A Medium Between a Thought or a Feeling: An Interview with tarah douglas

(Above: tarah douglas, “no. 13” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 11 x 15 inches)

tarah douglas describes her work as “conceptually motivated,” which is a way of saying she’s not tied to one medium. Though other projects like studies of jahyne and pillowsforsadboiysz have married photography and textiles, her most recent work, called daysmissingu, is a series of watercolors created over the duration of a period of grief. Often so watery that the pigments bleed together, these paintings are very intentional indices of an ongoing emotional experience, a way, douglas says, to represent her “internal-emotional landscape.” On a recent Saturday morning, we spoke on the phone about her work and about making space: safe spaces, space for grief, and space for responding to the world.

What kind of art did you start making?

I’ve been making art since I was a child. It was something that I was always consistently doing. When I was young I did mostly painting and drawing, all the way through high school. It wasn’t until college that I started playing with textiles and photography. I went to school for art, so that was like the moment where I was like, okay this is seriously a thing for me.

How did you discover textiles and photography?

Over time I slowly gravitated toward them. Photography specifically being photojournalism, not necessarily formal photography, like studios and lighting and knowing how apertures work, but practicing going out in public and making somebody feel comfortable with me photographing them — that was more where my head was. It wasn’t until senior year that I put the two together. Which was a happy accident, I guess, for my senior thesis. I had made all these really complicated textiles and I was playing with different ways of application, like dying techniques and painting on the fabric, and was playing with this idea of identity politics and our relationships with our bodies. I had all these fabrics but they just didn’t feel alive, so I was like, What if I just wrap people in them? I wrapped myself in them first and did a few self-portraits and then started having people participate. That was when I feel like my practice really became interdisciplinary, because that’s something I’ve done throughout a couple of projects that I’ve worked on.

So this was a process of wanting to see the textiles on a person, more dynamic?

Yeah, using the textiles as this medium between a thought or feeling. For me the textiles made those concepts tangible, they made it so that I could hold them in my hand, and then there was a relationship, versus them existing on a wall or as an artform that’s away from the body. I’m really into the idea that you can touch the art, so I like to make pieces touchable and tangible.

tarah douglas daysmissingu
tarah douglas, “no. 17” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 15 x 11 inches

Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but when you say you’re into the idea that you can touch the art, does that mean, for example, people touching the scarves that are hung in a gallery alongside the photos from studies of jahyne?

That’s something that I’ve been trying to play with more in the final presentation, because the way they were hung [in that show] didn’t allow people to touch them, but every time I exhibit I try different ways to show the scarves so that people do have some sort of relationship with them where they are touching them, intentionally or unintentionally. I think it happened more directly in the photographs, because I give people the opportunity to interact with the pieces.

I notice you emphasize letting your subjects have some kind of voice.

Yes, the participants have a lot of agency in the space when we are photographing. It’s all very organic. I like that because I think when people are given space to really express themselves, that’s when the work feels most authentic to me. So a lot of the images that I took [in studies of jahyne], they’re not really posed, they’re just in the middle of conversation, because I really try to keep that photojournalistic approach where it’s like we’re just sitting and talking and I’m living in your space with you, versus I’m telling you what to do.

tarah douglas daysmissingu
tarah douglas, “no. 10” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 18 x 6 inches

I also know that you’re starting an MFA at Yale in the fall, right?

Oh yeah, I am.

I’m partway through my MFA so I was thinking about where I was at the beginning and what I thought I was going to be working on, versus how different what I’m doing now is. Do you have ideas or feeling about what you want to accomplish there?

Thank you for saying that, about how there’s this transition in the MFA program, because I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little nervous about that. I’ve been trying not to go in with these concrete ideas

I think that’s healthy.

[Laughs.] I’m going for photography — one of the big things I’m interested in is exploring and interrogating the interaction between the photographer and the subject and rethinking ways that photography can be inclusive and collaborative and leave the subject, the viewer, and the photographer in this space of communion and respite. A shared space versus “these are my ideas, this person represents them, and you are looking at them now.” Creating this shared interaction, looking at the history and the intention of photography in the past and the ways that we can use it to be productive and transformative.

