Exclusive: Emerging Artist Daria Tessler's Animal Planet of Beautiful Trash

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Back in December, I experienced a Christmas miracle of sorts when, after fighting through crowds and fending off panic attacks at the Union Square Holiday Market, I had the great fortune to stumble upon New York artist Daria Tessler’s strange and magical prints. They reminded me of early Sesame Street animation and the book illustrations I could stare at for hours as a kid – beautiful but not entirely benign, like some dark mystery would reveal itself if you just looked long enough.

Tessler’s work often blends unexpected elements, like eels joyriding in a hot rod, or a pickup truck held aloft on water spouting from a whale’s blowhole. Her subjects are animals, people and creatures that seem to fall somewhere in between, and they ride bicycles through enchanted forests, perch on octopuses and tend to gardens that sprout from what look like post-industrial high-rise Smurf villages.

I chose a silkscreen of two human-like figures in hooded jumpsuits playing ping pong against a backdrop of giant cacti. Ever since, I’ve been curious to find out more about the person behind these pictures. There isn’t a lot on the Internet in the way of biographical info – Tessler confesses that she hates writing bios – but I did manage to discover that she was born in Finland and grew up in L.A., that silk screens and pen and ink are her primary media, that she has created album-cover art for a few bands, and that she once made a giant whale almost entirely of reused garbage.

After the jump, we dig a bit deeper as Tessler dishes on the best place to find trash in New York, why she prefers drawing animals to people, and her vision of a post-apocalyptic world.

Flavorwire: I understand you were a math and lithography major at UC Santa Cruz. Why did you opt to go with art?

Daria Tessler: I really like math and actually started as a physics major. But I didn’t like how competitive my science major was. My dad’s an artist, so I was kind of brainwashed into thinking I should never be one. It was something I had to accept about myself. My parents’ mantra was, “Don’t ever be an artist.”

FW: How do they feel about your decision to pursue it?

DT: It’s not clear. It’s a little bit of “no comment” and maybe a bit of “good luck.” And a little bit of “let’s see how long this lasts.”

FW: Your work definitely has a children’s book-illustration feel. Do you draw inspiration from those kinds of books?

DT: Definitely. I like to hone in on those color schemes from kids’ books from the ’60s and ’70s, and that magical feeling that those illustrators were so good at capturing.

FW: And you’ve created a few books of your own.

DT: I used to put out one or two little picture books a year, but I haven’t really had the attention span to finish books lately. They’re sort of stream-of-consciousness – it sounds so cheesy when I describe it. They’re usually pretty circular, simple narratives of a journey or time passing. One’s about a dinosaur and dinosaur bones, and one’s about a ride on a bus.

FW: Each of your pictures seems to have some kind of story to tell. Do you have specific stories in mind when you create them?

DT: I think I’m more drawn to the total mystery of keeping it simple with an image. In my mind, my pieces seem very normal, but a lot of people tell me how weird they think they are. No one ever seems to know what I have in mind … but I like to leave space for them to come up with their own story. It’s not like I have a secret story in my head and I just don’t want to tell people.

FW: A lot of your work combines nature and trash. What is that about?

DT: My favorite things in the world are nature and junk, and I just combine them. (And sweets and candy. These are all a good combination for me.) I’ve always been attracted to industrial areas, and I like wandering around neighborhoods that haven’t been kept up and are really industrial. But I also love nature and animals. I have an idea of a post-apocalyptic world where nature kind of takes over again. So everything that was manmade would be decaying and have new uses, like becoming homes for animals.

FW: Where does your interest in drawing animals come from?

DT: I don’t really know. I had some of those cheesy Learn How to Draw books when I was a kid, and I was really into them and drew all kinds of animals. So I don’t know if it’s because of that, or what. In a way it’s almost easier to draw animals than people because you don’t have to get into portraits and nudes and all those weird aspects that come into play.

FW: I read somewhere that you really like sloths. They’re my favorite.

DT: Really? That was a long time ago … it was a total high school thing. But I am revisiting the sloths. I’ve got something in my head. If you have a true sloth passion … you should go to the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch and take out this book called A Sloth in the Family. It’s in the science section, but it’s totally not a science book. It’s from the ’60s, and it’s this family’s personal experience of having a sloth in their house. It’s a totally weird relic … possibly the weirdest book ever made.

FW: Back to trash and your whale installation at the Pony Club Gallery in Portland. Where did you find all the garbage for it?

DT: There’s a place in New York that used to be a landfill, and they decided it was full so they turned it into a public park. It’s called Jacob Riis Park, and it’s on the coastline between Coney Island and Canarsie. It’s a crazy place. They covered this landfill with sand and were like, OK no one can see the garbage – it’s a park now. It took about twenty or thirty years for the water to erode the sand.

I collected a lot of that stuff, like old bottles and shoe soles from the ’40s, random plastic toys and pieces of things, old nylons. I covered the interior of the whale with all the garbage, and I mixed in mobiles made of pieces of broken glass and ceramics, and some of my silk screens were in there. After the show came down it was disassembled, and I think some kids got to take some garbage and hopefully got to make their own art from it.