an oil painter, and he painted those hand-painted billboards in New York and New Jersey in the '50s and '60s and '70s.



Wow. That's a crazy story. Just to turn the conversation slightly, talk about music and how music affects you, your art, and how music plays a role for you in your life.


I've always loved music and live music. I started going to see bands when I was 15 and was going to all-ages shows. There was this really cool place called Jabberjaw that was in LA that had five-dollar shows for all ages. I was there all the time, every weekend, during the week, it didn't matter. I also started teaching myself how to play music when I was 15. I started with guitar, and then tried bass realized bass is for me. Just the feeling of the thicker strings and the deeper, heavier sound really spoke to me.


Music has always been so important to me in my life. I've collected records and played in tons of bands, nothing that ever toured. For me, translating that also into art, I always figured, "Well, if bands can tour, then why can't an artist tour?" So from really early in my career, I set up all these book tours, and I would just travel around with my portfolio of screen-printed posters and art prints and whatever I could fit into this giant travel portfolio. I just traveled all over Europe doing different events and doing book signings, you name it. Music has been a huge inspiration and a huge part of my life and career.



Do you listen to music when you make your art?


Absolutely. A lot of artists will listen to podcasts, books, or movies in the background, and I really rarely, rarely ever do that. I always listen to music because it doesn't take my attention away from the art that I'm working on or the thinking that I need to do. A big part of creating, when I'm painting or drawing, is the internal monologue that's kind of going on in my head while I'm working. I'm sure you've heard so many artists say that it can be so meditative to work and create something. 



What are some of the artists that you're really enjoying listening to now, or types or genres of music?


Have you heard of Karen O & Danger Mouse? They just put out this record. I think it's called Lux Prima, and it's such a wonderful album. It’s kind of ethereal but has really, really cool beats. I've been really liking Black Pumas. They have a new album out, and they're just phenomenal. Such a really cool band. I listen to a lot of hard rock and metal. While I still absolutely love that music, At this point in my life, I'm more interested in kind of moodier music.



When you're creating, you can listen to heavy metal and you don't lose your concentration?


No, not really, but it depends what I'm working on. If I'm working on a band poster, and it's for a metal band or something really heavy, of course I definitely listen to that band's music, but then also similar stuff. I'm not going to listen to classical music when I'm trying to have this edgy vibe like making a Metallica poster.



Have you been making music posters lately? Is that still a part of your business or the things that you're doing?


I've been doing maybe even more band posters in recent years than I have before. It ebbs and flows, and that's the enjoyable thing for me about my work and what I do is that it's always changing. I think if I did the same thing all the time, I'd get really bored or lose interest, or it would just feel too monotonous. I can do a poster, an illustration, a fine art painting for a gallery show, then I can do a commission for someone that's a drawing, then design a toy for this thing, and then I have another rock poster to do, so it keeps me entertained and keeps it all fresh for me.



How do you mesh what makes you, you and your art, and you with their art?


Sometimes that can be tricky to kind of hit the right vibe. Obviously, each artist has their own style, and bands definitely have their own styles of music, so I try to work with bands that I'm going to mesh with and vibe with stylistically. Sometimes going the opposite works too, for example, you can say cute and creepy - those things can really mesh well together.



What are some of the bands, if you don't mind name-dropping, that you've created posters or album art with? 


Some of the bands that I've worked with recently and done a lot of posters for have been Mastodon, the Melvins, Pixies, Metallica, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Father John Misty, Faith No More, Franz Ferdinand, The Breeders, and Tomahawk. I've even done a Coachella poster and a Sonisphere poster, which is another big music festival. Liars and High on Fire, too. Lots of really fun stuff and really cool bands to work with.


When I'm working on a music poster, sometimes I'm in direct contact with the band's management or the tour manager. Sometimes it comes from the band themselves, when some of the band members have an active interest in curating a poster series. I know Mastodon likes to do that. Brann definitely has an active hand in working with the artists for the record covers and for the music posters. Sometimes it's just organized through a poster company that curates the series. They handle all the printing. They ship the posters to every tour date. So it's kind of a mix between all those different things.



In terms of the business of being an artist, how does that actually stack up for you now? You're working with us, which is obviously a commercial project. You do other commercial commissions, and you also do fine art. What is the balance there?


The balance is always shifting and changing. Sometimes it's more of one, sometimes there's more illustration work, sometimes it's all fine art. If I have a big solo show coming up, everything else gets cut off and I’m 100% focused on finishing all those paintings for that body of work. Say when I'm working on a solo show, it's akin to a thesis. You're focusing on this unified body of work that's representative of a certain idea, a theme for the show, and I'll focus deep on that. Other times, it switches to tons of band posters. That's super fun. It's always changing. As a freelance artist, it's important not to put all your eggs in one basket so to speak. It's really important to have all these different avenues because when one thing slows down, another can pick up, and it always works.



Another note is that you're in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, what does that mean?


Woohoo! Yeah. Quite a while ago, I did a poster event at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and got to meet some people that work there and get some contacts there. They had bought some pieces of mine to go into their permanent collection, which as an artist working in the music industry, that's the holy grail. You're like, "Ah yes! I'm in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame." They had also mentioned to me, "Please send us anything you want for our archives." That's just a wonderful achievement in my career, to know that my posters are there and represented, and that they want more in the future.




Switching gears to what's in your ears now, you got fit with custom Ultimate Ears. Tell us your reaction to them and what you've experienced.


I love these Ultimate Ears. It's like a hug on each ear. They're super comfortable. They are my first Bluetooth headphones, and they're so freeing. To know that I can just get up and walk around and still have this awesome sound in my ears, it's just really phenomenal. I absolutely love them.



If we look at the art that you placed on your earphones, can you talk to me about the eyeballs?


Ah yes, the eyeballs, the all-seeing eyeballs. In art school, they tell you eyes are the windows to the soul. That always stuck with me for being a really powerful image to include in art, and I think it's really interesting to put them in the center of the flowers as this subtle, yet all-seeing feature.



As I've looked at your art, it seems like you have certain repetitive icons or things that you gravitate to. Is the eyeball one of those?


Definitely, there is strong symbolism that interests me. However, I think as an artist it's important to follow your instinct on what you're drawn to and what instinctually captivates you. I like to follow that and see how it all builds together in my own repertoire.



What would you call the symbols on the earphones? What are they to you?


Eye-flowers. The daisy got its name from the day's eye, and how it opens and closes with the sun and the moon. This was the catalyst for the whole series, so I did a bunch of different flowers based on that. There's also another series of women with flowers coming out of their eyes as well, so you see it kind of in the floral and then in the human sense as well.



Can you go over the specific faceplates that are going to showcase your artwork and kind of just talk a little bit about each one?


I really love the eye-flower series. It's a cool image that gives a lot of form and flow with the flower petals, but is also a little weird with the eyeballs in the middle of the flowers. I think they work really well for the faceplates because it's striking. I think the eyeball in the center works really well and is a strong focal point. 


There are a couple of faceplates with the balloon friends. I call them Mr. Wiggles. One has bunny ears and one has cat ears. I think those are really fun and playful. To me, they also represent a quality of humanity where a balloon is this very fragile object. In this case, the Mr. Wiggles balloon friends are really gentle, loving creatures who powerfully defend their friends and whoever they’re with. Even though they have this powerful desire to protect and defend, they are just these fragile little balloons. It's kind of this dynamic at play where there’s this desire to protect and defend, yet they have no real defenses of themselves. I think those are fun characters to have on with the music and are playful, whimsical, and cool looking.

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