Studio Visit: Tara Sweeney

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Tara Sweeney has two studios: a formal space for large scale, solitary work; and just about anywhere else she can create smaller scale drawing, painting, and writing in her visual journal. This includes places like her garden, kitchen table, neighborhood, the city, the banks of the Mississippi, a farmer’s market, and music in the parks. At the moment, she is working in her front porch at an old farm table where two objects have her attention, alongside a pot of tea, and life outside the open windows.

Working on an almanac-style visual journal of around 70 entries for her upcoming exhibition, she is in completion mode. But drawing and writing for this series began in 2008 and has proceeded throughout the seasons for nearly six years. One long ago November morning, while making a journal entry in bed, Tara spilled ink on the page and the sheets. It was the start of writing about the “messy, but real stuff in life.” She stopped trying to find subject matter and started letting it find her by closely observing the everyday objects and rituals that caught her attention.

The finished work is a combination of ink and watercolor drawing and original text in a reflective voice. Part prose, part poetry, each entry spreads across two 8.5” x 11” sketchbook pages and includes the spiral binding. Her process starts intuitively and proceeds organically. When something begs to be sketched, she trusts her instincts and begins. Today she is completing text for a drawing of Russian nesting dolls begun the day her grandson was born. Frequently a drawing is completed first and the text is then drafted longhand in a project notebook. Holding up five notebooks from this past year, she says, “I overwrite and pull out what I need when I need it.” She moves on to the next drawing when inspiration strikes and eventually returns to revise and hand letter the text for each entry, sometimes months or years later. “Life happens so I have to be flexible and place mark. It allows me to be present to the moment of inspiration and also to bring work to completion by using the increments of time I have.” Enough was completed on that busy day that fifteen months later she revises the text and discovers a connection between the matryoshka dolls and a missing family story that defines the origin of her grandson’s name.

After 15 years of leading undergraduate travel programs in plein air sketching to France and Italy, Tara has honed her skills for drawing and painting on location. But until the “Close to Home” visual journal series she had never really kept a consistent sketchbook here in Minnesota. Six years later the results are ambitious and original. She jokes about her process, “I have a high tolerance for ambiguity.” But she is very serious about sequence when it comes to completion. On the table sits a calendar listing all the entries with notes about what each needs for completion. “At this point I work chronologically.” She explains that it helps pace the effort and focus required, “That way I don’t finish all my favorites first and leave the tough ones for the end.” In May 2014 she calculated that finishing three entries per week would prepare the series for her solo exhibition opening at the end of August. However, after an unexpected trip to Paris for her son’s marriage, and planning to host their Minnesota party in her backyard, it’s now more like five entries a week. “Oh, this one is actually done,” she exclaims, drawing a big X through the date. “The list keeps me honest.”

Releasing an intimate body of work like this is both exhilarating and terrifying. “Creating an intimate series like this is essentially agreeing to be naked,” she explains. Through experience, she has grown used to the challenges of making really personal work visible, but it is still terrifying. “I have great support in family, friends, and gallery directors.” Plus, she loves making this artwork. When asked what has kept the series going for this long she says without hesitation, “It’s fun. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had creating. Maybe it’s because I am letting my artist and writer work together for once.”

Connecting with others has also motivated her to complete the series. It was exhibited in progress in January 2013. She notes that the viewer response was a complete surprise to her. “I never expected people to stand in the gallery and read every word.” They did, and then shared stories with each other that the artwork triggered.

The objects and rituals that inspire Tara’s artwork are ordinary but the insights she reveals are anything but. We recognize ourselves in this work. It’s this bridge between the personal and the universal that makes the work so engrossing. Browsing through the intimate seasons of her visual journal entries, we share the humor, the pain and sorrow, the joy, the gratitude, and the hope that inspires this work. We are, as the title suggests, close to home.

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