In new installation, artist explores her late father’s inner life
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Artist Joanne Tarlin knows that inspiration can come from surprising sources, and guidance from an unseen hand.
The Framingham, Mass. native studied industrial design at Bridgeport University before transferring to a fine-arts program at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, then a division of Parsons School of Design, where she earned her BA. There, she studied color technique under Willem de Kooning and graphic design, later training in sculpture and painting at the de Cordova and Danforth Museum schools.
Tarlin would create a 20-year career in marketing for non-profit organizations before returning to painting in 2004. Two years later, her teacher urged her to pursue her art fulltime and by 2008, she had set up a studio in Boston. Her works are part of private and corporate collections, and she has exhibited in numerous juried group shows, throughout the U.S. and in Mexico.
But perhaps the most meaningful validation came from Tarlin’s father, Bernard, in the form of writings the family discovered after his death in August 2011.
In response, the artist has painted “Silent Soul,” a tribute to her father’s life, now on view at the Chase Family Gallery in the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford, and part of Tarlin’s exhibition, “Spiritual Energy: Past, Present and Future.” The show runs through Nov. 10, 2012. Tarlin will be on hand at the Chase Family Gallery on Sunday, Oct. 28, 3 – 6 p.m., to talk about the exhibit and answers questions.
Tarlin never knew that her father had an appreciation for art until she was sitting shiva for him at her parents’ home in Florida. As she and her two siblings were helping to sort their late father’s belongings, they came across many writings from his past. “We knew that my father had an interest in writing,” Tarlin says. “We found short stories published in a California journal, some poems – but something happened and he just shut that door on his life and never told anybody about it.”
Bernard Tarlin grew up in the vibrant Jewish community of Dorchester, Mass., where he became part of a group of artists and intellectuals. (At the same time, Jack Kerouac was 40 miles north in Lowell, fostering his own similar group.) One of Bernard Tarlin’s contemporaries, David Aronson, became a famed painter in the Boston Expressionist movement, a Boston University professor, and a lifelong family friend; another, painter Bernard Chaet, served as chair of the Yale University School of Art. After serving in World War II, Bernard Tarlin returned to the Boston area and worked for the post office while attending law school, but never worked as an attorney, instead retiring from the postal service after 30 years. After retiring, he had begun working on a memoir, mostly about his life in Dorchester and his search for religious meaning, his conversations with religious leaders in Boston and his thoughts on certain verses from the Old Testament – but no mention of the arts.
So it was particularly remarkable to find, among the writings, “An Artist’s Life,” an unpublished manuscript of a short novel written by her father in 1948, when he was in his 20s and not yet married.
“The story is about a young woman in art school working as a graphic designer, contemplating the meaning of life and how being an artist has a role and purpose in the world,” Joanne Tarlin says. “Questions of humanity, injustice, and her role and responsibility in society – these are questions I had been asking myself and had struggled with while studying art. I thought that being an artist was narcissistic. I had been raised to help others less fortunate, so in graphic design and marketing, I migrated with my skills to help raise money and awareness in the nonprofit world. Here was my father, speaking to me from the grave.”
After the funeral, Tarlin returned to Boston “with all these mixed feelings,” she says. “I was in mourning, and I had many questions about my dad: Why didn’t he talk to me about art? He clearly was thinking all the time about things but was so quiet. Where did he go in his mind?”
Tarlin began with one painting, then decided to create one for each year of her father’s life, 88 in all. She also continued her artistic exploration on the theme of “spirit;” the other pieces in her show combine intersections of geometric and organic shapes “to suggest physical structures imbued with possibilities and energy.”
Tarlin has addressed her main struggle as an artist – how to create art while helping others – with the support of her mentor in Boston. “He convinced me that, if I try to live by the Jewish ethic and help those less fortunate, I would find a way to continue to do so through my painting,” she says. “When you’re a painter and an artist, it’s not a choice; when you have this calling to do something greater than yourself and touch people through your work, you have to do it.” In addition to her purely artistic pursuits, Tarlin also creates works that are auctioned off to help several area charities.
It is in that spirit that she hopes “Silent Soul” reaches a wider viewership. “When I was creating the work, people would come into my studio and look at the canvases and read about the project and some would start crying,” Tarlin says. “It brought out people’s memories about their loved ones who passed away; there was some kind of universal appeal to it. Two visitors who worked in hospitals told me that it would be a great piece to have in a healing place. To create something that helps people, touches people – that would be amazing.”
“Spiritual Energy: Past, Present and Future” is on exhibit in the Mandell JCC’s Chase at 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, now through Nov. 10. For gallery hours or information on Tarlin’s Oct. 28 talk, call (860) 236-4571 or visit www.mandelljcc.org.
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