Words by Kat Thompson
Tara Johnson—who goes by the name of TJ or TJWisco (her instagram handle)—has been into art for as long as she can remember: “I was always doodling. My notebooks, books, and sometimes homework were covered in patterns and pictures when I was in school.” In high school, she was the only girl accepted into an advanced art seminar class, where an assignment—to replicate a piece by a famous modern artist—solidified her style (in case you were wondering, the piece Tara chose was “Woman in a Purple Coat” by Matisse). “His use of color and free nature of his compositions and strokes opened my world up,” she said of the legendary painter.
Fast forward to college, where Tara left her home state of Wisconsin for something a little warmer, specifically Florida State University. There, she heard something that many other aspiring artists are familiar with: “A girl asked what my major was. I told her undecided, but leaning towards art. She shot me down and told me I’d never get a job as an art major.” It was something that Tara harbored for years—the feeling that art was merely just a hobby, nothing more. But still, she couldn’t turn away from the desire to create, especially in times of high stress. “It’s always been therapeutic for me. I think that’s why you can feel something in my art because there’s a lot of things being shed on that canvas or paper,” she explained.
It was only around five years ago that Tara began to reveal her art to close friends, who pushed her to pursue her passion and even host her own art show. Ironically enough, here we are now: interviewing Tara Johnson, the artist behind our “Jolene,” “Miss You,” and “Flor” T-shirts. There’s nothing more satisfying than proving doubters wrong. Meet Tara Johnson.
How would you describe your style?
I think that’s a really hard question. When it’s yours it’s hard to describe. I’ve always had a thing for color. I feel like I’ve only recently realized that I see colors in an image that most people don’t see. Whether it’s a drawing or painting, I feel like there’s life and a bit of me in each piece.
What's your favorite medium to work with?
I love acrylic because you can really layer it and work quickly with it. I’m not a very patient person, I move fast—which you can see a lot of times in my lines. I also love just ink.
What was it like working on these portraits of such iconic women? Do you have a particular favorite? How did you capture the essence of these women?
Portraits are my favorite things. I believe the eyes of the subject can say a lot. Whether it tells of the relationship between the artist and subject, what the subject is going through, or how the artist feels about the subject… it’s all there. These three women are iconic. All of the feels with them—each one brought me to a special point in my youth. I mean singing “Dreaming of You” with a hairbrush as a microphone in my bedroom thinking about all my crushes was definitely a moment. I think I recorded ALL of Aaliyah’s music videos and faithfully learned the choreography while wearing all Tommy Hilfiger gear. And Dolly? I mean... the higher the hair the closer to God, right? She’s just everything.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I find a lot of my inspiration in music and pop culture. Sometimes I speak in movie quotes. I love basically all genres of music. I’m pretty sure Spotify thinks I’m 6 different people from my music choices. Music always paints a story and brings out emotions; if you are actually listening it’s hard not to get inspired.
Who are your favorite artists?
I studied a semester abroad in Spain in college and was obsessed by Spanish artists: Goya, Velazquez, el Greco. Matisse and Van Gogh for their use of color and strokes. Egon Schiele has always been the artist that has spoken to me the most. He died young, but his movements and strong lines in his portraits are remarkable.
What motivates you and your art?
People. Watching people, as creepy as it sounds, and wanting to capture that moment. Especially the eyes—they say everything. Sometimes I want to stop a friend in the middle of a story and take a photo to remember their eyes. People and relationships are what make this life and my friends push and motivate me everyday.
I think another thing that has really motivated me lately is seeing my style progress. Like everything in life, there are seasons. I’ve been playing around with different styles and it [has] pushed me to do more and experiment. I used to go to museums a lot when I lived in New York, which is always motivating, but I think can hinder your creativity sometimes as well. Copying someone’s style is great to learn technique but at the end of the day it isn’t yours. You gotta find that yourself.
Why did you decide to become an artist? Was there a specific moment of clarity where you knew this was what you wanted to do?
Art has always been my outlet—my way of expressing myself. Sometimes it’s hard for me to say how I feel so I put it down on the canvas. I think getting older and the state of our country and our world is super overwhelming. It’s frustrating because you don’t know what to do. Holding all of the emotions inside you is toxic. I prefer to get it out through paint or sketches whether it’s literal or just pushing paint around.
Since college, when the woman shut me down, I always thought of art as just that—a side project. I was so insecure about my art that I didn’t really show anyone until about 5 years ago. In 2013 I had a huge push from my friends to have my first art show at Tribeca theatre. It was badly lit, not professional at all but full of friends, support, and energy. As bad as it was aesthetically, it lit a fire in me. My next show I progressed and decided to do the theme “Wish you were here” because I thought it would be amazing to think about what rappers would do on vacation. Jay was snorkeling, Lil Wayne flying a kite, Cam in Miami with flamingos... definitely my favorite theme yet. When I started creating for that show I was so excited and had too many ideas. That feeling is the best feeling ever. Once I saw the reaction to the pieces from that show I knew that I needed to continue that feeling and it was way more to me than just a hobby or therapeutic outlet.
What are your goals for the future? What are some dream projects you want to work on?
My biggest goal is to have a show in the near future in LA. I’m still getting the hang of things here, but I know it’s better to jump in then wait for the water to be warm. I would love to continue to collaborate with brands and/or stores. I’ve worked in Streetwear since ‘04 and would love to continue working with friends in this space and moving the needle. Possibly even having my own unisex brand one day.
Shop Tara's Graphic T-Shirts
|Miss You T-Shirt – $45.00||
Jolene T-Shirt – $45.00
Flor T-Shirt – $45.00