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Archives, Tamra Spivey

ARCHIVES: Musicians Who Paint-The Art of Tamra Spivey

(This article by Kevin Charles was published originally in the Feb./Mar. 2004 issue of Newtopia Magazine.)
Tamra Spivey could whistle melodies before she could talk; it’s surprising that her family never guessed she might be a musician. Nor did they draw the obvious conclusion from her habit of filling huge reams of butcher paper with intricate geometric drawings. Perhaps this explains why she is that rare artist, a talent with little desire for appreciation. Her band Lucid Nation’s 2002 release “Tacoma Ballet” hit #1 on college radio without touring and with little promotion. The difficult two hour opus of rock improvisation with drummer Patty Schemel at the helm shows off Tamra’s verbal skills inspiring serious comparisons to Gertrude Stein and Jim Morrison. ASCAP and CMJ showcases, major and indie label contracts, have so far been refused. Instead of exploiting her college radio success with a suitable follow up, 2003 was highlighted by instrumental recordings with Jean Smith and David Lester of Mecca Normal, and NYC jazz drummer LaFrae Olivia Sci. The project, christened Mung Jung Bushi by Jean Smith, is being mixed by John X (Rolling Stones, Bowie).As one might expect, Tamra is equally adverse to promotion of her art. Despite that, she has participated in shows and she has had a one person show (at Oren Gallery in Venice, California). She was also one of eight artists chosen from around the world to be featured in the French national media for the opening of France’s first on-line art gallery. The European ARTE channel featured her in 1998 as one of three female artists in an hour-long documentary on underground art. All of this was achieved by friends and fans of her work prevailing upon her to participate. Tamra has described her bursts of creativity as “a fever, an obsession that seizes me. I work late into the night till I can’t anymore.” When the fever is over the work is stored away somewhere. “I don’t live like an artist,” Tamra has said, “I don’t shmooze with other artists at the artist parties; I don’t have a rolodex of gallery owner’s names. I hardly ever go into galleries. I prefer museums.”

Tamra’s work can be neatly divided between paintings and what she likes to call Surreal Assemblages such as “Do You Have Any Coffee?” a sardonic portrait of a depressed executive secretary consisting of a painted goat skull staring from atop a ticking box metronome, inspired by obscure Spanish surrealist Leviathan’s birthday gift to General Franco (an ingenious mechanical assemblage including a rooster head mounted on top of an ever spinning record player). Further evidence of Tamra’s disinterest in her completed works is that the piece was sold without ever having been documented.

HeidiDoeandTamraSpiveyHeidi Doe and Tamra Spivey

Here the artist poses beside another of her surreal assemblages, “Heidi Doe” obviously inspired by Edward Kienholz’s John Doe. Heidi wears a Chatsworth High Cheerleader’s jacket found in a barrio pawn shop. The jacket is embroidered with the name Heidi. Her belly button is an embossed disc from a Mercedes car. Her helpless torso rests on an easily movable dolly, and the pun is intentional. Six unused Kotex pads line the red dolly. Though Heidi is bejeweled and painted in imitation of the ancient Egyptian depiction of their sky Goddess Nuit, her tiny skull head, crowned with a tinier Carmen Miranda headdress of fruit, stares off mournfully, looking like a vulture head atop its collar of teal Christmas tinsel (which matches her thong line pubic strip). But the punchline is what Heidi is staring at so permanently; a small fishing rod extending from the top of the dolly dangles the ultimate carat: a plastic baby suspended in the middle of an engagement ring.

article-ps2City View

Tamra’s paintings usually occur in bunches. The series “Autopsy Stamp Mandalas” was inspired by a gift of three genuine autopsy stamps used in the Los Angeles morgue in the fifties. Autopsy stamps were used by coroners to make preliminary notes upon arrival. Mandalas are symmetrical images long used in Asia to inspire and guide meditation. In the program for her one person show Tamra wrote about the series: “Dealing with the stamps was a challenge to superstitious fears and death anxiety. I experienced flashbacks of my near murder when I was attacked walking to school one day. The face stamp reminded me of my late father in his glasses: he worked with various kinds of stamps all his life as a supervisor for the post office. But this was not only catharsis. I imagined I was liberating the souls of all those recorded by these stamps. And the stamps themselves seemed to evolve from a frightening dense presence best kept hidden, to the friendly docility of used paint brushes

article-ps3Compassionate Sensitivity

The series begins with the bleak “City View” a piece with eerie 9/11 intimations now it didn’t have when created in 1997. “The bright colors of the Day of the Dead, the contrast between the day glos and the somber forms of skeletons always attracted me,” comments Tamra. A born Angeleno, Tamra grew up in the adjacent barrio of Sun Valley. “Autopsy Stamp Mandalas” takes us step by step through an exploration of confrontation with death. Beginning with boards dominated by the color black, with titles like “Pure Mammalian Fear” the series evolves until the anxiety of mortality dissolves in the experience of, as one work is titled: “Diversified Consciousness Collected into One Source.” Black lit with day glo works give way to more delicately colored pieces with gold used generously on white backgrounds. The series ends with the title “The Purest Desire is Freedom.”

article-ps4Liberation from the Body

Tamra is currently at work on a series that focuses on specialized acrylic mediums including tar gel, pumice gel, ground garnet, and phosphorescent paint, among others. The series was inspired by childhood nightmares when someone unseen was dragging her away and with bleeding fingers she tried to dig a handhold into the cement sidewalk. Earlier works in the series, such as “Concrete” repeat the Day of the Dead color themes of the Autopsy Stamp Mandalas. The various colors spilled like blood suggest innocence lost.


The new series has evolved into an experiment with light and color. One work can become two, or more, depending on the level of light and dark in the room. A good example is “Orpheus”. The first photograph in bright daylight brings out subtle sky blue dots in a pink, gold and purple sheen like amethyst.


But purple turns to black and flashing gold to smoky amber in dim evening light, and the luxurious pearlescence turns fiery and hellish with deep reds. In the morning Orpheus ascends from red shadows to amethyst sky; at night he descends again. Changing the paintings display from landscape to portrait enhances the effect.


What began as deep cut ridges in tar gel, like fingers clawing stiffening concrete, evolved through a series of mineral-like tableaus with increasingly visible grains, until organic forms resembling reeds, weeds, or microscopic beings emerged. The piece “Sea Grass” unfortunately cannot be captured accurately by camera. The phosphorescent background and series of dots collect light, then in the dark glow bright and greenish, slowly dimming, as the work seems to change before the viewer’s eyes. Tamra’s preoccupation with transformations of light and color here approaches the motion of animation, while remaining essentially static.

The extroverted energy of Tamra Spivey’s musical creations does little to prepare an observer for the subtle messages, progressions and transformations of her art. As is the case with her lyrical skills, the more attention, and education, brought to the table, the richer the reward.


Written by Kevin Charles


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