Tamar is a Boston-born art historian and radio producer. She holds a BA in English and Art History from the University of Toronto, and an MA in Art History from Tufts University. She spent 8 years teaching art history at various colleges around Boston, and has worked as a Spotlight lecturer at the Museum of Fine Arts since 2010.
She started pursuing a career in public radio in 2014, and launched her podcast, The Lonely Palette in May 2016. Since then, it has been featured in Wired and aired on the CBC’s Podcast Playlist and PRX Remix. The Lonely Palette ended up airing on NPR’s The Big Listen in mid-March. She lives in Somerville with her husband and a moody gray cat straight out of a late 19th c. Parisian poster.
Carrie: Welcome Tamar! Please tell us about yourself.
Hi! Thanks so much for reaching out to me. So…I’m an art historian turned finance administrator turned podcast producer. I grew up in the Boston area, though my family is Canadian, and I live in Somerville, MA with my husband and a little gray cat named Egon (Schiele, not Spangler, no matter what my husband says). When I’m not podcasting, I dabble in guitar, banjo, singing, and songwriting.
Carrie: When did you first realize your love of the arts?
It was one of those things that was there before I had to words to describe it. My mom is an artist and I can’t remember a day when I didn’t have a crayon or pencil in my hand, doodling all over everything. Our house was hung with my mom’s work like a museum, just filling all the wallspace, which I never realized was a unique experience as a kid.
She was a children’s book illustrator as well, which meant that I’d be dressed up and drawn in various poses and circumstances all throughout my childhood – again, nothing that seemed particularly out of the ordinary. I was always surrounded by a love of the arts by my parents (artist and journalist) and my older siblings (filmmaker and musician), so you could say it was pretty well baked-in.
Carrie: Tell us about The Lonely Palette. What inspired you to create this program?
Actually, it was a pretty serendipitous result of a tangle of my professional aspirations. I finished an MA in art history in 2008, which was exactly when the economy tanked, and there were no jobs at all in the museum world for a newbie. I ended up taking a job in corporate finance – which I’m still in, actually – and taking odd jobs on the side teaching art history and giving monthly talks at the Museum of Fine Arts, but nothing economically sustainable.
I found myself moving away from art and more towards radio production. One of my best friends worked for This American Life, and by letting me tag along into the public radio community, she introduced me to the warmest, most curious and articulate people I’d ever met. I started to realize that my interests were particularly well-suited for the radio world, and so I started to pursue public radio professionally.
Unfortunately, it’s gotten exceedingly competitive in the last few years for actual paying jobs, but the explosion of podcasting has made the opportunities endless, even if there’s no real money in it. I wanted to do audio work, and I realized that there was nothing out there that focused on art history. So instead of waiting for a program on the subject I was most qualified to discuss to come to me, I decided to make it myself.
Carrie: What has been your favorite episode so far?
Actually, there are two. My academic focus in grad school was on German art in the 20th century, specifically the interwar period – I was fascinated both by how art was used and spun to create Nazi propaganda, and also how artists created anti-Nazi propaganda.
Either way, there was an acknowledgement that art was an extraordinarily powerful tool for reaching the public, and something in the masses that responded to art, often subconsciously. It’s not so unlike talking to someone at a museum who feels bashful trying to explain why they like a Cezanne painting, but they just know it speaks to them.
Anyway, my episode on the German Expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Reclining Nude was my opportunity to showcase a subject that I have some expertise in, and it was especially cool because I knew how meaningful it was to me, and I got some wonderful feedback about how meaningful it was for people to listen to the story of art in Nazi Germany – the evolution of modern art in Germany, the Degenerate Art Exhibition, and Kirchner’s own tragic story within it. It was an episode that just came together really well.
The other was on Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue. That painting had never really meant that much to me, but for some reason, I completely fell in love with it as I tried to explain why abstraction is both significant and not that terrifying.
The more time I spent with it, the more I was able to see Mondrian as both an artist making a point and a human being who was experiencing trauma – and why he chose abstraction to make that point.
I had also just written a song in a songwriting workshop about Sol LeWitt’s drawing series, which are thousands of grids on a wall, and the song itself was a meditation on how “inaccessible” art can be explained to skeptics. It worked so well with the theme of the episode that I couldn’t help but include it at the end.
Incredibly, this episode ended up being the one recommended by Wired magazine and got over a thousand listens in a day, so it felt like a validation for me both as a podcaster and as a songwriter.
Carrie: Any suggestions to people who might want to start a podcast?
Listen to as many of them as you can. Anyone who goes into podcasting already has something to say, so I couldn’t really give much advice on the content, but in terms of the actual production, you just have to listen and listen and absorb good editing and pacing. The pacing is really key – I end up listening to my own episodes a hundred times before I release them, to make sure they flow nicely.
You can clean up the audio, editing out breaths and sniffs and moistmouth, but you have to keep the rhythm of the speaking, the breathing, etc. I’ve listened to podcasts where all of the breaths were edited out, and I realized that I was holding my own breath the whole time. And give points a chance to land. Don’t be afraid to have a little dead air to give the listener a chance to process what they’ve just heard.
That said, don’t waste your listener’s time. Shorter is always better – there are way too many podcasts out there where two people are just yakking around a mic, and it gets old fast. Give your listeners something to look forward to, and start with a good anecdote or hook.