What would you say are the interests that unite your projects?

I think a lot of my projects sort of deal with human existence within space. Everybody’s sort of talking about that, but I’m more interested in: What is a safe space? What space doesn’t feel safe?

The first project I did, possession, people couldn’t see the space they were in, so a lot of the work was them making sense of how they operate in new territory and how that applies to themselves. For studies of jahyne, I was playing with this idea of safe space and not safe space and how the definitions of that vary for people who share a relationship with womxnhood based on their bodies. I have another project, pillowsforsadboiysz, where I invite male-presenting folks into my studio and we create a safe space there. Using the textiles and objects in my studio, we build this space and it becomes a haven for them, and we talk about masculinity as a man-made thing.

tarah douglas daysmissingu
tarah douglas, “no. 12” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 18 x 6 inches

And then daysmissingu talks about internal space, the space of grief, and how I just feel like right now, or just for the past few years, there’s been so much trauma happening and so much violence taking place in the world that people don’t have enough time to process because we don’t create spaces for grieving. It’s something that you do alone by yourself and then you get over it and you go back to work. So this project is my practice in tackling that space, and being like, Okay how long does grief last? It’s contained in those paintings.

Can you talk about the genesis of daysmissingu?

I started the project right after having a falling out with a few friends. It was toward the end of the summer, so I was anxious about the fall and the winter because I tend to have a hard time during the winter.

Sure, same.

[Laughs.] Yeah, right. It was also the anticipation of my brother’s birthday and the anniversary of his passing coming up, which is also in the fall. So just this growing anxiety of trying to deal with this process of being sad but then not wanting to be sad, trying to enjoy the summer.

What I started to do was create these little paintings where I was like, I’m just going to sit in this feeling and paint it for as long as I possibly can. And then when the painting’s done, the feeling’s done. I think for me sometimes it’s hard to accept sadness and grief, or just anxiety, or anything that we connote as negative because we haven’t been given messages to work through it. So sometimes I have to scribble it out on a piece of paper. Just literally, physically, take a pen and run it across a piece of paper for a really long time and that’s how I get it out. That’s sort of what the paintings are for me.

Having the water element in it felt like tears, and just the flooding. Making each painting wasn’t a still process. Sometimes I would move the painting around and let things bleed in and out. I haven’t painted in a really long time so it was interesting going back to it. Sometimes they take 20 minutes, sometimes they take an hour, sometimes they take an hour and a half. I leave and come back to it. But it becomes this space where I’m like, Alright I’m feeling this thing, let me just put it on a piece of paper so I can see it and leave it. When it’s done it’s done.

tarah douglas daysmissingu
tarah douglas, “no. 4” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 18 x 6 inches

How do the dictionary definitions you use in your artist statement for daysmissingu relate to the work?

I’m a big journaler, and sometimes I think with certain feelings you don’t even have the words for them. I feel like a lot of journaling is trying to get things out and sometimes we put so much pressure on language.

I feel like people are just saying things and people don’t know what they’re saying but they’re just trying to get something out of themselves. So this is sort of like an exorcism of emotion. The painting allowed me to kind of think all these thoughts and not have to judge how they’re coming out but release them. I’m not one to, like, go back and read my journals, just because they tend to be too much —

I don’t recommend it.

[Laughs.] Yeah, but I think that doing these paintings is a way for me to revisit those periods of grief and the idea of missing someone without the focus on being articulate. A new way to be like, Okay so this is what that felt like on that day.

You include so many different definitions of the word “miss.” There’s an adjective for “miss,” there’s a verb and a noun for “miss.” Do you feel like the project is speaking to or across all of these kinds of meanings of the word missing or miss? Is there a blurriness you like there?

I think it’s a mixture of both. This project is really in progress so a lot of the things I’m saying are things I’m still thinking through.

Which rhymes with how the project works anyway, right? It’s very much about process.

Exactly. When I started looking up “missing” I was thinking about, like, I really miss this person. I was just curious about what the definition of it was. And then when I read it, I was like, oh wow, there isn’t really a definition for the feeling that I’m feeling right now.

