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Magic in the Details: An Interview with Artist Cayetana (Tani) Conrad

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

By Silver Webb

Tani Conrad is the cover artist for Volume 6, and I'm delighted to learn more about her.

Tani Conrad, "sidestroke" oil on canvas 30 x 40"

Silver: You come from a very artistic family, with at least three generations of artists and authors among you. Was it assumed that you would become an artist, and how did you find your way to painting as your profession?

Tani: It was not assumed. When I was thirteen, various kids I knew started to excel at things like sports or playing a song on the guitar, so I asked my dad to teach me to use oil paint. I do remember at a really early age, looking at a milk carton and thinking that somebody had a job that involved designing the milk carton, and that seemed like a really fun job to me, to get paid to color. I always liked art, music, and reading. Reading was emphasized in our family. My mother was an architect, but also very science oriented, she was pre-med at Stanford, loved doing her own engineering. So it wasn’t ever presumed we would go into the arts, but it was all around us. We had a lot of art books in the house. If we went to a city, we always went to museums. My mother painted too. Somehow it got absorbed.

I got a b.a. in college with a major in art, and after that, I took various classes here and there. When I lived in New York, I used to go to the Art Students League and draw from models. Later, when I lived in Connecticut and had young kids, my escape was to go one day a week to an art school called Silvermine, and I would either draw from a model there or do portraits in a portrait class.

Tani's Studio

Silver: You’ve said that magical realism of both paintings and literature have been an influence on you. I’ve never heard an artist say that an author impacted their style of painting, but I find the idea very interesting.

Tani: I think everything that you like is, in a way, an influence. Your style of painting is based on color choices, shape choices, subject matter choices. I like Bergman’s film, Fanny and Alexander, for the same reason; he goes into a child’s view of the world, which seems like magical realism to me. It’s partly real, but it’s also dreamlike, and anything can happen. Pan’s Labyrinth also had a magical realism about it that was very beautiful, and also from a child’s viewpoint.

When I paint, and get into a zone, I often think about being under the age of eight, lying on the floor and coloring with the California light coming through the window, and that certain calmness you have as a child. You’re more in the moment. Children are natural artists, very intuitive.

Tani's "Arching" is the cover art for Volume 6, now available on Amazon and in our bookstore.

Silver: Your website groups your work by Mixed Media, Nature, and Figure. The Nature paintings are quite interesting to me, and where I see the influence of magical realism most strongly. Snarls of weeds and wild flowers, nasturtiums, and gnarled trees. The greens and highlight are almost hyper-real, yet grounded by very dark, almost black undertones of the earth, and the result is this feeling that between the blades of grass, in the dirt, in the down deep details, there is something unknowable, perhaps life’s end, perhaps magic. Is that your take on them as well?

Tani: Yes, those paintings I build up in layers, and I like to push the background way back and push the foreground way forward. I do like to have some mystery in there, as well as little creatures. I like to put little skeletons in there too or fossils as memento mori. I have one figurative painting that kind of is like that, of a girl sunbathing around a pool, but underneath her are all these fossils, and even a figure. That one is from the Language of Youth show, and the painting depicts a young teenage girl tanning, something superficial, while underneath her are millions of years of time and fossils.

The paintings take a long time. It’s hard to know exactly how long, but usually a couple of years to do a show of twenty-one paintings of various sizes. I work on more than one painting at a time, and there are many layers of paint, and then a glaze which is a thin layer of color, and then more paint, another glaze. I build up many layers. I usually work in groups because often when you’re making a painting, you have certain decisions to make, and if you do four paintings, you don’t spend as much time making those decisions. So while one is drying, I move on to the next.

Tani's Studio

Silver: In the Figure category, you have almost exclusively young women swimming in water. It is incredibly difficult to capture water and light like that with paint, but you do it exquisitely well. And something about teenagers suspended in this liminal state seems to have some message to it as well. One of those, “Arching,” graces the cover of Volume 6. How did that series come about and what is your perspective on it?

Tani: It came about when my daughter was a teenager and I was living in Connecticut and I had a pool. She and her friends would hang out in the pool, so I had instant models. Teenagers seem to be both children and adults. I loved the way things under water become refracted and abstracted, the body looks solid above the water, but below, it looks like it’s coming apart. I liked being able to paint the realism of the figure above the water, as well as abstraction with the water and the figure under the water.

Tani Conrad, “The Three Musicians “ Acrylic and mixed media 12 x 12”

Silver: The Mixed Media seem so different than your paintings. They veer into graphic art at times, and just seem to come from a completely different place than the observation of nature and people. What inspired you to these and what do they mean to you?

Tani: It’s walking into my studio and deciding what I’m in the mood for. The mixed media are acrylic, which dry faster than oils, so I can work faster, and the difference in the approach is that I don’t plan anything. It’s more intuitive, in the sense that I don’t plan out a composition, whereas I do with oil. The first layers are complete play with no intention. I may decide I want to start with a certain color red, having no idea where I’m going. I build it up layer by layer, and eventually it gets to a point where I think it’s finished. It’s a very different way of working.

Tani Conrad

Silver: In what has to be one of the most unique bio blurbs I’ve ever seen on Wikipedia for an author, your father, Barnaby Conrad, is described as “an American artist, author, nightclub proprietor, bullfighter and boxer.” He is, of course, very beloved as the founder of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, and has, whether based in reality or not, a larger-than-life persona that he is remembered for. You strike me as a very self-reflecting, grounded person who saves her flights of whimsy for the canvas. Were you much influenced by your father or were you attempting to go in a different direction altogether?

Tani: I am very quiet and shy, and clearly my dad was not. I might be more like my mother. My subject matter and style of painting were always different from my father’s. But we often did give each other critiques on each other’s paintings. We did have a very close bond.

Silver: What was your experience of the Santa Barbara Writer’s conference, as you must’ve grown up with it?

Tani: I wasn't there every year, because I lived on the east coast and had three kids. But I remember the beginning when it was at the Cate School. And I have attended quite a few lectures over the years. I took my daughter to hear Ray Bradbury for what I think was his last time speaking at the conference. He was in a wheel chair, and he started out kind of quiet, but his energy built and he was like the old Ray, getting the audience excited about writing, reading, and life. I was glad my daughter got to hear him speak.

Tani Conrad, “Blue afternoon” Gouache on paper 8 x 11”

Silver: What is the best way for people to see your work, aside from visiting your website

Tani: My studio is in the Bell Arts Factory in Ventura 432 North Ventura Avenue. The first Friday of every month they have open studios from 6--9 p.m., so I welcome people coming to visit me there. I have some of my paintings up at the Doora Collective on Main Street in Ventura, where people can see a range of my work. I have some landscapes at Katherine Designs Inc., a store on Coast Village Road.

Silver: Thank you so much for speaking with me!

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