One might argue that great artists have the ability to simultaneously provoke an immediate gut reaction and make you think about their work for a longer period of time. A drawing or painting that might initially look a certain way might belie dark themes and a deeper layer that will undoubtedly spark discussion. At the ripe age of twenty-two, Jessika Tarr is one of those individuals who lives and breathes for her work. The neo-surrealistic artist with a (very) multi-cultural background draws her inspiration from fairy tales and personal dreams to create a provocative and ironic universe (that might come as a shock in contrast with her joyful personality). Right off her first solo show in DC, Jessika tells us about her background, work, and what modern fairy tales tell us about the state of America.
First off, congratulations on your first solo show that happened last week. This is a great accomplishment for someone right out of college. Where was it held?
It premiered last week at the Hillyer Art Space in Washington, DC, and I was able to show an entire body of work for the first time. The reception was great, and I was happy to have such a large group of friends and family supporting my work.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did a German-born artist end up in Washington, DC?
I was born and raised from my childhood in München, Germany, with a mother from Southern California and a father from the UK. I was a preteen when we moved to the U.S. from Germany for my dad’s engineering job, and I moved to Washington, DC, to study art at the Corcoran College of Art and Design when I was nineteen.
How did your European upbringing influence you as an artist?
I was exposed to art at a very young age. Really, I was surrounded by so many paintings and the great thing about Europe is that most countries are very close to you… I would go to museums, learn about street art, and mostly about different European fairy tales.
Indeed, your work is filled with fantastical elements that remind us of children’s literature. Since you were born in Germany, I’m guessing one of the obvious inspirations has to be the Brothers Grimm…
Definitely, but my favorite German tale is called Der Sruwwelpeter, a collection of stories by Heinrich Hoffmann that depicts children doing naughty things and being punished. One of the stories is about a young boy who keeps on sucking his thumb against his mother’s warnings until an evil tailor chops both of his thumbs off.
This is pretty dark material! Tell me about how inspiration comes, either in general or by providing an example.
Most inspiration comes from those German fairy tales or from my vivid dream life. I record all the bizarre elements from my dreams in a notebook I keep by the bed. That said, I’m able to draw inspiration from almost anything. If one approaches life from a certain perspective, one can find a lot of magic in everyday sights and movements.
You also seem to be drawing a lot from contemporary culture, with pieces such as “Crowd 2” that includes Bella from Twilight, Willy Wonka, and Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series.
The concept behind that piece was to juxtapose opposites. As you can see, I’m putting together older men with younger girls in a style that is more reflective of vintage illustrations. I find juxtaposing opposites that wouldn’t normally see together very interesting.
Here’s a more technical question: what material do you use to draw and paint?
I’m a multi-media artist, so I use watercolor paint, acrylic paint, pens, pencils and charcoal all in the same piece. I use mostly watercolor paper, but I also like to experiment with different surfaces, so canvases or various other mediums work as well. For instance, I’m working on a new painting over old records.
What do you think of the new shift toward much lighter children’s stories? It seems these days villains always end up redeeming themselves in movies or fairy tales. Do you think that darkness is important in children’s literature?
I would be one to think that it is. I’m a very light-hearted and happy person, but I think that everyone can relate to darkness. To learn about it from a young age in a way that relates to children – like an illustration or a story – makes it less frightening and will prepare them for the future. America tends to water down stories in movies, much more so than Europe.
What do you think this says about the state of this country?
I’ve noticed that America seems to be less sincere than some other nations, with a less honest approach to life – whether it’s about softening fairy tales or always responding “great” to the question, “how are you?” Art perhaps allows people to be a bit more honest.
You seem to have a bubbly personality, which surprises me in contrast to the dark elements you incorporate into the body of your work.
People do often feel surprised about that. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” I think that art is a way to reveal that dark side, which does not only come from my reality but is produced by my subconscious in my dreams. I’m also inspired by a “collective” darkness, which is the set of all sad stories I might have overheard in conversations or seen in movies. They inspire me.
How is it like living with another artist (opera singer Jeffrey Tarr), and how does that kind of chemistry work?
It’s fun! It’s wonderful because we really bounce ideas off one another. His art form really inspires me, and mine inspires him. The only difficult thing is that neither of us are business-minded, so it’s a creative yet chaotic lifestyle – but I wouldn’t change it at all.
So what’s next for Jessika Tarr?
A lot of stuff! [laughs] I want to do a lot, and I immediately started a new body of work after the solo show. I’m currently working on two different projects for a couple of group shows. I’d like to be able to see the world, and use my art as a way to get to other countries.
Any plans to illustrate a children’s book?
That could be fun someday! One of the most important things in life is giving back, so inspiring children and helping them connect with art would be wonderful.
How can our readers contribute to your success?
I‘d love any opportunity that comes up to show my work in any space. I am also currently looking for gallery representation; finally, my work is available for sale at the Hellyer Art Space.