Artist Showcase: Tara Kovach

Tara McKiernan Kovach’s paintings range from a muted beige stretch of Savannah horizon to canvasses of exploding color that may look like a storm gathering, an amoeba or a swirl of orange-red and yellow that appears to be slowly circling.

Her still lifes of fruit or flowers are ripe and sometimes ambiguous. The images crowd the canvas, nudging their fleshiness into focus from a corner or unfolding off-center, drawing the eye of the beholder into a maelstrom of color and natural mystery.

Ulla Surland, owner of Gallery Eleven in Fairfield, has exhibited Tara’s work. “Her recent work is different from her early paintings,” says Ulla. “It’s more focused, more …” Without realizing it, she makes a loose fist: “… strong. And she’s a young artist, so she has a long future.”

At thirty-one, Tara is hardly old enough to have her work divided into “periods,” but there is a definite break from traditional landscapes and figures. Barbara and John Greaney of New Milford own an early Kovach painting of a Colorado landscape. And on a prominent wall in their living room, they have an abstract.

“We bought the Colorado landscape at an exhibit in Stamford at the Bartlett Arboretum,” says Barbara. “My husband and I loved it; and then we saw an album of her abstracts. We decided to go to her show in Greenwich where we bought three abstracts — two for our daughter and her husband as a wedding present, and one for us. Ours is a branch. Everyone notices it when they visit.”

Tara discovered her talent in high school in Ravina, New York, where she’d initially been steered toward math and science. “But I had a great art teacher,” says Tara. “Ms. Teale. Great name for an art teacher.” Ms. Teale encouraged her to study art, which Tara did at Ithaca College. During her junior year, she studied in Italy at the University of Siena and returned to graduate cum laude in 1997. Although her work has always been characterized by a clear sense of peace and beauty, she painted one work of agonizing sadness after her brother was killed in a car accident during her first year at Ithaca. “It was a self-portrait,” she says. “I look tortured.”

She went on to grad school at the Savannah, Georgia, College of Art and Design, during which time she was, while earning other accolades, a semifinalist in a Sotheby’s/Artlink International Artists competition. Her work was studied and thoughtful.

“I liked the support and atmosphere of working with other artists, getting their feedback, their advice. I ask my husband Adam what he thinks, of course.” She smiles. “But he always says, ‘That’s nice.’ He always likes everything.”

Adam does have opinions, though. He loves the painting in their living room. “It was inspired by a bouquet of flowers he gave me,” Tara explains. “I was preparing for grad-school review, and he was impressed by how hard I was working. He wrote on the card, ‘Because you amaze me,’ which is what I called the painting.”

Commenting on what may have caused her to depart from traditional subject matter and form, Tara muses about changes she’s gone through. “Graduating from college and moving back home separated me from that community of artists. Maybe not having it is what gave me the confidence to begin experimenting with color. Being alone gave me freedom even if I thought I didn’t want it.”

Other life events contributed to her growth. Moving from Savannah, for one. “The colors in the landscape there were quiet,” she reflects. “Marrying Adam gave me stability and a safe place to grow. Then we moved into an apartment where my studio was in the basement. I only had one high window, not much light. Maybe subconsciously I experimented with color because I needed brightness.”

Hung in the center of the largest, tallest wall of her bright third-floor studio is a white-on-white abstract. It seems to have no focus, no definable figure, but the bold fluidity of the paint strokes holds your attention, gently. It’s called Bridal. There’s certainty about the work that is bold, despite the lack of color. “I wanted to show the power of white,” she says. “Painting alone gave me a chance to learn about myself. I began to paint more selfishly.”

Mona Sze has been one of Tara’s dearest friends since she and her husband, Florin, met Adam in graduate school at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. Over the Szes’s fireplace in their home in Fairfield is a Kovach painting of a vivid orange-red flower in full bloom. “It’s called Meant for Mona,” says Mona. “Tara didn’t give it to me when she intended to. She kept saying it wasn’t done — the color wasn’t right — so she painted me this.” In the dining room, a subtle work of white-on-white, off-white and almost pink hangs on a deep red wall. It’s easily recognizable. It’s called After Bridal.

However much Mona and Florin love the white painting, Mona still remembered the red, red flower. Finally, Tara felt comfortable with the colors. After nearly a year, she considered the painting finished and included it in an exhibition for sale. Mona held her breath.

“Every time Tara has a show, I always fall in love with one painting. Inevitably, it sells … except for Mona. After the show,” says Mona now, “I took Meant for Mona home.”

Mona also thinks that Tara’s work has grown. “It’s more, I don’t know,” she glances at the flame-red flower over the fireplace. “It’s more vibrant.”

Tara and Adam live in a charming old cape with a shady backyard off Fillow Street in Norwalk. Adam, tall and boyish-looking, is an executive recruiter; Tara works in an architectural firm. Together, they are fawning new parents to Griffin, born this past July. After Griffin was born, Tara took a little break from her job — and from her painting. She would soon set up a cradle in her studio. In those first weeks, most of her time was spent just wallowing in mother-love.

“It will be interesting to see what changes this makes in my work,” she says, looking down at the sleeping baby. “I’m so anxious to paint, and being home more will give me the chance to connect with the community of artists here. I served on the board of the Stamford Arts Association and the Westport Arts Council. But there are so many opportunities to work and socialize with other artists closer to home, like Silvermine and the Center for Contemporary Printmaking.”

A bell chimes and Tara excuses herself to answer the front door. Derby, their amiable Labrador, trots in; her toenails click dully on the hardwood floor on her way to the kitchen.

“She used to scratch at the door,” Tara explains, “but then I read about the bell trick on the Internet, and Adam and I trained her to ring the bell.” She laughs. “Saves a lot of wear and tear on the door!”

Like the Internet research for training Derby, like the baby books she pored over while pregnant, Tara believes that her schooling in traditional methods and subject matter gave her a foundation from which she could successfully stray. She says it fueled her work, but what really fuels both Tara’s work and her life is her readiness to listen and explore.

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