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Ceramicist Mike Tauber joined Kate Cohen for this month’s Artists on Artists conversation at foaSouth

By MARRIE STONE

Festival of Arts exhibitor Mike Tauber describes himself as a “working class artist.” Maybe it’s an apt phrase for someone who first received monetary compensation for his artwork at the age of six, and who’s made a steady living from his designs since college. Still, it sounds a little modest once you understand the breadth of Tauber’s artistic accomplishments. 

His work cuts across genres, from ceramic tiles to paintings to cement reliefs. The size of his pieces ranges from block-long murals to single square tiles. He’s created numerous public installations around the world (many here in our hometown). Laguna credits Tauber for its largest public mural – 120 feet – outside the Neighborhood Congregational Church on Glenneyre Street. He also painted the aquatic-themed mural outside Whole Foods. Tauber teamed with artist Michele Taylor in 2006 to install another mural at the Water Department. At the L.A. Wilshire Grand Center, Tauber oversaw the creation of a 16,000-square-foot mural as its lead painter. He has several other smaller commissions peppered around Laguna.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mike Tauber in front of his mural at Whole Foods Market in Laguna Beach

In addition to exhibiting at the Festival since 1998, Tauber’s work has hung in several museums, businesses and public spaces, as well as countless private collections. His work is in the Festival of Arts Permanent Collection, and public art collections in Laguna Beach, Fullerton, Tustin, as well as abroad in Australia and Brazil. His pieces are also collected by such corporations as Kaiser Permanente, K. Hovnanian Homes, PIMCO Foundation, Whole Foods Markets and many more. 

Tauber seems equally comfortable creating fine art and functional art. His pieces depict the whimsical as well as the serene. Having proven himself successful in the industry for decades, Tauber’s insights and approach to his career make for fascinating conversations about what it means to be a working artist.

Last week, Tauber joined fellow Festival of Arts exhibitor Kate Cohen for her third installment of the Artists on Artists series at foaSouth. The monthly salon aims to give the public access to a variety of artistic minds across mediums and educate audiences about various approaches to the creative process. 

Cohen’s goal is not only to demystify the hidden lives of artists, but to encourage people to slow down and spend quality time analyzing their art. 

Although the conversations are usually held in person, the duo quickly pivoted to an online discussion in light of the recent surge in COVID cases. Their conversation was recorded and can be viewed in its entirety on the Festival of Arts Facebook page. We captured some of the talk’s highlights.

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Kate Cohen’s Artists on Artists series at foaSouth continued on Thursday, Jan. 6, with ceramic tile artist Mike Tauber

The early signs of an artist

Like Cohen, Tauber seemed born to become an artist, recognizing his interest from an early age. While still in first grade, he won a poster contest hosted by his parents’ bank in Elmhurst, Illinois. Tauber created four images depicting why it’s wise to save money. The effort earned him $50. “That was a big influence on me,” he said. “I was ready to go.”

Soon after, Tauber’s third-grade teacher again validated his talent. “I did a Crayola crayon picture of grapes. I really focused on it,” Tauber said. “At the end of class, Miss Bertolino took my piece, put it up on the wall, and said, ‘This is what art should look like.’” 

Cohen, too, knew she was destined to become an artist. Her mother was a portrait artist and wouldn’t allow Cohen to play with coloring books. “She’d take them away,” Cohen said, “telling us, ‘We don’t do that in this house. We make originals here.’”

A practical education

While Cohen followed a conventional artistic education, gaining her BFA in ceramics, printmaking and sculpture, as well as two masters’ degrees in fine art (painting and sculpture), Tauber majored in environmental design at San Diego State. He took an architectural illustration class in college and worked as an architectural illustrator in his post-graduate years. “I learned how to draft, to render three-dimensional drawings and read blueprints,” Tauber said. “Somehow, I’ve always worked as an artist, which was great practice. It kept me very prolific. I never needed some separate job in an unrelated industry [although he did a little pizza throwing in college].” 

Most of his college jobs related to art. Tauber worked as a newspaper illustrator and in kitchen design centers. “I could read blueprints and do these beautiful renderings,” he said. “They paid $200 a pop, which was good money for a college sophomore.” 

All that education and experience have paid dividends throughout Tauber’s career. Much of his work continues to be architectural, and his tilework benefits from all those years painting and illustrating. “I do architectural work to this day. A lot of my public art projects are for buildings yet to become,” he said. “They’re site specific. I have to talk to architects and builders and create the art to scale, know what the sightlines are, and study these buildings that don’t exist yet.” 

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Tauber appears with designer Krista Schaeffer at The Crab Cooker in Newport Beach where he installed his bathroom tile series

Working on the grid

Because much of Tauber’s work is on tile, he’s comfortable working in grid patterns, unlike Cohen whose work is inspired by circles, squiggles and lines. But within that structured form, the possibilities are endless, particularly when introducing the uncertainty of the kiln. Tauber shared his process. 

“I usually start with a photograph. I sketch it out on paper, some hybrid of drawing and painting,” said Tauber. “At the Festival of Arts, I’m considered a ceramicist, but my aesthetic is painting. I use glaze the same way I use acrylic paint. By mixing pigment with a clear medium, you get those transparent washes. Ceramic glaze is just particles suspended in a water-based medium. If you apply a very thin glaze – which I do – the washes look almost like watercolor. You can see the different layers. It’s a very simple transition from my use of acrylic paints to ceramic glazes.” 

