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Expanding her horizons

© Eden Swartz Photography

Tia Factor is a Portland-based artist and educator. She received her MFA in 2001 from University of California at Berkeley and her BFA from the California College of the Arts (CCA) in 1997. Factor has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, The Oxbow School in Napa, California, at the Portland Community College and is currently a full-time instructor for the School of Art + Design at Portland State University. Her work has been exhibited largely throughout the Bay Area and Portland, as well as in New York, Chicago, Germany, Denmark and Australia. In this interview, she shares how her roots stretched from a rural region of Northern California to the burbs of Chicago.  She explains how those roots, along with other experiences traveling (nationally and internationally), inform her art.

Your paintings have a very relevant feel in relation to contemporary art sensibilities. They incorporate complex color schemes, with a combination of biomorphic and geometric forms to create almost musical, fragmented, frenetic compositions that suggest real or imagined places and times. What is the significance of the landscape in your art?

There are a lot of reasons I’m interested in landscape and place. I was born in a beautiful and semi-remote backwater of Northern California, the Russian River area in Sonoma County. My parents and I lived up on a hill in the redwoods and were hippies, living close to the land. When my folks split-up, my mom and I ended-up in suburban Chicago where I was raised from the time I was eight years old. I had a pretty rough time of it in the burbs, feeling alienated from my surroundings in the sprawl and rampant development of that landscape. As soon as I could, I graduated early from high school and moved back to Sonoma County, where my dad lived. I had the distinct impression of coming back to myself, of finally being allowed to express who I was. The place really had so much to do with it because I realized through that experience that everyone is way more affected by the quality of their surroundings than they think. Once I began exploring how I was so affected both negatively and positively by my surrounds I dove further into the study of geography, wanting to create images dealing with landscape and the affect it has on people.

You recently created a whole series of paintings based on your move from California to Portland. This seems to have been an important life transition to have spawned this project.  This project also has the added complexity of having a social practice component. Can you talk about your process in developing this project?

Moving to Portland has been a pretty intense transition for a number of reasons. I went to school, both undergrad and graduate, in the Bay Area and pretty much every friendship and professional contact I’ve made in the last twelve years happened down there. Though my husband and I bought a house in Portland, it just wasn’t our home even after we put all our stuff in it. I wasn’t really sure how Portland could become my home either. We had actually just come from living in Tasmania for close to half a year and because it was clearly a temporary situation, I retained that privileged sense of being a visitor, not needing to create a real sense of home in that foreign land. But with Portland it was different.

So, I created this project for myself that was related to a project I had just completed during a residency in Tasmania.  As part of the residency, I was housed for a month on the outskirts of a prison ruins. I was seriously lonely but I developed a project that remedied the situation. Each morning I would walk around the ruins asking tourists to talk to me about their personal impressions of the place. This helped me feel connected to humanity and the world again. And I found, just as this interview makes me have to clarify my thought process which feels pretty good, people liked being invited to answer questions. They liked participating in someone’s project knowing that what they say may generate a work of art. So, that was the beginning of a more social side to my practice as a painter.

After moving to Portland, I decided to ask the few friends I had here about how it was that they made Portland their home through a formal interview process which I recorded. I took pictures of things they brought up during the interviews and arranged those images into compositions which I then painted with gouache on paper. Sometimes I refer to these paintings as symbolic portraits or a mental map of my interviewee. I’m not sure if it was the effectiveness of this project, having a baby in Portland, being here for over two years or some combination of the above, but I’ve finally began to feel a lot more at home in Portland.

© Eden Swartz Photography

Your paintings combine a beautiful mixture of abstract forms with realistic elements such as building structures, trees and animals. There is also a fine balance between control and chaos in your use of materials. Can you talk about the development of your techniques and imagery?

This combination of abstract and realistic elements is how I represent place from the vantage point of both inner and outer; the fusing of the subjective, personal or emotional reality with the “objectively” real environments surrounding us. I am also interested in the tension between control and chaos. Throughout my art practice I’ve explored issues of order emerging out of chaos and our basic human need to find patterns and meaning in chaotic information. I love the exchange between organic, amorphic patterns and the harder-edges of architectural and geometric forms. In my paintings, this often results in pools of gouache or watercolor drying in naturally formed patterns juxtaposed with harder-edged, refined mark-making.

In terms of imagery, I will often refer to the above themes in my paintings: chaos and order, nature and the built environment, and the interconnectedness of human beings to their environment.

You have been awarded artist residencies in India, Vermont and Tasmania. You talked a little about your experience in Tasmania. How do residencies and travel influence your art?

Travel has been a very important element in my life generally and as an artist specifically. I seem to be the most open to experience when I travel, learning the most about the world and myself in relation to it. When I travel, I try to make art even if it is not the most ideal situation for it. When I learned about residencies, I couldn’t believe that there existed such a perfect fusion of what I most love to do, travel and make art.

I didn’t necessarily make my best work while at any of the residencies but that is not what I think they’re about. The effect those experiences had on who I am will always contribute to what I make as an artist as well as deepen my understanding and curiosity about this world. And there is always something wonderful about being provided a studio space and meeting other artists in a foreign land (or even Vermont)!

© Eden Swartz Photography

What projects are currently in the works?

I am in the process of changing projects; coming to the conclusion of my three-year long series, In Want of the World, my new project, entitled No Place, is based on the contemporary and historic concepts of utopia, Eden and communal societies. The title of this project, No Place, is taken from the translation of the Greek word “utopia”, ou ‘not’ + topos ‘place.’ No Place is based on interviews and documentation I gather while talking with people who grew-up in utopian societies (communes, intentional communities, eco-villages) or spent a good portion of their lives on them. As the interviewees discuss their experiences in these "ideal worlds", tensions emerge between the founding principles behind the formation of such places and the major challenges that living communally often presents. This tension as well as the concrete imagery from the interviews is the jumping-off point for this series of works. While visually rendering in paint the concrete elements of the progressive and visionary architecture, the realities of living closer to nature and in a sustainable way, and the potential harmony of cohabitation with like-minded individuals, I juxtapose the contrasting internal landscape and emotional realities that emerge from my interviewees’ stories.

This work will be featured in a small artist book to be published this winter, with the support of the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), and included in an upcoming exhibit entitled Pure Paint for Now People at the Shaw Gallery at Weber State University in Utah this coming spring

Tia Factor | No place . A selection of works here

Original interview published in 2010 updated on September 2014
Original 2010 interview by Lorna Nakell, graphic designer and illustrator
© 2010 Lorna Nakell. All rights reserved
Lorna Nakell website www.lornanakell.com
Tia Factor website www.tiafactor.com
NAU NUA | ART MAGAZINE 2014 edition by Juan Carlos Romero
Updated 2014 interview by Tia Factor and Juan Carlos Romero
Courtesy of Lorna Nakell
Photos by Eden Swartz © Eden Swartz Photography
Courtesy of Tia Factor
© 2014 All rights reserved