The exceedingly humble and modest Tamara Stephas is an up-and-coming artist in the Seattle arts community. For those of us that have some of her art or have been to her shows, she is nothing less than a rising star. I have had the great pleasure of knowing Tam for 12 years now and have been consistently impressed with her dedication to issues around social justice. She is a feminist and a great ally to the LGBT community. Her latest body of work, entitled Altered Landscapes, delves into issues around sustainability and the interface between humans and the environment. Tam’s dedication to her art and issues around social justice make her an ideal focus for TSM.
What inspired this latest body of work?
I have been working on it for the last two years because I’m inspired both by the sheer beauty of nature and the desire to preserve it in paint, and also by issues of sustainability, how we look at the natural world, and the expansion of the human footprint. Our ever-increasing effect on the world – such as climate change and indications we are changing the chemical composition of the world’s oceans – are alarming, and yet the practicalities of daily life mean we can’t avoid being part of this. I’m a human, I want to live an everyday life, and that means I’m tied to consumption as well. It is very natural to optimize our lives for immediate convenience, it feels like we have to in order to get anything done. But stepping back and looking at the larger picture, I want to explore that interface; and that’s why my sort of idyllic landscapes are interrupted or overlaid with the human presence. I don’t want to sound dogmatic; I think it is inherent in our human species to survive. It’s not a moral judgment, but I think it is important to explore the boundaries between human expansion and nature because we have such an impact on the earth.
Can you talk about the painting Spill?
I started it in 2010 and was directly inspired by the Gulf Oil spill. I was horrified by the damage it caused. I did not finish it until the spring of 2011. I’m trying not to say too much; I hope it speaks for itself. The marsh is actually on Lake Washington in the Northwest. The oil is from my imagination. I wanted to make the oil spill itself beautiful. (Why?) To convey –I don’t want to have too didactic a message. I don’t want to call something good or evil. We hold an ambivalent position, and we rely on the natural world as we occupy it, so I did not want to have a beautiful and an ugly part.
Is it okay to be didactic or heavy-handed?
Of course it is, but I don’t want to alienate an audience. I would rather seduce with images and get you to walk away and think about it later.
(The mixture of the oil and water is hauntingly beautiful and mesmerizing as I look at the painting while we talk)
Can we talk about Intersection?
I was inspired to paint this by two things: one was the incredible light on a foggy morning striking a huge old tree that stands in a meadow under a freeway near my house. The second inspiration was the interface/boundary between growth and preservation of nature, and the freeway. Freeways were icons of the 20th century—they symbolized everything: motion, transportation, pollution, and opportunity.
(Again, the fog surrounding the bridge is haunting and mesmerizing both—my viewing it makes me feel part of the art world but also makes me feel guilty that I partake of this inexorable progress. My hope is that Tam’s art will shake us all out of our complacency)
Where can people go to see some of these paintings?
Spill will be at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane as part of the exhibit “Need/Want: Matters of Priority,” Oct. 15 to Jan. 7. And it turns out Intersection was selected for the annual Northwest Fine Arts Competition at Seattle’s Phinney Center Gallery in October. So you have a good eye, to pick those two paintings to talk about! And of course people are welcome to visit my studio in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood if they’re interested.
What do want your legacy to be?
I would be proud if fellow artists respected my work, and if I influence even one person to look at the world with more open eyes rather than taking it for granted.
Thank you, Tam for taking the time to visit with me and for sharing your amazing talents with the world. Click here to learn where you can see Tam’s art and gallery showings.