Meet the crown princess of poster art

Brooklyn-based creative Tara McPherson talks about Japanese influences, astrophysics and why she avoids the term 'lowbrow art'.

From gig posters and adverts to oil paintings and vinyl toys, Tara McPherson conjures up a sweetly creepy aesthetic - think Gothic images with a heavy dollop of childlike whimsy. Her music commissions include indie-cool projects like art design for the All Tomorrow's Parties festival curated by American alternative rock band The Breeders, and creating the Melvins poster shown in Oscar-winning film Juno. No wonder Elle Magazine once called her "the crown princess of poster art".

Tara McPherson at work in her studio in Brooklyn, New York – oils are a current favourite medium.

This is just one string in a very crowded creative bow, however. Somehow, McPherson also finds time to organise monthly art shows and events on top of client projects, personal work and running her Brooklyn-based art boutique Cotton Candy Machine. As we speak, she's currently putting the finishing touches to Wandering Luminations, an upcoming solo show at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York - the artist's home since leaving her native California in 2005...

You've described your work as a mixture of sweet versus creepy and light versus dark. How did this aesthetic come about?

"It's partly down to my interest in Japanese art. I love the way it depicts monsters, but also these cute, sweet girls who are really badass. I've always liked depicting strong women. It's a really fun balance - if I do something that's all sweet, I feel it has no edge and there's something missing.

"I worked at a Japanese toy store in LA in my late teens, which really turned me onto Japanese artists and animation. I love Yoshito Monara, Takashi Murakami and I adore Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

Poster for a tour headlined by Alkaline Trio and New Found Glory. "Working with Alkaline Trio was awesome. They had such cool ideas," says McPherson

"My work is definitely not of this world. It's very illustrative, surreal and dreamlike, and I'm interested in pop culture, so the term 'pop surrealist' really encompasses what I'm doing. Some people talk about 'lowbrow art', but I don't like that term. My work isn't 'low' anything."

You work in lots of different media. Is that variety something you crave?

"It's nice to switch it around. Right now, I'm working on about 10 paintings at once for this show, all in oils - afterwards, it would be nice to do a poster and be drawing more and looking through books for type ideas. The change keeps me interested. Too much of one thing and I burn out. I like jumping around. You have to with oils because one picture is drying as another is ready and another is wet."

Green Day, Beck, Modest Mouse and the Melvins are just some of the bands you've worked with. Are you musical yourself?

"I play bass, but I haven't played in a band for a few years. I listen to music in the studio but, when I'm working on a show, I tend to get bored towards the end and put on documentaries instead. It's something to think about while I'm painting. I grew up listening to rock and roll, and heavy metal. I love the Melvins. They're the band I've done the most posters for and they're awesome to work with. That's super-cool to me - my 15-year-old self would freak out."

This Melvins tour poster was released as a limited-edition screenprint. A long-time Melvins fan, McPherson has worked on multiple commissions for the band

You studied astronomy and astrophysics at college. Have you always been interested in both science and art?

"I've always loved science. I asked for a microscope when I was a kid. I hated maths, but I loved studying chemistry. I left high school early because I was bored, and started community college at 17. I was actually really into photography back then and I thought I wanted a career in it. All the college art classes were full, so I had to choose from whatever was left. I signed up for astronomy and loved it. Theories of relativity are super-fascinating to me. Einstein's theories about how our universe and time and space work have posthumously been proved to be right - that's supreme creativity."

What took you back to art?

"I started doing a lot of printmaking and reached a crossroads: 'What do I really want to do for the rest of my life? What's going to make me happier?' When I sat down and really thought about it, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I switched my major back and focused on getting a good portfolio together so I could apply to a four-year art school. Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, was like the army. It was really hard work: deadlines and specific direction. I work really well in that environment, which is probably why freelancing suits me."

How does McPherson balance her bursting workload? "Good scheduling," she explains. "Everything's planned out until the middle of 2015 for me."

Did your internship at Futurama during art school influence you?

"I worked at Rough Draft Studios, which makes the show, as a production assistant. I got paid, which was awesome. It influenced the way I draw and gave me an insight into the world of animation, how it functions and how character designs are made.

"I helped the colourist and I got to see how to do turnarounds - creating the front, side, three-quarter and back views of characters. I didn't draw anything while I was there, but I learned so much."

Cotton Candy Machine opened in 2011, which you describe as an 'art boutique'. Why call it that?

"We sell books, gift items and cool merchandise as well as prints, playing cards, T-shirts, pillows - all sorts. We don't want to label ourselves specifically as a gallery because it's much more than that.

Spring painting using oil on linen, created as part of McPherson's Seasons series

"The shop is at my old studio. I worked there for five years, but moved my studio back home after having my little boy almost 18 months ago. I wanted to maximise my time and not be running back and forth.

"I set the business up with my boyfriend Sean Leonard. He runs pop-up stores all over the country - that's his area of expertise - and I had a storefront and all this merchandise, so it seemed like a natural progression. Sean takes care of the business side and I basically just help curate the art shows."

You've said you try to learn something new for every solo show. How does that philosophy apply to Wandering Luminations?

"I've been researching bioluminescence and the ocean. It's the type of stuff I've always been interested in - my love of science really influences my work. I'm referencing a lot of space photos and looking at rainbows, glow worms and ocean creatures.

"It's a continuation from The Weight of Water triptych, which follows three girls through gaseous, liquid and solid environments - from misty fog to a frozen lake. I was thinking about how water molecules go through different states of being while retaining their integrity, and how that correlates with our emotions and life cycles.

Playing With Fire – The Handler painting, set against the backdrop of a fractal lake and sold as a series of hand-signed 'mini giclée' prints

"I experiment with different techniques as I'm painting. I feel like my work can get very exact, tight and refined. I'm always battling with that. I want a polished look but I also want to loosen up, so I'm pushing myself to experiment. I want to say: 'It's okay to let the brush strokes show.'"

Words: Anne Wollenberg

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 220.

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