Sometimes I use a word a lot and then I look it up and then I question if I’m using it right. That’s how I felt about “missing.” I was like, Are we using this word the right way? Is this longing that I feel for a person me missing them? Is that correct? and I think all of that sort of plays into the project as well. What am I feeling, what is this thing?

tarah douglas daysmissingu
tarah douglas, “no. 1” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 18 x 6 inches

Even the word “miss” has a negative connotation, but what I’m feeling when I miss a person, even though it does hurt, is not negative. I was really interested in that phenomenon.

I think for this project in particular I was also having this weird relationship between space and time, where I was like, Do I need space to grieve or do I need time to grieve and at what parts do these things become the same thing and what parts are they different? That’s where the days come into play.

When you named the project did you have a particular “you” in mind or was it supposed to be a general “you”?

I feel like “you” became just the singularity of “missing.” Because sometimes it’s not just a person, or a lost family member. Sometimes it’s what is going on in the world, or people who die brutally. I even started thinking about how there was that moment in 2016 where every time I opened my phone or my computer, another black person had been killed by the police. I could not function, I just felt like I wasn’t processing, so even then, that “you” became specific to all those individual people.

I decided to use the letter u versus “you” just because I felt like I wanted to emphasize again that singularity. Even the sound of “you,” the “ouuu.” I’ve been really into the sounds of things lately as a practice of active listening, and just exploring the feeling of things versus the literal sense of them. How things can be said. Even watching these mothers grieving — it’s not only what they’re saying that’s painful, but it’s the way they’re saying it, the way their body’s moving, their struggle to even get these words out that feels more powerful than the words themselves. But that’s just a personal thing. So “you” became this universal “you.”

Do you mind describing one of the experiences of creating one of these watercolors?

It’s funny, because some of them I don’t really remember. There’s one called “Dim” that I painted in the dark, that’s my favorite one right now.

tarah douglas daysmissingu
tarah douglas, “no. 18 (dim)” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 15 x 11 inches

I can’t even remember what specifically caused it. I try to create boundaries around what I consume and what I read on the news. I think that that night I had not followed my protocol, basically. I got into a weird hole about what was going on, what’s been going on, with Trump.

But I think this one had to do with the wall, one of its many iterations. I started looking at the images of people trying to cross the border and it freaked me out and then I went to sleep and started having nightmares. I woke up in the middle of the night, like, three in morning. At this time, I was avoiding doing the paintings, because I wanted the project to be done.

So I was like, I’m just going to make this painting and go back to sleep. I don’t think I turned the lights on, and I just picked the colors randomly. I thought I was painting with blacks and reds and just really grotesque colors — it looked really gross in the dark. A lot of the pieces sort of bleed into each other, and I use a lot of water, but for this one I used a lot pigment. And then I finished it, went back to sleep. I wake up pretty early so I think it was 6 or 7, the sun was rising, and I started to see the colors of the piece. It was nothing like I expected. I think for me it became this idea that I can feel a feeling through and it’s not unproductive. Sometimes I feel like I have one foot in, one foot out, because I don’t know how to process anything. Watching the sun rise and seeing this image come to life was a moment for me: even though this thing is very painful, moving through it is beautiful. I shouldn’t avoid feeling pain, or engaging, or finding ways to help, I should continue to feel this pain. Or not necessarily feel the pain but have compassion for what’s going on. Because I think, before, I would just completely shut down, and consume it and not really feel it. Just know the facts and kind of hit this airplane mode, where I’m just doing what I need to do. Allowing that space to really feel that is productive.

I’m interested in what you said about trying to control the way you engage with the news or with what’s going on in the world. It’s almost a cliche now to characterize our current time as one when everyone’s in a constant state or outrage. Maybe that’s something, about the relationship between these private spaces of grief that are still part of a public experience of something, trying to bridge that.

