Tarina Doolittle has created the most important art of her lifetime—something solely and purely for herself. As the artist prepares for her upcoming gallery show, she talks candidly about the blurring of lines in her work, identity, and neurotransmissions.
BY EMILY LAUTCH
Tarina organizes her portfolio. Photograph by emily lautch
“I’m sorry,” I apologize, again. I’ve said almost nothing but varying inflections of the word “cool” since the artist in front of me laid out her work on the studio floor—striking, seamless collages of renaissance art, naked women, and wartime images. I’m in over my head; I’m a writer. But not a journalist, not an art critic. How did I end up here? I ask an embarrassingly simple follow up question, to which she responds, “…did they send you my artist statement? Or tell you…about me?” Fuck. I start to bluff, sigh, and say instead, “No, they did not. I have no idea who you are. They mentioned your name on the phone an hour ago and I know absolutely nothing else about you, what you do, or your art. I’m so sorry.” She laughs, a pleasant, jingling sound. “Cool. That’s honestly better.” Relief washes over me, I relax as she assembles the collaged wallpaper worlds proliferating out of her portfolio. I look at her work and think it could expand forever.
As if she could read my mind—and I wouldn’t put it past her, there’s something hard to place about her relatability—she tells me she had to leave her crate in the studio for the last few weeks because she couldn’t stop creating. I ask why she thinks it’s so compulsive. I’m an artist too and I don’t create with such abundance. I’m jealous. “It’s only this,” she says. “My photography isn’t like this; my sculpture work isn’t like this. People tell me they want to see inside my brain and I promise them they do not. It’s scary. It does not stop. If I try to stop thinking, I stop breathing. I think that’s why it’s such a compulsion. My brain found something it can truly focus on. I’ll cut and paste until I fall asleep. I’ve woken up with my exacto blade still in my bed.” I ask if this a place where her mind can be quiet. “Kind of...it helps it, I think. This is what my brain looks like when no one else is there.” She giggles, gesturing outwards. Not a lot of people would like to share the lonely, restless, resistant inner-workings of their minds. Tarina is turning her neurology inside out and mounting it on walls for all to see. I think about what is voluntary. Blushing? Creating? Tarina surrenders control in order to create. We surrender control in order to bear witness. And we’re lucky to have the opportunity.
I have always been uncomfortable with limitations. Binaries. Boxes. In a society that demands we identify ourselves as just one thing for the world’s consumption, it is refreshing to walk through a door that allows us to combine and explore all the facets of who we are. In my case, and Tarina’s, that door is a small green one.
I had no idea I was about to be thrust into a full-scale artistic incubator. But that’s precisely what Small Green Door does—they surprise; they take chances on and for people, from the artists they support to their clients. They take chances on people who might not have the courage or the resources to highlight their own work. When Small Green Door’s co-founder, Leo Estevez, asked me to tell him about myself, I panicked and word-vomited every type of art I was interested in. I think I forgot to even mention writing, my primary focus. I was embarrassed. How directionless I must have sounded. Everything I’ve ever been told is to specialize, brand yourself, find your niche, your passion—but what if you have more than one? Instead of gently showing me the door, he took interest. And asked me to come in two days later.
Small Green Door's modular studio space. Photograph by emily lautch
The daughter of a journalist, maybe it’s in my blood—but I could never live up to the investigative skills of my mother. As a child I remember tapping my feet, twiddling my thumbs, ever-annoyed that she was still rapt in conversation with the next-door neighbor, the guitarist of the band, the person next to her on the plane, the mailman. I have now come to appreciate my mother’s innate ability to step into the world of a stranger, her genuine interest in everyone. I imagine it is what made her such an exquisite reporter and gave me the genetic predisposition to fall into fascination with people in the same way.
That being said, I could not have asked for a more fascinating person to speak with. Tarina Doolittle also does not appear to like boxes or boundaries. Her art rejects the concepts altogether. She tells me she works without plan or schematic, an intuitive practice, cutting and pasting images as they come to her fingertips. Where does her sense of rebellion come from? She tells me about growing up in Otsego, Michigan, a country town of three-thousand people. “Your mama was swattin’ your ass when you came home because the neighbor told her you were thinking about doing something bad tomorrow. We followed rules,” she continues. “Everything I did was because I thought I was supposed to. And then I went to art school and cut off all my hair and dyed it black,” she says with a laugh. Easing back from what she calls her “little scene phase” she began touring with metal bands. She recalls, “That was its own world and it still felt like I had to fit into a bubble. You have to look the part. For a while I didn’t know if I actually liked looking like a little goth child or if that was just another thing I was supposed to do…And now I know I just like looking like a little goth child.”
