I consider Tiffany Bozic to be more than a painter — she also is a science junkie, expert bird-skinner and wanderlust-stricken natural philosopher who transmogrifies her unique intimacy with rare and wonderful things into exquisite visual poetry about spiritual evolution and our relationship with nature. In anticipation of her upcoming exhibition, which opens on November 11th at Joshua Liner Gallery in New York, we decided to share this interview, conducted earlier this year for the Heroes & Villains book — which is scheduled for release in the spring.
Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a bit about your early childhood on a goat farm in Russellville, Arkansas. Was your family part of the back-to-the-land movement? Was that era of your life carefree, or was there a darker undertone to rural life on the edge of the Ozarks?
Tiffany Bozic: My mother was raised on a farm and couldn’t get it out of her system, so she talked my father into moving down to Arkansas, where land was tremendously affordable. Though some of our fondest thoughts took place on the farm, it was also unbearably difficult and traumatic at times, because of the rising cost of feed and utilities. We were poor, and there was just too much for my parents to do, working full-time jobs and taking care of 350 goats, horses, pigs, three kids, etc.
Like so many children, I lived in a fantasy world and had complete freedom to dream and explore, so it is easy for me to romanticize it. Some of my first memories were of animals giving birth, and of taking the animals — ones that we had given names to — to the slaughterhouse. I came to accept that this was just a part of life. In the end, we had to sell off all the animals, load up all of our belongings in two trucks, and abandon the farm. We drove up to Cleveland hoping for a fresh start, and it was there I spent the rest of my childhood.
EP: You've said you still long for the sense of communion with animals that you had as a child, when you felt they were telling you their secrets. Mark Ryden speaks of recapturing the state of childhood in which we see "a world ensouled," when it feels as if we have a direct connection to the life force of the universe. Is that sense of wonder something you can still access when you need to?
TB: Well, I don’t think of it in exactly the same way, but I do believe that I was born with a heightened sense of this feeling that everything is connected. In ways, this feeling has been a lifelong companion, and now I trust it more than ever as I continue to cultivate my relationship to my work.
EP: In the past, you've recalled early memories of drawing at the kitchen table with your older brother and sister. Tell me a bit about those early artistic explorations, and how they made you feel.
TB: My parents were interesting characters and encouraged us to enjoy creating. My mother, in particular, was a gifted artist, but unfortunately she didn’t have time to pursue her talents. My brother and sister were both very good at drawing as well, but I guess I was the only one that left my childhood thinking that this was the only way I could live, for better or worse.
EP: When you were six, your electrician father and schoolteacher mother moved your family to Cleveland. Was relocating from the country to the city a difficult experience? Do you think perhaps your current state of being — living in San Francisco, while longing to travel to remote, wild places — was influenced by that early psychological and geographic transition?
TB: Well, once we got to Cleveland there were a number of difficult emotional transitions that I underwent, and therefore I never truly felt at home in Cleveland — which is why I left for the west coast at such a young age. Early on, I saw myself as a citizen of the world, and after traveling and developing friendships with people from all over the world, I feel this is especially true now. I don’t think there is a ‘home’ left for me. My home resides in the people I love.
EP: Do you remember when you first became fascinated with naturalism? Did scientific observation of living things seem almost second nature to you, or was there something in particular that first sparked your interest?
TB: Because I was so heavily immersed in nature as a child, it is hard for me to separate myself from it, or define if there was ever a moment that it sort of clicked over for me. My parents were nature lovers, and I’ve always been drawn towards others who feel the same sense of captivation and wonder with the natural world.
EP: Harkening back to the sublime artistry of naturalists like John James Audubon and Ernst Haeckel, there was once a time when art and science were almost inextricably bound together. You've endeavored to relink them in your work, with your adventures in Papua New Guinea with a team of biologists, and your collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences. How were you first inspired to take these ostensibly documentary-style images and transform them into surreal elegies about human emotion and the vanishing natural world?
TB: I suppose it all came together quite organically, as a result of me being a bit of a science groupie. Just kidding — I am very grateful to be a part of a group of incredibly interesting people who are motivated by a sense of playful excitement. I am a student of life and am constantly turning stones searching for a way to translate my emotions through my work. For now, my subconscious has taken over and has cast little critters to star in my psychological thrillers. But who knows how long this will continue.
