Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
At the youthful age of 25, Tara Goreau is channeling an ancient art that goes back thousands of years and is making it her own, one bare wall at a time.
On steel and sheetrock, vinyl, barnboard, luan, you name it, Goreau has been leaving her mark on Vermont, writ large – make that painted large – for the past two years. Her art is painting murals, conjuring up a fanciful melange of local people, buildings and settings, animals and iconic landscapes. It’s a bright gospel of color and whimsy and it’s spreading around Vermont, appearing on everything from metal whey tanks to the sides of barns and entrances to hospitals, cafes and senior centers.
Think of her as a vanisher of the drab, turning the bland into magical multi-hued realms, as if her paintbrush had a touch of Hogwarts wizardry.
Not bad, considering she stumbled into mural painting by chance.
“It’s not something specifically that I thought I wanted to do,” she says, figuring after receiving her art degree at Johnson State College she might end up teaching. But wondering about her future, she went to her a favorite professor and mentor, artist Ken Leslie, as she was nearing graduation “and I kind of said, ‘What do I do, Ken?’”
He gave her a tip about a chance to paint some art inside the warehouse at Wolcott’s High Mowing Seeds “for free basically.” She gave it a try, and as serendipity often works, one thing led to another. She was invited to do a big four-seasons mural inside a new barn built at Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury. There she got paid with tasty CSA food shares, and a career began to take shape.
Since then, she’s had a run of paid commissions, proving both that her art has appeal and that big bare walls beg for embellishment. Her murals now frame the entrance to the bustling City Market in Burlington, and emblazon the outside of a barn at the cheese-making Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro. They grace the inside of Dunbar Hall and the outside of Hamilton House at Sterling College in Craftsbury, and decorate the inside of the new Pingala Cafe & Eatery in Burlington – just some of her wall work.
Keeping up with her commissions has her running around the state, which totally fits her personality. She’s a traveling soul who’s studied ecology and sustainability at the University of British Columbia, volunteered to help build a school in Swaziland, and studied art in New Zealand before returning to her native state in 2009.
“I like moving around I guess. I’ve learned how to move around since I was young. That absolutely complements my job,” she explains.
She also has been thinking big for a long time. “Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to do gigantic art,” she says, recalling how as a child she wanted to make a huge horse sculpture and later “twisted the arm” of her artist dad to buy her a huge canvas – which she never used and now serves as a drop cloth.
However when it comes to landscapes, while she appreciated the big mountains out in British Columbia, she has always been drawn to, and loves drawing, the more accessible topography of the Green Mountain State. “In Vermont you can walk everywhere, it’s got rolling hills and welcoming people. I just feel really connected to Vermont,” says Goreau, who lives in Colchester with her boyfriend.
She adds that few can claim closer ties to the Vermont soil: “I was actually born outside, under a tree.” That happened when her surgeon mom unexpectedly went into labor while driving through Bridport, which, she jokes, “subconsciously affirms my Vermontiness.”
Tall, with short-cropped hair and a quick shy smile, she doesn’t seem quite at home yet in her growing muralist celebrity, nor even with her art. She’s as surprised as anyone at how her career has taken off. “I’m still learning. I haven’t mastered it yet. I feel like every job I get I’m still learning,” she says.
Yet Goreau has clearly created something novel from something old. Murals are one of the oldest art forms in the world, dating back thousands of years to ceremonial art in temples and tombs. In a sense Goreau is filling the peripatetic shoes of more recent muralists – itinerant artists around the country who painted hundreds of theater curtains in the 1800s and early 1900s, capturing rural landscapes. She’s just doing it on a different medium and with her own fanciful style.
Effervescent and cheery, her murals are rich and deep in colors tending toward intense greens, blues and purples. “I think it might be my personality,” she says. “I have always been a fan of rainbows. I think the world is beautiful, and I am inspired by it every day.”
To do a mural, she works closely with clients finding out what they want, then uses an electronic tablet and then computer to map out the space before sketching the outline on the wall. She fills in using layers of bright house paints, constantly checking perspective because of the scale of her work. “I actually look rather manic, running back and forth across the room,” she says.
While her murals incorporate a recognizable sense of place and people, they also have dreamlike qualities and their themes are close to her heart and her clients: intimate Vermont cityscapes and landscapes, sustainability and farming, work and play. In a way, they’re a wonderful mashup: an homage to Grandma Moses, a touch of printmaker Mary Azarian and Burlington artist Dug Nap (who inspired her when she worked for him as an assistant), the bright colors of Mexican muralists (whom she cites as an influence) and her own potent sense of whimsy.
Take the long mural that covers the entire top of a wall in the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick. Landmark buildings and the Lamoille River are easily recognizable, mapping out the townscape. But then you notice a jaunty Mark Twain in a white suit and hat, and she points out familiar children’s book characters: a dish running away with a spoon, a Cheshire cat sitting atop a roof, Little Red Riding Hood.
Goreau clearly has fun as she produces her art. When she drops a splotch of paint – she calls them “happy little accidents” – she is likely to turn the mishap into something unexpected, like a bug, a face or an animal.
That spontaneity is balanced by a strong ethic of research about her themes, nowhere more evident than in the mural she calls “the cosmic biochemical cascade of cheese,” her painting of an Ayrshire cow that greets visitors at the “clean room” entering Jasper Hill’s cheese-making plant at the Food Venture Center in Hardwick. Somehow the cow is both realistic and surrealistic, artistic and instructional, its innards portraying specific microbes, bacteria and processes that underlie the science behind how milk and cheese are made.
As busy and young as she is, Goreau understands that “she’s leaving something lasting behind” with her murals, though her focus is on improving her art, not any potential legacy.
“I guess I really don’t think about it too much. I haven’t really had too much time to reflect,” she says.
(To see more of her artwork, visit arteatergallery.com.)
Andrew Nemethy is a longtime Vermont journalist and writer from Calais. You can contact him at [email protected]