Out of one box and into another. It’s hard to believe the person in front of me ever found themselves in any kind of box. She expresses her disdain for artists who confine themselves to one medium. “I don’t like saying to someone, ‘I’m a photographer.’ If someone says that to me I’m like, great, what else do you do. And people say ‘but that’s what I am’—no you’re not, that is what you do. It is not who you are. It’s a piece of it, sure. But have you tried drawing, writing, painting? I’m not very good at drawing. I can sketch well enough to get my ideas across, but I can’t see color in the way that painters need to. I don’t see all the nuances. I know that. But I love to build. There’s so much more to being an artist than just one discipline.” I love her ownership of that. “It took a long time.” Until about a year ago she hadn’t fully embraced being an artist, too nervous to tell people she did all these different things. As artists we fear coming across as amateurs, or worse, seeming pretentious. I love hearing this. I feel a warming sense of solidarity. It’s all too easy to say, oh, I can’t do that, that’s not my one designated thing. We become artists because we think outside the box and don’t want to be stuck in one—but end up pigeonholing ourselves nonetheless. Tarina shows me that we don’t have to. “It’s hard out here. People think you have to be one thing. No. You can just exist. I can simply exist. And that’s enough.”
Her all black ensemble—Doc Martens, bike shorts, tattoos, and an oversized Nightmare on Elm Street long-sleeve she later tells me is her favorite—is a striking juxtaposition with her blush toned, Botticelli fever dream creations. By the end of our time together I understand how Tarina’s intuitive process results in so many arresting incongruities—because she herself is filled with the most shimmering, profound absurdities and contradictions. She catches me smiling and focusing my camera on her finger tattoos as she shuffles through renaissance cutouts. She playfully throws up her hands. “Iggy Pop and Bowie. I put a lot of stock in these artists for teaching me that it’s okay to embrace being weird as fuck. They changed the world. They literally changed the world. And not in the way most people give them credit for. If I can make someone feel like it’s okay to be weird…then that’s dope.”
Tarina in a contemplative moment. Photograph by emily lautch
She’s doing that work tenfold. Tarina is wrestling with what it means to see and therefore what it means to create ways of seeing. She’s re-imaging how we view history, skin, truth, art, ourselves. “Women are not objects. But for how many millennia we have been…that takes so much to undo.” She has depoliticized historical images and politicized the mundane. “Blush,” reads the title of her upcoming show. She shows me a piece where she has situated a woman touching a nipple as the pope and his cohorts faint beneath. “Someone’s blushing,” she states matter-of-factly. Is it the body the hand belongs to? The pope? The purveyor of the art? You can see her pieces so many times and as soon as you try to walk away the eye catches a different flash of color. A limb. You have to come back and look at them again and now there’s a floating head in your brain. There’s something inexplicable. “They force you to interact with them,” she says. It’s true. You have to get close. It’s not like when you go to a museum, stopping to look dutifully before moving on. Tarina likes things that confront you. “I think that’s how art should be, you should have to force yourself to look. You can’t just breeze past it. I know not everyone is going to like it, but you should have the opportunity to make up your mind.”
When you put art out into the world people are not only going to “like it or not” they will go so far as to decide what your art is saying to them. Some artists are defensive; that’s not what they meant. Some are delighted, a discovery to them as well—whatever you saw must have been in there. I ask Tarina how she feels about this. “I don’t like to lead people. You don’t need to know what I was going through when I created it…what are you going through when you’re viewing it? I shouldn’t tell you what to feel.”
