Mike Tauber: The Laguna artist very much at work
By SAMANTHA WASHER
Photos by Mary Hurlbut
If the name Mike Tauber doesn’t ring a bell, his artwork certainly will. Whether it’s his beautiful tile installations all over town (at the Laguna Beach Water District or along Mermaid Street, to name two) or his dancing sardines along the wall of the Hagan Place apartment building on Third Street, or even his painted murals outside Whole Foods; if you’ve driven around Laguna, you’ve seen Tauber’s work.
When we met at his studio on Laguna Canyon Road he was swamped. There was commission work to be done, pieces for this year’s Festival of the Arts to be completed, and an important event that he is involved with called “Art-to-Go” coming up on June 2 at City Hall. After that event he’ll be heading over to Nuance Home at the Old Pottery Place for another event… If you thought the life of a working artist was easy, think again.
“Art to Go” for a good cause
“Art-to-Go” raises money for The Artists Fund, an “artists’ disaster relief fund,” as Tauber describes it. He is responsible for coordinating the fundraising of the event that pools money to help artists in case of flood, fire or illness. This year’s theme is “shoes.”
“We encourage everyone to show up with fabulous shoes,” he says, enthusiastically.
The artists donate a work of art they created out of shoes. Tauber had two artist’s pieces at his studio that I got a sneak peek at: a boot that had been turned into a floppy-eared dog and two wedge sandals that morphed into a bug-eyed insect. Both were very creative and utterly unique. Tauber’s own creation was two metal relief pieces depicting a man’s oxford and lady’s classic pump. The pieces will be on display at City Hall then they’ll be shown at the Festival grounds where they can be purchased.
From Illinois to San Diego State University
An Illinois native, Tauber came to the west coast when he transferred to San Diego State University. “I did a lot of ceramics there – a lot of different things. When I graduated I was a draftsman so I had some practical skills. I focused on painting,” he says. “I started working for the building industry in the early 2000’s. But I wanted to do more outdoor pieces. My degree is in environmental design so I like art that relates to a space as opposed to strictly gallery work.”
After college, Tauber took a job in Los Angeles with the famous interior design firm, Cannell and Chaffin. He learned the ropes, and then hightailed it out of LA.
“I did not like LA,” he says. “I’m not a big city guy. I’m a cornfields kind of guy!” he says with a laugh.
He took a job in San Clemente. “Everyone told me, ‘If you’re going to work in San Clemente you have to move to Laguna!’ I like the small town, the thriving arts industry here. Plus I work for a couple of non-profits so I have to be here,” he explains. And while Laguna has become his hometown, it’s one of the reasons he’s so busy, because, as he says, “It’s not cheap to live here.”
Creating painterly ceramic tiles
One of Tauber’s first big projects in his hometown was for the Laguna Beach Water District. “They called me to do a mural in 2005. I decided it was best to do it in ceramic tiles. I was also painting at the time, but in 2008 I re-juried in ceramics for the Festival. I just enjoy the medium,” he explains.
Of his ceramics style he says, “The aesthetic is painting – all the disciplines of plein air painting – but it’s not common to see it in tile. Why would you do that? It’s hard. You don’t normally see those two disciplines together.”
Tauber points to mid-20th century travel posters and the old packing labels used on orange crates as influences on his tile work. There is a glow to them that is very painterly yet also very graphic.
Click on photo for a larger image
One of Mike Tauber’s painterly tile creations along Mermaid Street
A diverse range of disciplines
As a self-proclaimed “working class artist,” it’s important for Tauber to be diversified for artistic as well as economic reasons. “Artists can get a little bit set in their ways so it’s good to do other things: painting on canvas and large murals, teaching, ceramic tiles, metallic relief work. I appreciate it when people notice the aesthetics in my mediums; that they are seeing my style.”
Tauber makes “Art” with a capital “A” as well as “art” that helps pay the bills. “I do a lot of production painting,” he explains. “It’s not necessarily portfolio work, but you’re using your technical skills.”
One example of this kind of work is his partnership with Geppetto’s Toy Stores in San Diego. “I do these commercial projects that are financially rewarding, but also fun. I enjoy going to San Diego and painting these giant cartoons,” he says with a laugh. “My clients are the best. I’ve been with the Toy Store for 20 years! These really good, professional relationships are critical. I feel very lucky to have them.”
Tauber is also appreciative of public art. “Public art can make the whole area better. It gives the location a sense of identity. Hopefully, everyone who sees it appreciates it. It can help make them respect the place a little bit more when there is art there.”
One of Tauber’s public installations, the sardines on the Hagan Place apartment building, is just such a piece. Deceptively simple, it enhances what had been a big, bland wall. Tauber says this piece is “an example of where the space informs the art. I like the relationship between two dimensions and three dimensions…[the sardines] look like they’re jumping off the wall, especially at sunset.”
Click on photo for a larger image
Mike Tauber’s work, “Sardines,” at the Hagan Place apartments
“This building parallels Wyland’s big whale mural on PCH. I perceive myself as a working-class artist. I like to root for the underdog. The sardine is just as important as the big guys at the top. The whale can’t survive without them,” he explains with a mischievous smile. “I like it that those two pieces are speaking to each other.”
Working the other part of his brain
In addition to the many different artistic disciplines Tauber works in, he also likes to exercise the other part of his brain with his non-profit work. “When I’m tired from too much production I like to do the non-profit work, get more intellectual. The art can be very physical.” Besides “Art-to-Go,” Tauber is involved with LOCA as their marketing manager, as well as a teacher.
A new teaching gig that he’s excited about starts this summer at The Festival. “[Artist] Tom Swimm and I are teaching fun stuff at the Festival on Saturday nights throughout the summer,” he says. “I really look forward to that. I love teaching, but tiles are too hard, there are too many steps – painting is much more straightforward. It will be a fun reason to come to the Festival. The grounds are so beautiful at night. Come, have a glass of wine with me and we’ll do some painting! It will be way more fun than going to the same old bar!”
Tauber sounds genuinely enthused about the prospect. But while teaching art to potentially un-artistic types like myself under the stars with a glass of wine doesn’t sound too terrible, just remember it will likely be the 10th project Tauber has managed to get done that day. He makes it all work by working – a lot.
Despite his workload, he somehow manages to find a little time for fun: listening to live music, mountain biking in Woods Canyon, photographing the kelp off Casino Point in Catalina. He also likes to host game nights with good, old-fashioned board games: a by-product of his youth. Growing up in a family with four boys it’s no surprise that competition was a staple.
Click on photo for a larger image
Mike Tauber in front of one of his murals for Whole Foods in Laguna Beach
More plans, more work
While his brothers followed more corporate routes of employment, Tauber says his “parents weren’t thrilled with (his) decision to become a self-employed artist.” However, his drive, talent and pragmatic approach has meant steady work throughout his career.
And he’s not done yet.
Tauber would still like to become an Artist in Residence at a national park, secure more commissions in other countries (he has already completed one in Australia and one in Brazil), and organize more programs for arts organizations, like Art-to-Go.
In his words, to make it as a working artist you must: “Narrow your vision, expose yourself to a lot of different disciplines and turn it into your own vision. Work in the industry, develop practical skills, work with non-profits that can help get you closer to your goals, treat clients with respect, be prepared to work really, really hard – and meet your deadlines.
“Also, there is value in taking commercial jobs that you don’t want to sign your name to. At least it keeps your brushes wet!”
And, he adds, “Stay humble.” Young artists take note.