Spotlight: Tara Axford, Mixed Media Artist

Print and ink inspired by nature by Tara Axford

Spotlight: Tara Axford, Mixed Media Artist

When Australian mixed-media artist Tara Axford discovered she could bring printmaking into her home studio with adapted equipment, it changed her creative life. It opened up the possibilities of using materials in unusual ways, guiding her to finding her voice.

Tara Axford portrait

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

I have always made and created things as long as I can remember; growing up my sister and I had a craft bench as did our parents, who made jewelry as a hobby. My father taught himself lost wax casting and my mother did enameling. I assumed I would find a job in a creative field. But my teenage self didn’t understand how a career as an artist would support me; so I studied graphic design and photography.

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I have worked as a magazine art director for various publications for over 25 years.  It wasn’t really until my children were finishing high school that I realised (as my son set up my first website that I could call myself an artist, rather than thinking of it as a hobby. That was a lightbulb moment 4 years ago!

Print and ink inspired by nature by Tara Axford

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Nature, a popular choice, but true! I’m drawn to colour, texture, shapes, translating it to another form and making sense of it all. Australia has such a vast expanse of bush with a sense of sameness on the surface. The seasons are not so defined as those elsewhere. But once you dig deeper, it’s very rich in inspiration and variety and quite unique.

How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?

Yes, it has evolved over the years by virtue of spending more time doing it. I’m driven to constantly create and explore the ‘what if of play?’

I do love tools and techniques and social media is a fabulous way to discover them. A group of artists repurposing die cutting machines as portable printing presses showed me how to do printmaking at home. That then led me to explore collagraphs in a way previously not possible without access to a big press.

Tara using her Xact Press for Collagraph printing

The gelli plate was another huge discovery of finding a different way to work. Lastly, during lockdown I was lucky to be able to explore creating digitally with a tablet and stylus – something I hadn’t really had the opportunity to try before. Because of my day job on a computer, I had resisted. But being able to explore so many things in a portable way was also a real game changer. Procreate software on the tablet is incredible; it is so different to anything I had previously used as a designer working with the Adobe programmes.

Illustration and watercolor by Tara Axford

Is looking at something with fresh eyes a natural ability, or can people learn how to do it?

Yes! Anyone can do it! And the current situation is a perfect time to start. Until you start looking you don’t know what you are going to find. We are so used to doing our thing, even if it includes regular nature walks. But until you make the time to get up close and personal with your environment and really observe it, you are not really seeing. So the term “fresh eyes” really describes seeing something familiar to you, but seeing it in a new way.

I was delighted to launch my online course this year and see one of my favourite things enjoyed by students from all over the world. I had developed the habit of collecting bits and pieces on my walks and putting them into my pockets. Back in the studio I would arrange these and post on instagram calling them “pocket finds”. This became a module in the course, and it was wonderful to create a community of people collecting, arranging, documenting and sharing their finds from neighbourhoods all over the world, particularly as the ability to venture further became harder as the pandemic took hold. 

Found object art by Tara Axford
Pocket Finds

How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?

Just start, then keep going. Don’t compare yourself to others. There is something you can do that will give you that creative thrill. You just need to find out what it is.

Even collating a moodboard on pinterest can be a way of finding what you connect with. Do you pin textiles pieces, collage, abstracts, journal pages? Look for what you are drawn to then find out what you need to get started.

Now more than ever before – chances are that someone has an online tutorial available. That was also a key motivator in developing my online course – the idea of showing people how to find a way in, the starting point. It’s not about being able to draw – it’s about learning how to incorporate creativity into daily life. That’s really important to me – living creatively – not having work to frame and sell in a gallery, but the process, finding pockets of time to experience creativity and see what unfolds.

Stamp made by Tara Axford

When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?

I’m organised and driven. I’m not a perfectionist. And I’m a doer. This means I have a rough idea, I make time, I turn up, then just see. I know where to find my art materials so this saves time. I choose a project to fit the amount of time I have, so it’s achievable. So I don’t really have something dragging on for days; I probably wouldn’t have the motivation to continue, plus I work 4 days a week.

Watercolor and ink drawings by Tara Axford

Do you focus on one piece exclusively from start to finish? Or do you work actively on more than one project at a time?

Yes, I do love the one project at a time kind of thing. For a while I would come home from commuting to work and just set myself time between walking in the door and dinner. I could paint a small ink/watercolour, and let it be. That was a really interesting project – no desired outcome it just was what it was. But through that came a lot of discovering and an evolution of a style; then that led to a body of work and an exhibition.

What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?

Finding and recognising your signature style is a hard one. I used to want someone to come and curate my work to tell me what it was that I did! Then through instagram I got feedback like “I always know when it’s your work before I see the name”. I guess after a while there was a shift to believing it and seeing it myself. Although I flit around between mediums a lot, I think the consistency in my visual language and the way I interpret the landscape give the viewer a sense of the place I’m visiting.

Illustration in a box collecting thistles and seed pods

Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?

Yes, the visual language, the palette of the weathered Australian landscape. 

Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?

I’m often driven by wanting to explore a new technique or process so that drives a new work. I think of my current practice as made up of field studies; I find that my walks in nature then feed into that either consciously or subconsciously. 

How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?

It’s necessary. Due to the day job, knowing where things are located in the studio is key to being able to find the time to create and finish something. Having the luxury of great light and furniture on wheels is also a big help.

Tara's pondering wall

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

I have a magnetic wall, a sheet of tin mounted on plywood drilled into the wall. This doubles as a ponderwall and paint wall. I can pin up photos or works in progress or actually use it instead of an easel.

What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?

The xcut xpress – designed for die cutting – has been a chance to explore printmaking at home, and for that I’m entirely grateful! Also using a Silhouette Cameo to create my own stencils for gelli plate printing saved time and frustration of cutting intricate compositions by hand.

Mixed media book by Tara Axford

Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?

No, I just can’t get into this habit. My camera roll on my iphone is much more a source of collecting and organising ideas and inspiration. 

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

It depends on what I’m doing. If I need energy in a painting, I play upbeat music that I can move to.

If I’m in the studio for a day I enjoy a serial podcast or audible book. Recent audible book favourites: The Yield by Tara June Winch, The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair, Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi, Phosphorescence by Julia Baird.

Podcasts: The Harrowing, Wind of Change, Dolly Parton’s America.

Jute vase with dried flowers and twigs

Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?

I guess I assume people find me first on Instagram or Facebook, so those are more up to date. That said, my website is a quick overview of everything I do with links to places to find me. I can’t believe the number of times I go to an exhibition and try to credit the artist; finding any sense of current visual presence that matches their name is so time consuming and lacking.

Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?

I do teach workshops when I can. This year I have launched my first online workshop in conjunction with Fibre Arts Take Two. You can contact me at [email protected]

Tara Axford Quote

If you could live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose? Why?

Listening to Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel paints a wonderful picture of women living in New York in the 1960’s and the tutors they had access to as they fled postwar Europe. Of course when they describe not being able to afford heating or food the appeal wears off. I’m thankful to be living in this time (although not the covid non travel part), acknowledging the white middle class privileges that I have, complete with my tools + tech that I love.

Interview posted August 2020

Browse through more mixed media inspiration and stories on Create Whimsy.

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