All of a sudden—and I could not tell you how we got there—she’s telling me about a sculpture she made inspired by the molecular breakdown of LSD interacting with the chemistry of the brain. Books of research later she’d built a physical construction that when lit properly presented differing dimensions of the sculpture in its shadows. She, never having done the drug, showed it to some more psychedelically inclined friends who unanimously exclaimed that it looked like how tripping feels. She tells me about another structure based on her extensive research of how blood flows through the body. Strips of fabric suspended in air that moved with the wind. She fidgets a bit, I can tell she thinks she’s boring me. I could not be more engaged. I forget all my questions for a moment, shaking my head in silence. She raises an eyebrow. “You have already achieved your mission of making one person feel like it’s okay to be weird as fuck,” I tell her. She laughs uproariously and turns away. I ask about her chemistry background. She tells me she wanted to be a chemist until waking up one morning in high school and deciding she wanted to study art. Haven’t we all. I wanted to study neuroscience. I tell her how badly I too wanted to understand the chemistry of the brain—but obviously didn’t pursue that.
Tarina's collage work laid out on the studio floor. Photograph by emily lautch
“There are books for everything,” she assures me, without a whisper of condescension. I cannot stress enough how gently delivered this simple phrase was, and how softly it landed in my heart. Never in my life have I felt so unafraid of my own perceived limitations and so expansive in my interests as while speaking with Tarina Doolittle. Light streams onto the concrete floor. I want to share a story with her that ends in a question. I ask that she bear with me.
My dad is an engineer and a finance guy. I never knew how he necessarily felt about art. He imbued in me a love of literature and I knew he had a profound respect for music—but no one in generations of our family history has ever been a known artist. I wasn’t sure how he saw art fitting into the world around him or how he felt about his daughter dedicating her life to it. And then one day, probably around the time when I was about to go off to study acting, we were reading out on the patio. He gently put down his magazine—it was probably New Scientist—and said rather out of the blue, “You know Emmy, I don’t think we can understand things like love, without science. And I don’t think that we can understand how the human body works without the arts. What would be the point, anyway?” And then went back to reading. That’s stuck with me. I carry that around in my pocket. I love him for those words every day. What do you think of that?
Nodding fiercely, she says, “I agree with you. My dad was one of the top computer engineers in the country. The first computer I built—” She builds computers. She can build computers?! “I was like six!” she protests, laughing, as if that somehow makes this less impressive. “It was with my dad, I didn’t do it all by myself!” I want Tarina to fix my printer. I want to wallpaper my home with her art. To shoot my portrait. Make me a curated Spotify playlist. Scan my brain and tell me about it. I am convinced there is nothing this woman cannot do if given the chance. I urge her to continue what she was saying before I interrupted. “My dad will get stuck on coding sometimes and he’ll call me to talk through it because I’m not going to think about it like a coder would. I just think about the situation how I think. There’s an art form to it. That’s why I’m able to think about it from an artist’s perspective. It’s not just 0s and 1s all the time.” I am reminded of my childhood friends now working for Microsoft, the way their eyes light up when they talk about building worlds, learning languages. We’re all performing alchemy. Creating something from nothing.
Tarina and I agree not enough people give credence to science being artistic—or art being a science. She adds, “some of the most beautiful images you’ll ever see are microslides” and we both smile. She brings up Leonardo da Vinci—the obsession is mutual. A renaissance man. I lament the dearth of true renaissance people in the modern era, stopping myself mid-sentence. I’m sitting across from one. The world is only becoming more and more interdisciplinary and its problems need interdisciplinary interventions. Small Green Door is doing critical work to combine worlds by highlighting artists like Tarina. This is what we need. You cannot explain anything in a vacuum. Bowie, da Vinci, punk, collage, neurochemistry, computer science…I’m ready for a second renaissance, with Tarina Doolittle at the forefront. The dreams of the artist are always beautiful. “Not mine. I have night terrors.” We devolve into cackling. I thank Tarina for speaking with me, for sharing her soul and her art. She thanks me. I am beaming.
Whether you are an artist, scientist, or amoeba in a petri-dish--don’t miss Blush, November 9th at Small Green Door.
Emily Lautch is an artist based in Los Angeles, CA. She grew up in Seattle, WA and received degrees in Theatre and Latinx Studies from Emerson College. She can write stuff, ask questions, take pictures, make movies, and say butterfly in thirteen different languages. She is dedicated to re-mapping the world through the expansion of boundaries and the deconstruction of binaries. She likes pinecones, airports, & lexical gaps.