Radio isn’t like a book or article where you can read ahead and see if you like where it’s going. Listeners are trusting that you’re taking them somewhere interesting, so take pains not to lose them. And invest in some decent gear: I have a Sennhauser ME66 mic, a Zoom Handy recorder, good Sony professional headphones, and Hindenburg audio editing software. It’s all I need.
Carrie: What has been one hurdle you’ve overcome as a creative and how did you navigate that problem?
I feel a little sheepish saying this, but I never anticipated how distracting success – even relatively modest podcasting success – would be. When I started out, I was expecting that my friends and family would listen, but that really the show was for me, to practice my audio chops and write about art the way I always wanted to.
You of course have to set up social media pages and a website, but I hadn’t thought about the work that goes into maintaining them, posting witty little soundbites, and pushing my brand as hard as you need to in order to get any attention in such an oversaturated field. Then when I started getting some attention, it was a different kind of pressure, because the more listeners you have, the higher the stakes every time I sit down and face that blank page when I’m writing a new script. So instead of writing, I just check Twitter for the 1000th time.
I’m learning to navigate as I go. It’s really hard, and I can use any advice I can get. I have to just block out all the pings and buzzes and remember what I love about writing about art, and clear some deliberate time to dive in. Once I’m in the script, I can’t get enough of it, but finding my way in can be torture.
Carrie: What’s a piece of advice you’ve gleaned for artists from doing your research for your shows?
I mean, the artists I’ve studied for the podcast have so much more to teach me than I could ever think I could offer. I will say that I’ve always been drawn to the documentarian aspect of art – how art is reflecting its social and political context, because I’m a history nerd and a people nerd and I love to dive into how people are processing the world around them. That’s the story I always end up telling in the podcast.
So I guess I would hope that artists are aware of that too, and aware of how their art is reflecting their world, so that even if the actual canvas or object is abstract and/or inaccessible, they give their viewer a point of entry in. Otherwise, it’s too easy for the public to dismiss an artwork that isn’t easily legible and representative.
Carrie: What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?
There are many ways of being stuck. I need to take a moment and take my temperature and see if I’m the kind of stuck where I’m just easily distracted and I need to silence my phone and just force myself to focus, or if I’m really tapped out and I need to walk away from it for a little while.
I’m a one-person band and my own boss in a business with no money in it, which means that I’m beholden to no one (which is good) except my own perfectionist standards (which is not). It can be too easy to avoid doing work, but then I feel really disappointed in myself.
The most I can do is just make sure I have as much time as possible – for rewrites and edits, for polishing the audio. I’m also a big self-rewarder (lots of sushi) and I need to always remind myself that when I’m doing it well, I really, really love it. It’s always a good motivator to know that I’ll be enjoying it again, even if I’m not at that moment.
Carrie: What is one creative resource you can’t live without?
The Free Museum Archive. There are plenty of musicians out there who post their stuff on this website – like the podcasters, they’re doing it for exposure, prestige, and the love of it, and certainly not for the money.
There’s one group of musicians in particular called the Blue Dot Sessions who write and jam music that is exceptional for podcasts – atmospheric, not too intrusive, but incredibly catchy, and they know to work into these wonderful swells and recessions that almost always seem to reinforce whatever emotional point is being made in the voiceover. The way it matches up is pretty magical, and rarely intentional – just great good luck. My podcast would be so much poorer without their music.
Carrie: Who/what inspires you?
My husband is a musician, and one of his favorite little truisms is that the great work comes from perfecting the fine art of applying ass to seat. There’s inherent raw talent, but there’s no genius without putting in the time to practice, or in my case, write, rewrite, concentrate, listen, re-listen.
I’m inspired by good discipline, which includes, as I said, knowing when to hang it up for the night. But I also love not taking anything too seriously, from being too snooty about art to being too formal about writing to being too anal about audio – anything that sucks all the fun out of the process.
I’m inspired by podcast writers like Jonathan Goldstein and Starlee Kine who are able to make very powerful points with spunky, energetic, and compelling writing. They write clearly and with great economy, with spot-on yet absurd little analogies, and they play off of the intimacy that radio does so well. You feel like you’re just hanging out with a witty, articulate, soulful friend. It’s my dream that people feel that way when they listen to my podcast.
Carrie: How do you define Creativity?
The best creativity comes from the ability to tell a universal story in a unique and specific way, and from letting yourself be liberated enough to barrel down the road of subjectivity, while still being aware enough of how you’re perceived objectively.
I think that’s really important, to keep a foot in both worlds. Make your own work, but make it accessible. That doesn’t mean diluting it to appeal to as many people as possible, but try to see how people see it from the outside – if you have something to say, chances are you could be articulating something that many, many people wish they could say too, and no one has put it quite the way that you have.
Artmaking comes in two stages, the creation of it and the exhibiting of it. Put energy into both, and don’t let either dominate at the expense of the other.
In the same way, don’t pander to the bull that you can’t be creative if you have a dayjob. On the contrary, that’s exactly how to be creative. Don’t try to make creativity a career before it’s sustainable – you’ll just end up resenting it.
But you’d be amazed, too, how much you can learn from people who aren’t in creative fields, not only in terms of the discipline, efficiency, and day-in, day-out practicality of a corporate job, but also what the average joe thinks about art.
If someone doesn’t grow up in an art museum, they don’t develop the tools to navigate it. So listen to what they need. Use your work as an opportunity to reach people. And try not to get too distracted by those Twitter notifications if you succeed.
Be Creatively Courageous: What lessons have you learned from art history? Share your lesson from art history in the comments below.
Additional Contact Info: