Checking in with Rob Tarbell

What are you working on right now? 

Artist Rob Tarbell harnesses the power of smoke with tools of his own design to create images that boast a surprisingly rich pallette. Tarbell’s work is currently showing at Mary Baldwin College and Hunterdon Art Museum in New Jersey.

I figured out how to capture smoke on paper. I found that, over time, other artists used smoke and burning, but the particular way that I do it, I haven’t found anyone who’s done it. I developed it from an idea of, “What if I do this?” And then I figured out how to make it work. It centers on capturing the smoke on paper—not burning the paper, not burning the image, but herding and corralling the smoke. I get it to do what I want it to do, while doing what smoke does. I’ve created all kind of tools and formats to work with the smoke. I have a room built on to my house to do this. 


Tell us about your day job. 

I teach at PVCC, where I’m coordinator of the Graphic Design program. I also teach studio classes. 


What’s your first artistic memory from childhood?

I always made art and never really stopped. I had lessons at the Cleveland Art Museum around third grade and I remember the instructor—there was a team, actually—they had us in a museum and we were drawing sculptures, like bronze sculptures, and I kind of refused and I was drawing underwater scenes of fish. They would say, “We’re drawing Rodin’s ‘The Age of Bronze,’” and I’m like, “No, I’m drawing a muskellunge eating a rat, because they can do that and it’s so cool.” I remember being a little annoyed they didn’t see how cool drawing underwater fish scenes were.


How do you prepare for your work? 

With what I’ve been doing with the smoke, it’s not very spontaneous. I figure out what I’m doing, and try to get there. It’s so strange because it starts with ideas, and my best ideas come when I’m driving. I’ll have a pad of paper and I’ll write down an idea and go from there, see what I can get done and then go and see visual references. A lot of stuff I do, like horses, I need to look at horses, I need to study horses. I work from photographs, do that kind of thing, then I just plot out from there, what time allows when. 

What’s your daily routine? 

I’m lucky with the kind of teaching I do, where the class time is pretty movable, and preparation time is more liquid. I can prepare in the same way, where I have the planning time, and then execution time is class time. I can move pieces around to benefit my studio time, or I can put off studio time to benefit my teaching time. You just have to focus on the balance of the two. And be flexible.


Of which of your works are you most proud? 

There’s a sales pride and then an aesthetic pride. I sold a piece at an auction in D.C., the Washington Project for the Arts auction, a couple years ago, which was my first time there. It went for the highest bid, which was exciting because there were some international artists there and some national ones. I was kind of a rookie, and mine sold for the most. I got a lot of exposure out of that. 


Locally, who would you like to collaborate with? 

I’m collaborating with a composer I met in France at the residency, which was through Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He’s a chamber music composer who’s in D.C. His name is Douglas Boyce. We’re going to do a show based on companion pieces, drawings and paintings based on what we went through and experienced in the environment in France, specifically birds and bird activity. He’s going to compose chamber music that explores the same idea in a different way and then the pieces will be presented in the gallery. 


What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? 

You fail a lot as an artist. You get rejected a lot, which could be seen as failure. What I’ve learned and can do is not worry about it. I just do it. It’s the idea of finding your “yes.” Failure is productive in the long road. I’m not destroyed by failures. Obviously it stings, but you have to figure it out and keep moving forward.

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