By Erin Dunn and Tamara Garvey
As Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Telfair Museums, I am often visiting the studios of artists in Chatham County and the surrounding areas. However, in this necessary time of physical distancing, I opted to try connecting with an artist virtually, and Savannah-based artist Tamara Garvey was up for the challenge! Tamara (https://www.tamaragarvey.com/) spoke to her own studio practice as well as her larger thoughts on Savannah’s art scene and pursuing art full time, especially during this difficult period.
Erin Dunn (ED): Where is your studio located and what is your studio practice like on a normal day?
Tamara Garvey (TG): I am fortunate enough to have a small extra room in my house, so I work out of there. It’s kind of a mess. My art studio is definitely the messiest thing in my life. My art itself — up until lately, when I am branching out into bigger pieces — is generally small enough that I can just sit at a table and do it, and pen and ink doesn’t involve having any solvents or oils or chemicals around, so it’s possible to be very “tidy” about it. But since I also have the whole side of my business of making prints and cards and designing assorted products, I have printers and bins of prints and piles of matboard on hand. I have it all arranged into “zones of products,” and piles of papers, but it looks pretty insane and I really need to get around to putting up some shelves!
My typical (more like my ideal) studio day would be that I wake up and immediately go to the gym (sometimes this actually does happen!) and then come home and start painting or producing. In the late afternoon I would leave the house and go for a walk and take some photos along the way — I love documenting Savannah’s beautiful houses and trees — or I would just sit in a square and read a novel. Depending on what’s going on, like if I’m getting ready for a craft show, at night I would put Netflix on in the background and work on printing and packaging up my prints and cards. I really enjoy this task. It feels a little like being a factory worker, but it’s like I’m on an assembly line producing my own creations en masse, and I love the idea of that.
ED: Your works really run the gamut in terms of subject matter, from watercolor abstractions to forest and nature scenes and local Savannah monuments. Where do you get your inspirations for the myriad subject matters? What are the main materials you work with to create an original illustration?
TG: Ha, I know, honestly I just have many subjects I enjoy tackling! There are probably 5-6 different types of “series” in my portfolio, and I sort of bounce around from one to the other constantly. Personally my enjoyment comes from the materials — I use an old-fashioned pen with a metal nib that I dip into various ink bottles, and either paper or a paper-textured panel. I just love the process of designing the drawing and doing the actual inking; I don’t have one concept that I’m driven to explore indefinitely.
ED: Are you working on multiple pieces at once or do you focus your efforts on one work at a time?
TG: Hmm. A lot of times if I am tackling a purposeful, complex illustration then I’ll have something else “easy” on the side that I go back-and-forth with. So most recently I was alternating a really detailed drawing of the Bird Girl with a couple of small panels of sparkly, splattery, abstracted trees. It’s the equivalent of juggling Anna Karenina with a beach read!
ED: You are best known for your quirky, pen-and-ink illustrations that reward those who look closely at all of the details. Can you describe how text and image often work together in your illustrations?
TG: My drawings that have little text embedded in them are basically like that VH1 show “Pop-Up Video,” which I loved (hey, what happened to that show??). I got started on that because I was using this Ben Franklin-type of pen to outline shapes, and suddenly just realized, well these pens are really meant for writing, and they’re capable of doing beautiful thin lines. I started experimenting with halting a line and transitioning it into a few words, then picking the line back up, and I just really loved the look of it and the idea that I was creating a more complex and rewarding surface for the viewer.
ED: You are a SCAD grad who left Savannah in 2010 for several years to live in New York City, but decided to return to the city in 2017. What led to your decision to return?
TG: I did always intend to come back to Savannah eventually. I just wanted to move to NYC so that when I’m lying on my deathbed I wouldn’t have any regrets that I’d never just gone for it! But I had lived in big cities before so I already knew that it wasn’t going to be my “forever” type of environment. I got the experience of 7 years there, which is a good chunk of time. But I am very happy here and can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather live now.
ED: What do you do to promote your work and get your art out into the world?
TG: Oy. I think for a lot of artists, the personality type that likes holing up alone and arting is the complete opposite of someone who is PR-savvy and thrives on blowing their own Vertubenflugen. So I try really hard on Instagram and Facebook to post regularly and to mix it up, and to opt-in to all the new business features as they come out, but I do feel uncomfortable doing it and if I weren’t running a business I would happily spend a lot less time checking social media.
ED: What do you think of the current Savannah art scene? What other artists would you recommend for a studio visit?
TG: There are so many artists in Savannah whose new work I see and it makes me so FIRED UP with excitement and envy, like I’m just fascinated and blown away and I think, “Oh man I wish I had done that!” but it’s the good kind of envy, where you can use it to go home and experiment in your own work. I think that’s a necessary quality in a town’s art scene. I am happy with my work but just like in any aspect of life, every so often you catch yourself having stalled out a little and just treading water, so to keep improving I need to go out to cultural events and take in all these various disciplines; you never know what might shake something loose in yourself. Other artists I especially love right now: Sally Mayer Seidl, Jose Ray, Kelly Boehmer, Kamryn Shawron, Jennifer E. Moss, Heather Young. Lots more though! There is something to appreciate in everyone’s work.
ED: In one of your recent Instagram posts you spoke to how pursuing art as a career is already a risky path even in the best times, so the uncertainty of this health crisis is especially scary. But you spoke about “thinking creatively and working even smarter and harder.” Can you expand on how you think artists can and will respond to these uncertain times?
TG: You know, it became clear right away that there are always people who are just natural organizers and leaders, and they were RIGHT ON IT with issuing calls for artists to send them info so they can set up an online repository of artists’ website, or with organizing a live FB group show/event made up of individual artists’ videos/shows. I have Googled and found brand-new sites that are lists of various charitable foundations for artists in financial need. When I logged into my Etsy shop, there was a link from the site that easily allowed me to send a letter to our state reps, requesting that artists and microbusinesses be included in all of these emergency relief funds the government is putting together. Again, everything comes back to the social media! If this were happening even as recently as the 90s, who knows what we’d have been able to organize?
ED: How do you think museums and galleries can support local artists during this difficult time?
TG: I think the most helpful thing museums and galleries could do for artists at this moment (other than money, which is a given) would be utilizing the database of art supporters you’ve already worked so hard to build, and alert them to all the artists living and working right here in their same town. Roots Up Gallery has already started to do this — they’ve issued an open call to Savannah artists to submit their info and photos and the gallery will then market that work through their channels. I mean it’s this perfect storm of everyone stuck inside with access to online shopping, not to mention hey maybe it’s a great time to decorate the house a little – you’re going to be staring at these walls a LOT right now. All of us artists are home creating and then frantically posting and (way more desperately than usual) hoping to make a sale, and then you’ve got museums and galleries who already have cultivated an email list of art lovers and collectors. It’s potentially an amazing moment in history for cultural institutions to step in and lift people out of this “starving artist” state that’s been drummed into our heads!
Thank you Tamara for taking the time to answer my questions. One day I look forward to following up with an in-person studio visit!
This studio visit is affiliated with Telfair Museums’ #art912 program, an initiative dedicated to raising the visibility and promoting the vitality of artists living and working in Savannah through exhibition opportunities, public programs, and outreach.