Breaking Free


Across the table, Tara Goreau, 27, cups her milky espresso drink and leans in over the picnic table. Her face open, worked with a near constant smile, her clothes worn and soft, dappled with paint splotches.

Tara starts with a story.

When her mother was in labor, her friend drove her to Middlebury Hospital. When they realized they might not make the trip, they pulled into a senior living community and knocked on the door. Although the people gathered to see the pregnant woman ready to burst, her mother saw the fine porcelain china, the chairs and sofas, the soft white rugs, and left, waddling back outside to the tree line. 

“And so,” Tara explains with a grin,“I was born outside, on the side of the road, under a harvest moon. This was the beginning.”

Currently, Tara is making her living painting murals for clients across Vermont. Her studio is in an old brush factory called the Howard Block. It houses several other artists’ studios in what Burlington’s industrial zone is sometimes referred to as the South End Arts District, or SEAD. Many of the buildings here are reclaimed for creative purposes.

Tara graduated from St. Johnsbury Academy in 2006. While there, she studied with Bill and Kim Darling. They taught her about different types of light, and although her father had taught her about shading and perspective, the Darlings broke it down into a science. Their lessons are something that carry her through every day of her life. 

Tara grew up in rural parts of Vermont, both inside and outside the Northeast Kingdom. Her mother was a surgeon and her father was a stay-at-home-dad. A scientist with a PhD in geology, her father taught at Middlebury College for many years before she was born. Because he was a scientist, he taught her the art of observation and drawing. Many afternoons were passed wandering the woods, thumbing through National Geographic magazines, and drawing. She often sketched animals, fish, and polar bears. She made up monsters too. Getting a new box of markers felt like Christmas.

Her father not only encouraged her creative pursuits, he taught her perspective. He was very honest, and would tell her if her perspective was off. He did not sugar coat it, and the first time he told her this as a child, she remembers crying. But now she appreciates his intention, that in order for her to learn, she needed to the constructive criticism, and it was welcomed, because it came from a place of love.

When does one take criticism and when does one ignore it? Tara nodded vigorously, and explained that with all criticism, you must take it with a grain of salt. Art is personal, and if it says what you want it to say, then you are successful, whether it is liked or not. It must affect the viewer, the participant. If people are drawn to it, if the viewer takes something away from it, it is successful.

“A good instructor,” she continued,“would help you articulate that.”

For example, she originally planned to have a sunset in the background of her painting,“Swine Flew.” The painting depicts a sow heavy with swollen teats bursting through the roof of the pig pen, her wings open, glorious, the other pigs, some inside the barn, many outside in a pen, watching in awe. The painting is busy, and with a brightly colored sky, the painting would be overwhelming, a viewer might not know where to look.  Ken Leslie, a professor at Johnson State College who had a huge impact on her, explained that sometimes you have to simplify. That way, the viewer can take something away, the piece is more digestible.

A big part of art, whether it be music, writing or visual, is for the viewer to experience and internalize something.  The artist offers, and the viewer participates. One may love a painting because it reminds them of their mother. The artist may not intend for that specific take-away, but the viewers still finds something meaningful to them as an individual. Tara explained that this openness, the ability to connect is exciting and a fun way to simply interact with fellow humans.

For example, in the painting“Swine Flew,” I think of being a factory farmed human being. And this animal, this sow, had broken free. Although it seems initially silly, that the pig bursts through the roof of the pen rather than simply fly out through the open area in the painting, it makes sense, at least to my viewership: sometimes in life, there may be a bunch of ways, but you just have to break out.

Tara originally wanted to go to art school, but decided to study forestry in Vancouver. Despite her new focus, she still needed a creative outlet. Every night, she would skateboard in her dorm’s parking lot and draw with pastels all over the walls. She would“rage” with her art, which often put her at odds with campus police, who would leave notes on her door asking her to“please stop drawing stuff on the walls.”

“It became a thing. It was like an art gallery.”

Eventually though, it was painted over with grey and the street artists moved their activity elsewhere, more of their work going underground.

She laughs as she explains what a treat it is, to go from needing to paint walls, and doing so illegally, to being commissioned to paint murals in local communities. A partner and her love for the green mountains brought her back to Vermont. Then, Ken Leslie, who she described as a vibrant, open-minded and energetic person, knew the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Hyde Park was looking for someone to do a mural. Tara, eagerly volunteered. She painted snippets from World War I and World War II as well as other foreign wars. Initially, it was a hard process for her. She is strongly against war. But as she talked to VFW members and began the creative process, she began to see the enormous humanity behind the VFW’s walls. She began to see that telling her their stories was in a way, a cathartic experience. As she continued to paint and listen, incorporating their suggestions, she realized that these people were in a way, owning not only their stories, but the art she was creating. And that was beautiful.

From there, she began to get other mural work. Recently she did a mural for the Catamount ArtSpace in St. Johnsbury, which involved local 6-8 graders, the seasons, and different genres of music. It started when Tara met Jodie Fried, Catamount Arts director, while painting the Riverside School’s barn. He asked her if she wanted to do something with kids, and that Catamount wanted a mural in their Artspace, which commonly serves as a venue for music.

Tara explained that working with 6th through 8th graders was not only fun, but important. They’re at an age where there’s a lot of angst, there’s a lot of insecurity. Often kids sort of freeze up, and she felt that using art would be a way to“unfreeze” them. 

Tara Goreau, with Catamount’s Arts Education Coordinator Anne Campbell, went to the St. