Tara Brannigan makes jewelry and costumes out of silver, bones, stones and leather. Among other things. This is almost a counter to her tech-oriented day job, except that her love of technology occasionally steps into the artistic realm. Such as in the case of her bench-cam, a live webcam from Tara’s workshop where interested parties can watch her work in real time.
I met Tara at a coffee shop in Seattle, where she showed me a few samples of her work and took the time to talk to me a bit about her process. We also talked about some of the personal motivations and experiences that have helped fuel Tara’s creativity.
AP: What is your process like? How do you get started on a new piece and when do you know that it’s done?
I force myself to sit down at the bench on a fairly regular basis, but I don’t always have a plan before I do. Generally if I have a plan, it’s because some random idea popped into my head earlier in the day and I feel the need to flesh it out. Usually this happens in a completely inconvenient place or time, such as driving down the freeway or in the middle of some important conversation. I’ve been pretty horrible about actually sitting down to try and go through the brainstorming process, but I’m getting a bit better about it.
Other times I’ll acquire a new piece of material and dink around trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be in. Usually I’ll keep these in sight while working at the bench, so even if I don’t immediately know what it should be, I can be thinking about it in the back of my mind while working. I may not know immediately what it’s meant to be, but I latch onto it as something particularly fantastic that I need to find a purpose for.
The Horn Ring is one of those sorts of projects. I picked up the Duiker antelope horns from a clearance bin at the Bone Room in CA while I was down there visiting. I had no idea what I wanted to make from them at the time, just that they had a great deal of potential. I bought them, put them on the shelf next to my workbench and kept going back to them, but never really sorting out their purpose until I was making a project for a friend. I’d built out a box ring and was looking around for what to put on its top. I wanted the ring to have a proud, rebellious, but also protective nature. I just wasn’t finding the right stone in my collection of random ‘things to set’ though, and started looking through my personal Pile of Random Awesome Stuff. That’s what I spotted the Duiker horns and, after a quick check to make sure one of them would fit, realized I’d finally found the perfect home for it.AP: You are attracted to the theme life/death and also use a lot of organic, scrap and “throw-away” ingredients in your jewelry. Is there a connection there? What about those themes appeals to you?
Oh most certainly.
Many of my materials come from old thrift store fur coats, scraps from taxidermy road kill and the ‘waste’ bits from various industries. I treasure the idea of creating a new and fantastic object from that which might ordinarily be discarded or left to rot; Rebirth and transformation via reuse of the material in a new way.
I do not intend to make light of or ignore the very real nature of the organic materials. Very few of them are not the product of the death of a living being, either accidental or otherwise. In utilizing such things, I strive to create a sort of bridge between the material as a dead ‘thing’ and the life it previously belonged to, either symbolically or through direct association.
A horn serves as protection and aggression, as it might have in life. A barnacle shell scavenged from the beach holds a secret treasure, transforming the shipyard pest into a guardian of simple beauty. It is my hope that when someone comes into contact with something I’ve made using these components, they can take the time to think about what really went into it, and consider the life or lives that lay behind its creation.
AP: A major motivator for you was your brother’s untimely passing. Could you tell us a bit about how that affected you as an artist, creatively and in terms of focus?
My brother was in his early 30s when he died. While I objectively knew that death could happen at any time, the reality of the situation never really hit home until it happened to someone I loved. His early death struck my core and left me feeling raw and wounded for a long while thereafter. I’ve always been introspective about death due to my father’s murder when I was very young, but Ian’s death sent me into a far more serious look at what I wanted to accomplish with whatever time I might have.
I realized that while I had allowed myself to dabble in those things that I was passionate about, I never really dedicated any real time to them. It was always only if I had the time and didn’t fill it with some other distraction. It was easier to ignore the pull of something ‘frivolous’ if I didn’t allow myself to really immerse into it. I couldn’t know what I was missing if I never really allowed myself to experience it. As cliché as it may sound, Ian’s death made me realize that putting off one’s passions in the hope that you’ll have time ‘later’ is never a sure bet, and that I was tired of doing just that.
With my employers exceptionally understanding blessing, I took two months off and took the plunge, enrolling in the Jewelry Technician Intensive course at the Revere Academy in San Francisco. It was exactly what I needed. I returned to work with new skills and a promise to myself that I would pursue those things I love, even if it’s not always easy to accomplish.AP: Besides jewelry, you also enjoy creating costume pieces and props. What is that about and where does this fascination come from?
At the core it’s motivated by the same sort of need to make things as the jewelry, but it’s also a bit more than that. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of being someone or something else for a little while. I was a bit shy and insecure as a kid, but Halloween was always that chance to be something wild and completely unlike my day to day self. I’ve always liked creating an experience, not just for myself, but also for those around me. As an adult I have more confidence in making the world a little more surreal and not caring too much about what some might think.
I also just love the process that goes into creating a costume or prop. I always find myself thinking about why something should look a certain way, what the character of the person wearing or using such a thing must be, what their mannerisms might be, etc. While it’s possible and fun to make something simply for the sake of making something neat, I love the surge of imagination and ideas that it can produce when you think about the why and how of an object or concept.
AP: You keep your tech-oriented dayjob and your (self described) low-tech art fairly separate, yet they seem to complement each other. You also have a “bench cam” on your website, which doesn’t seem very low tech. Could yell us a bit about that balance and what it means to you?
That’s not to say that my work life and home life are completely separate. I’m not sure that would be possible. I’m a bit of a geek at heart and that sort of thing just trickles into everything I do in one way or another. As you said, I run a web cam while I work on projects and stream it live on my website whenever I feel the urge.
Creating something by hand can be highly technical as well, so perhaps high-tech and low-tech were poor word choices on my part. It’s more the perception of the end product at the end of the day that feels different when something is made by hand. My job focuses primarily around communication and planning. While there are products that come out of it, they are of a somewhat intangible nature and generally not directly created by me.
I enjoy my job, the people I work with and the life it enables, but it doesn’t fully sate my urge to create. An email isn’t something that will be found on a curio shop someday. It doesn’t have a weight, a solid presence in the world. Much of what I do day to day is valuable, but of a momentary nature.
I’ve always felt more engaged, more focused and vividly alive when I’m making something with my hands. It’s one of those few things that can make the passage of time seem to cease to exist and make everything else just sort of fall away for a little while. And at the end of a day, I have something physical to show for it. It may not be finished within that day, but it’s something solid and tangible that I created. It’s something that would not exist, save for my efforts, and that never ceases to excite and motivate me.
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