If you were to walk past Viacom Headquarters in Times Square, you would likely notice three massive turrets of mandalas glazed upon the building’s towering windows. This is the work of our latest artist-in-residence, Tahiti Pehrson from his Art at Viacom exhibit, The Journey of Light.
The work is laborious—Pehrson evokes the intricate behavior of light and dimension by using exact-o knifes to carve designs into 100 percent-cotton paper, overlapping stencil upon stencil of geometric origami. From a distance, the art looks like it was laser-printed upon the building. The fact that it is the result of human handicraft makes it all the more stunning.
I spoke with the artist behind the imperial exhibit to learn more about his own journey of light.
Lisa Di Venuta: Do you remember a certain moment in life that prompted your artistic development?
Tahiti Pehrson: I grew up on the coast of Northern California. My parents encouraged me and my siblings to see life through the lens of art. They’re painters, and my father was also an art teacher. From the youngest age I kind of knew it was what I’d end up doing.
Did your father teach you anything in particular?
He never taught us anything technical. It was more about how to view the world as an artist. One of the things he said that always stuck with me is no matter how much money I have, never worry about how much art supplies cost.
That is good advice. If it’s something for your craft, I don’t see it being a waste of money.
Yeah, because it’s money spent on your work and development. Art is cathartic, it’s that thing that you’re going to need for your soul and you should always nourish that.
Did you get any formal artistic training?
I went to San Francisco Art Institute when I was 28. Before that I had been travelling through Europe, going to museums and researching art on my own. When I was in Berlin and Switzerland I came across these artist colonies where people were just living in these big buildings and making art. There was so much creativity and passion and this kind of fire. I went to art school in pursuit of that kind of community.
Art school seems like a close equivalent.
Yeah. It was really helpful to be critiqued and learn how to adapt and change my work. It wasn’t exactly that experience of an artist colony, but I kind of got a momentum started there. It helped refine what I was doing.
I was only there for three semesters. I started as a painting major and by the end I had no painting classes. Oil painting seemed antiquated, and the more I learned about performance artists like Chris Burden I changed my direction.
I had friends that were graffiti artists and we’d go on missions to abandoned buildings all through San Francisco. It was so exciting and I didn’t really expect anything from it. But it helped me reinvent my style, and see art in a new way.
It’s interesting how formal education can lead you to a career even if you don’t finish school. Can you tell me a little bit about how you developed your specific style? From what I’ve seen of your current work, it doesn’t seem to be derived from traditional street art.
I got offered to be in my first art show and I didn’t know what to feature. At that time it was pretty trite to show spray-painted stencil images. I had a bunch of stencils pinned to my closet, overlapping their layers and ready to be spray painted. I decided to show the stencils at the show like that, just the pristine white stencils, overlapping.
I sold like three pieces or something, and they were like $200 each. I was so excited.
That’s incredible for your first show.
Oh, yeah. It’s a great feeling. There were a lot of hard years in between, but then the last five to eight years it’s gotten easier. I quit my day job, and I’ve been doing this full-time since then.
Can you tell me a bit about that turning point in your life?
I was commissioned by a ski resort to create these paper lanterns when they had a renovation, and wanted new art. I was paid $10,000. That was enough to quit my minimum wage landscaping job. I got a few more jobs over the years from the same resort, and in the meantime people started to know my work, so I’d get more jobs, like making T-shirt designs for bands.
That must be a great feeling, becoming known as an artist. What do you think is so appealing about your style?
Early on in my career, I’d paint people who I knew in my life, but other people didn’t. When people saw my work they couldn’t connect to it.
That changed when I started making patterns. People really started to vibe with the ambiguous nature of my work. It has a fine art approach, but can translate well into other artistic venues.
Such as Viacom Headquarters. What has this experience been like for you?
This opportunity has been amazing. It’s been amazing to be able to work in this kind of scale, for a place that helps artists by creating such a program.
One thing that particularly stood out to me working at Viacom was the diversity of people and backgrounds that shared a certain common energy when it came to creativity. I found people really engaging. It’s an environment where people are outgoing and it makes you want to reciprocate.
It’s cool to see corporations supporting artists in this way, so we don’t have to work a day job to support ourselves and we can focus on our art. I have a 10-year-old daughter, and jobs like this will help me send her to college.