On October 10, 2008 the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, opened an exhibition spanning a decade of work by Tara Donovan — sculptor and 2008 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” grant. This is an abridged version of an interview between Lawrence Weschler and Tara Donavan that appears in the monograph, Tara Donovan.
So you graduated from the Corcoran. Then what happened?
I waited tables for six years.
Then I started making this sculpture where I was filling balloons with sand. And, God, it’s really funny actually. They were these natural-color balloons. I realized that if you exposed them to sunlight, they would kind of turn these pinkish hues and you could get all this subtle variation in color. And I would sit at night watching TV with a funnel and a bucket of sand and I would fill these balloons with sand, knot them, and pin them to my wall. So I covered this entire wall in these sand-filled balloons. It was kind of the first big thing I’d ever made
W: Did you want there to be a place in America where a wall of sand-filled balloons would be up forever and people would always have the opportunity to see it, or you thought it was something that would be shown at a regional art fair, or what?
D: I don’t know. I’m very realistic. Like the whole notion of being famous or being a — of course, anybody who does anything creative always hopes that they can make a living doing it. But that’s a pipe dream. That doesn’t happen. Right? It really doesn’t and so . . .
W: So what came after the sand-filled-balloon-padded wall?
D: Well, around that time is when the toothpicks happened. Because I was making these pieces where I was sticking toothpicks in potatoes.
W: Whoa — when you weren’t filling balloons with sand, you were sticking toothpicks in potatoes?
D: In potatoes, basically, making these porcupine-y kinds of things that sort of looked like little Tribbles.
W: Ah, the Irish in America! From potato famine to potato porcupines!
D: Totally. The thing is you could stick them to each other. You could pile them up. And it was during the time that I was buying toothpicks for that and emptying all the boxes . . . I would buy, say, thirty boxes of toothpicks and instead of having to open each box individually, I would get into a rhythm. And at one point, I accidentally knocked over a box. And for whatever reason, instead of just scooping it up or whatever, I pulled the box off and the toothpicks inside held the corner.
W: And you were, like, wow?
D: Yeah. They held a perfect corner.
W: What time of day was this?
D: Oh, I don’t know. It was maybe ten o’clock at night. It was definitely nighttime but it wasn’t really late, because grocery stores were still open. I went out and bought all the toothpick boxes I could find, and it still wasn’t really enough. And then back at my waitressing job, I asked, “Hey, will you guys order me a case of toothpicks?”
W: And what did they say to that?
D: Well, I mean, they knew I was crazy already so that wasn’t really so much the issue, but it turned out to be really difficult to actually get the supplier to send a whole case. They’d send a box.
W: How large is a case of toothpicks? What kind of size box is it?
D: Usually there’s something like twelve large boxes and then inside of each large box there’s something like twenty-four small boxes of toothpicks. I don’t know.
W: You wanted toothpicks. You wanted a whole bunch of toothpicks.
D: So the first toothpick cube I made was about a foot by a foot. It was kind of slumpy and bad, but I realized that if I made it big, it would be heavier and it would work better. Because it wasn’t yet dense enough.
W: You’re beginning to figure out that the more of them you get, the more likely the piece will be to work.
D: And I finally got enough, eventually. Because a case of toothpicks isn’t that cheap when you’re on a waitress’s salary.
W: Meanwhile, though, this is fascinating as an early instance of this thing with you where it turns out that x may not be enough, you figure out that you are going to need at least 5x — in other words, that scale makes all the difference. I mean literally, physically: there’s something about friction that kicks in. Actually, do you understand what is going on scientifically, why the toothpicks finally do stick together?
D: Truly scientifically? No. But I think friction and gravity and just the sheer density of small interlocking parts is really all it is. I mean, with that piece, when it reaches the thirty-six-inch-square range, it’s strong enough even for me to be able to stand on top of it.
W: How long after you started doing the toothpicks did you get it to that thirty-six-inch size?
D: I don’t know. I think it took me like a month. Something like that. And then both those pieces — the toothpicks and the sand-filled-balloon wall — were in a regional group show, which was one of my first shows, at Maryland Art Place in Baltimore. I sent in slides and I got included. You’re going to love this story because, I’m sure I have it somewhere, but there was a review where my contribution got referred to as “a wall of eggs and a bale of hay.” No one got it. At all. No one. It was like: aye. So I really felt that I had failed, you know? It was the first time I had ever had occasion to read about myself in the paper, and I really believed that I had failed. I was also kind of pissed off and felt like if someone was reading it incorrectly, then I hadn’t done my job. It was my first lesson about context. So it wasn’t until much later that I remade the toothpick piece and showed it on its own, in all its glory. Because that piece on its own in a huge room is — it’s really something.
W: When I’ve seen it like that, alone in its own room, it’s actually reminded me of Mecca, that huge powerful cube in the middle of that vast plaza, with all the pilgrims milling about, circling, awestruck. The art pilgrims. But now let’s get you from eggs and haystack to that first solo show. Did you continue entering regional shows?
D: I did, but they were really terrible. They’re so demoralizing. But then I got an opportunity — this would have been in 1996 or so. There was this terrible space, a former D.C. nightclub called the Insect Club, which the Washington Project for the Arts had taken over and was in the process of converting into an alternative space for artists to show work — discrete areas where you could show your work. So I got really involved because I didn’t want to be in those crappy group shows forever, I wanted a good space. So they gave me this carpeted room, and I spent probably a week tearing up the carpeting and eventually installing this piece I made out of ripped tar paper, though this was not the piece that you’re familiar with, it wasn’t as lateral as that tar paper piece. It was much more of a stacked kind of like a stump of a tree or a weird mushroom or something. Because I wasn’t really thinking expansively yet, I was thinking more object-oriented. I made that piece and two other pieces that were made out of cut wire, solid, kind of like big snowballs, like you would make a snowman out of, rolling them and packing them in. So that was what I did, and actually it got a lot of attention. And thus was born a career.