It’s all very complicated and that’s why I started the project. I realized that nobody’s talking about how they’re feeling in our day to day, they’re just talking about what’s happening. It’s very reactionary. I was reading something about the difference between reacting to something and responding, and how response comes from a place of reflection and taking something in fully and then returning to it.

tarah douglas daysmissingu
tarah douglas, “no. 3” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 18 x 6 inches

They use this metaphor of the waves lapping back and forth, like it’s just a natural occurrence, versus a reaction, where there’s this level of resistance.The way we consume news feels like a tactic to keep us thinking of days one step at a time, versus thinking of weeks or months or years, and one of my big goals outside of this project has been to really tie the past, present, and future as a thread versus things that are static and separate from each other. I’ve been reading a lot of history and different narratives and sort of tying loose ends together to create a collective story.

I think because I have this mindset, I don’t necessarily have to know what’s constantly happening now, because I’m making sense of what’s happening in the past. So much of what I’m reading in the past informs what’s happening in the present and then, I don’t know, thinking about or reading about what technology is moving toward in the future, all of these things start to inform one another. That helps me respond better to what’s going on versus feeling this active resistance.

Sometimes people have tried to guilt me for not participating directly and as quickly, but sometimes I am still processing something that happened weeks ago. I’ll do my research, take a moment to really feel it, find ways that I can help, but then I don’t really dwell in the details of it until I am ready and I take accountability for that. I think because I do that I’m not operating from this place of obligation or duty but a place of genuine caring. I have to take care of myself to even take care of anyone else, or help anybody else. So it becomes this act of preservation for my life, honestly. [Laughs.] Because I’m living it too.

Totally. I also think, to be an artist or even a writer, you need that space for a response, right? As opposed to a reaction. I like this idea of being really intentional about not just paying attention to the things that are demanding your attention, so like the news or Twitter or whatever, but instead picking things to pay attention to and letting yourself have a response to it, with some time built into that to think about it, contextualize it, or whatever. It seems like that’s part of what you’re creating here.

I’m trying not to get too revolutionary but I think capitalism drives us to feel like if every single moment of our life is not productive, that we’re not worthy of anything. The rate at which we are consuming can be debilitating. Sometimes I think doing nothing and taking a step back and staying indoors or doing something for yourself that isn’t just putting a face mask on or like drinking tea but like making sure your bills are paid or doing your laundry or crying for three hours in the dark — those are revolutionary acts. Just being like, Okay I’m going to take time to make sure I’m okay and I’m actually functioning and processing and listening to things and not just being like, This is a good thing, this is a bad thing, this is a good thing, this is a bad thing.

tarah douglas daysmissingu
tarah douglas, “no. 9” (2018), from “daysmissingu,” watercolor on paper, 18 x 6 inches

When you were talking about the painting that you made in the dark, “Dim,” you mentioned that you kind of wanted the project to be over. I’m wondering where that feeling came from, of wanting it to be over?

I’ve been doing all of this internal interrogation — soft interrogation, I will say, I’m trying not to beat myself up. It becomes a lonely process. I would like to think a lot of people are doing this work, and I think people are in their own ways, but even then, the way someone may make sense of something isn’t the same way that I do. It’s hard to be fully present and fully be aware of what I’m feeling and what other people are feeling. That level of sensitivity becomes tiring. There are times when I feel, even in my own process of unlearning, that I want things to stop or be done or I want to feel productive. I try to be gentle with this project and try to keep coming back to it and being okay that it might not ever be done. I actually created two new paintings last week.

I’m softly interrogating that part of me that wants the project to be done. I’m trying to be, like, What if grief is something that I always have to deal with, how do I incorporate it into my day-to-day or into my life? These are hard questions that we are asking or wondering about. I think even just opening up a space to talk about the grief without necessarily sharing the actual thing, just talking about the feeling of it, is something that I want to do and that I hope others are interested in doing.

What’s next for this project?

I’m going to be releasing a book of all of the paintings, in collaboration with Shine Portrait Studio, here in Newark, which is an entity in Express Newark. There’s going to be three large backdrops that we’re placing in areas where tragedy has taken place. We’ve been learning about the history of Newark and the land and the things that have taken place on this land. I’m interested in commemorating this place, its history, and its community because I think it’s going through a lot of changes right now.

All images courtesy the artist

About the author

Christina McCausland is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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