Tauber uses several plein air painting techniques when working with ceramics. Light source and shadow, and everything that goes into creating a successful landscape portrait, are all reflected in his work. But instead of canvas, Tauber draws on bisque – clay that has been fired without a ceramic glaze – and then uses liquid wax. “I use a pinpoint detailer pen and squeeze out the wax. There’s a little pigment in there that creates a brown underglaze. When it dries, it turns into a brown line. Then I start painting in the glazes, going from bright to dark. I often start in the background, like the sky. The last thing I’ll do is work on the focus of the piece – like the trees – and create the highlights and shadows. Sometimes one firing is enough. Occasionally I’ll do a second firing.” 

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Courtesy of Mike Tauber

Tauber’s ceramic tile pieces combine his controlled skill as a painter and the whimsical uncertainty created within the kiln. This forest landscape is representative of his work.

For someone as controlled and measured as Tauber, the uncertainty of what will happen inside the kiln is invigorating. “You have to be open to serendipity,” Tauber said. “Remember, I was a draftsman for many years. Talk about tight. Even the thickness of my line quality was measured. Ceramics helps me loosen up, which is one of the reasons I love the kiln. You go in and hope for the best.”

Tauber loves the unusual burns he gets out of his kiln. “Some of the crystal glazes are exotic,” he said. “They create beautiful special effects on the tile. Although I’m a painter and I’m controlling them, some crystals explode into weird things.”

Cohen’s work, by contrast, is influenced by circular patterns and unconventional shapes. Like Tauber, though, her pieces often convey recurring themes. She showcased a 1999 work called “The Passage,” which is now owned by the FOA Permanent Collection. “The piece is heavily steeped in symbolism,” she said. “The fish represent the circle of life as a woman passes from young adulthood into middle age. The bird she reaches for symbolizes wisdom.” Cohen used fabric dipped in tar and shaped into knots to create a sense of movement.

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Photo by Tom Lamb

Kate Cohen’s 1999 piece “The Passage” is part of the FOA Permanent Collection

The DNA of an artist

For two artists who work across a variety of mediums and have been at work for decades, each piece they produce reflects the inescapable DNA of their creative minds. Cohen points to “The Passage” as a work that’s decades old but still contains hints of her current projects. All those same themes and obsessions are hidden within. “I look at this piece and see the rhythmic groundwork I’m still doing in my work today,” she said. 

“That hypnotic movement in ‘The Passage’ is evident in all your work,” Tauber told her. “To this day, even one of your small earrings has those same lines. And here we go with the birds again.” Tauber points to the dove soaring over the woman’s head, then to Cohen’s magpie sculpture and finally to her ceramic bird installations. “Birds are everywhere,” Tauber said. “Everything is in there, whether it’s a wall installation or a piece of jewelry. To be able to carry a theme from a piece of small metal to an enormous painting to ceramic sculptures to other mixed mediums and into your two-dimensional pieces and realize it’s still readable as the same artist – that’s extremely sophisticated.” 

“You do the same thing,” said Cohen. “Making art is almost like making babies. Our DNA runs through all our work.”

It’s true. There’s something uniquely Tauber-esque across much of his work, whether he’s depicting oceanic life, nature scenes or 1950s classic cars. Once you recognize Tauber’s signature style, you can’t mistake it. 

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Courtesy of Mike Tauber

Tauber’s underwater kelp design in this home shower showcases the broad range of his talent, applying light and shadow at scale

The pragmatic concerns of artistry

The two also discussed practical considerations like pricing their work, knowing when a piece is finished and titling their creations. For Tauber, who works with large-scale public installations, pricing can be both tricky to estimate and imperative to get right. Most artists don’t have to consider issues like scaffolding, insurance and the electric costs associated with running a kiln at the scale Tauber’s work requires. “I can easily get myself into big trouble if I don’t bid the jobs correctly,” he said.

Both artists agreed that titles should convey something to the audience they wouldn’t otherwise deduce from looking at the piece. An ideal title will add another layer of meaning to the work, inviting the viewer to explore further.

What it means to be a “working class artist”

But back to the concept of the “working class artist” and what that’s meant for Tauber’s career. “I worked in the model homes industry for many years,” Tauber said. “That bread-and-butter work paid all my bills. And I cranked out a lot of work as a production artist. I had good toggle skills. Clients would want a landscape, a figure painting, a mural, or other art. I just cranked it out. It kept my brushes wet and I enjoyed it.” 

“But it wasn’t exactly your soul,” said Cohen. 

“It was not my soul, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve survived as a self-employed, working-class guy on my own. But now I feel pretty successful because I’m able to do more adventurous things and my clients trust me.” 

One of the conversation’s many useful takeaways was the wide range of ways to make a living as an artist. Both Cohen and Tauber work across a variety of mediums and are willing to pivot when required. Tauber’s added skills in architecture and design, and his ability to read blueprints and create architectural renderings, opened a variety of commercial projects that financially sustained him and, as he said, “kept his brushes wet.” It enabled Tauber to both follow his passion and sustain a secure lifestyle. A strong message for young, up-and-coming artists.

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Tauber has worked for Geppetto’s Toy Stores (located in 10 storefronts throughout San Diego) for 25 years, once again proving himself a “working class artist”

The entirety of their hour-long conversation can be viewed on the Festival of Art Facebook page. Next month, Cohen will moderate a discussion between FOA artists Paul Bond and Dagmar Chaplin. The event is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 3 at 6 p.m. Follow the Festival of Arts’ website, or their Facebook page, for updates on COVID protocols.

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Kate Cohen’s Artists on Artists series at foaSouth will continue on Thursday, Feb. 3 with Dagmar Chaplin and Paul Bond

 

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