Tara Juneau's journey

By Christine Clark, March 2011

She’s disciplined and ambitious, fiercely individualistic, and burns her “unsuccessful” paintings on a beach she named after herself.

As we sit at her kitchen table together, with a bag of salt and vinegar chips between us (snacks she bought in case I was hungry), Tara Juneau answers all of my questions about the validity of realism in painting with a steadiness of purpose and eye quite disconcerting and totally in discord with her age, her big hair and the domestic chaos of her kitchen. 

She is surprisingly young for such an accomplished painter, one who has won many awards at local art shows. The youngest painter ever represented by Morris Gallery, she’ll be participating in its 11th Anniversary Show in March.

Juneau has a seven-year-old, a husband, and a nervous little dog named Princess. The pregnancy was unexpected; she was very young by today’s standards to start a family, and she experienced a profound depression over the loss of her youth, but also the loss of her self-vision—that of a vagabond artist, moving from place to place: working, living, experiencing.

That perceived threat of loss drove her to study and to perfect her considerable abilities as a draftsman and a painter, first under Dutch artist Johannes Landman, then with world-renowned artist and author Anthony Ryder in Santa Fe, as well as Jeremy Lipking in California.

Juneau says that she always knew what she wanted to do. She believes that she is on this planet to paint. She feels in colour; she loves beauty; she loves to recreate the beauty she sees. In response to my suggestion that realism is considered by some to be an outdated form of expression, she says she doesn’t give a fuck what other people think. OK.

In her studio, she’s different. More like a girl, a beautiful slender girl with the most amazing and infectious laugh. The seriousness of the kitchen falls away; the stories about people at life drawing who have scorned her skill, who have dismissed her work and her dedication because it’s “boring,” are forgotten, and instead I see an artist in full possession of her knowledge and her talent. 

She explains in meticulous and serene detail the process behind her in-progress still life, which features one of those little wooden boats that kids can make at the Cowichan Bay Marine Centre, along with a white tack, a blue ball, a length of white string, and a dried red rose. 

She shows me the brush she uses—a great huge brush for such delicate work! And she describes the secret behind her paint additive, which she magics herself using fire, amber and a dead bee. She shows me her latest self-portrait, called Andromeda and the Blue Sky, which is an almost-life-sized nude in an impossible pose. In the image, she is seen crouching, with her hands across her chest, and with her head and neck twisted away from the picture plane. It was painted with the use of mirrors and a colour sketch (a beautiful little painting in its own right). I suddenly realize that what I am seeing is not at all vanity—which some believe to be the motive behind both realism and self-portraiture—it is instead blazing ambition and discipline, and I am truly impressed. 

Juneau is such a perfectionist that she burns what she describes as her “unsuccessful paintings” in a remote location in Cowichan Bay at a place she calls Tara Beach. Artists are generally encouraged, and many of us are probably just naturally hardwired, to save (or at least to document) every scrap of work, right down to the crumpled life drawing sketches from first-year art class. But Juneau says, “Burning them is a very spiritual act for me. I am releasing them, detaching myself from all the time and energy put into them. I paint my feelings and experiences, so it is also like releasing those as well. I think people become too attached to their own ideas and preconceptions of what and how things are and it stops them from growing. Striving to get better at my craft is a constant struggle, but [it applies] in my walk as a person and in my relationship to God too.”

When I learned that she drags her unwanted paintings down to the ocean and burns them under all that sky, I immediately thought of poetry. She calls these events her “Burns,” and so of course I thought of the Scottish bard, Robbie, but even more intriguing was the vision of fire in the night and the legendary story of Percy Shelley, who died by drowning and was cremated by his friends on the beach. Shelley was a Romantic, and Tara Juneau is too, although this is not a comparison of style but of spirit. Like Shelley, Tara is a fiercely individualistic artist, and this is not always easy because the world of Art (yes, with a capital A) can be a very critical community and too often ruled by the superficiality of fashion. Contemporary art does not gladly recognize realism, especially in paint, as a relevant genre. There are just too many years of Expressionism and Pop Art and Minimalism between us and the Old Masters; there are too many clichés. 

 We tend to forget that all serious art, no matter the genre, is the end result of commitment and discipline.

And Tara Juneau is a serious artist; she is not a follower; she does not kow-tow to the trendiness of popular art culture; she is committed to her own journey, her own ideals and her work. She writes, “The process of creating needs to stay fresh and exciting for me. That is why I prefer to paint on location and from life. You have to do all the interpreting first hand; [you have to] deal with moving subjects and changing light. It is the thrill of the hunt in a way and you get plenty of opportunities to face your weaknesses and to grow.”


The 11th Anniversary Show at Morris Gallery opens on March 11, from 7-9 pm, 428 Burnside Rd. East, at Alpha, 250-388-6652. See www.morrisgallery.ca and www.tarajuneau.com.

Christine Clark writes for www.ArtinVictoria.com; she is the creator and curator of the Balcony Gallery @ Xchanges, and is showing her own work, a year’s worth of beer cans, this month at the Ministry of Casual Living.