EP: Your life with your ornithologist husband has recently taken you to a number of remote, exotic locales where you can observe rare species firsthand, and often literally in your hand. As a result, you are one of the very few people painting the natural world today who have such an intimate connection with their subject. How have these experiences changed you as a person, and as an artist?
TB: What this has meant for me personally and in my work has been extremely profound. When I see an artist depict something that they may not actually be familiar with, I can tell right away. Even though Audubon and Haeckel spent a lot of time outdoors studying the personality and characteristics of their subjects, there was still a lot of blank space to fill. To capture all the detail, oftentimes Audubon had to resort to referencing dead specimens, and you can occasionally see it in the unnatural way he posed his birds. To his credit, usually only birders can notice the difference. Haeckel overcame this through sheer genius. For example, where only small parts of animals were dredged up from the bottom of the sea, and because they were new to science, he had to sort of let his imagination take care of the rest. Which is what I feel makes his work truly awesome and full of spirit.
Getting the chance to observe nature firsthand is not always easy to do, and happens in varying degrees for most realist painters, myself included. Most of us — not just artists — feel so separate from not only the outdoors, but from the very idea that we are in fact animals. I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult to find one grown adult in each American city today who has never actually held a chicken or touched a cow, yet they may consume one every day.
EP: Working in acrylic washes on maple panels, you achieve a soft translucency that allows the natural glow of the wood to shine through. How did you arrive at this somewhat unusual technique? What do you find to be the advantages and disadvantages of working this way?
TB: I dropped out of art school right after my first year, so this is just a self-taught game of trial and error. I first started exploring acrylic on wood in 1999, and somehow the medium has kept my interest until now. I still find it challenging, unforgiving, and truthfully, there are no short cuts. I think if it were easy for me, I would tire quickly and move on to something else. In many ways, the actual technical process I’ve developed over the years more closely resembles using watercolor than acrylic. I like the way the paint shimmers on the wood — there is an interesting depth that I can create on the surface with this technique that would be hard (or impossible) to create any other way.
EP: You once revealed that your mouse-sphere painting was an attempt to describe what you call the "little big dream," in which everything seems microscopically tiny and infinitely huge at the same time. Though rarely described, I think this is a fairly universal and very powerful archetype. Could you describe your conceptual process on this piece — what choices you made in searching for a way to convey that abstract idea?
TB: I made this painting after my husband and I spent some time up in northern California studying spotted owls. We were quietly crawling through redwoods and ferns under pitch darkness, calling them in with hoots. As part of our study, we would hold out a white mouse on a short stick, to see if the owls would swoop down and take it from us. Then we would watch to see if they would either eat it right away, or not. If they flew off with it, it would tell us whether or not they have a chick to feed. If they ate the mouse, well, they were hungry.
The “little big dream” is filled with anxiety and intense loneliness, and a great feeling of claustrophobia at the same time. I had this dream brewing in my mind ever since I was a child, so I thought at the time that this experience with the owls could help me explain that mood somehow. So I ‘saved’ one of the mice, named him Number Two and took him home from this trip with us to keep as a model for this painting. Sometimes you just need a little help from a friend, and I couldn’t have done it without him.
EP: From time to time, you employ a certain stylization reminiscent of Henri Rousseau's jungle fever-dreams. Would you say that his aesthetic or ideas have informed your work in any way?
TB: When I was a little girl, I saw a painting by Henri Rousseau of a tiger attacking a water buffalo at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and I remember at the time thinking, “I see like that.” So there is something there.
EP: What other painters or illustrators from the past move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
TB: Honestly, I don’t think I have ever looked at a painting and felt truly moved to tears, like the way music touches me. But maybe if I were a musician, I would love emotion conveyed visually, who knows. I feel up until now I have for some unknown reason an absolute need to paint, and it is the daily process of creating that keeps me going.
EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?
TB: Aaah, yes! This is an easy one for me. They may not be classic yet, but they will be! I would love to feature four paintings called the “Nova Series” by my dear friend Isabella Kirkland.
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?
TB: Yes, giving and sharing. Love is my inspiration.
EP: What's on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
TB: I have a solo show in New York coming up on November 11, 2010 at the Joshua Liner Gallery. I have been having a lot of fun exploring new ideas for it. Other than that, I hope to continue to grow, travel, and explore the unknown.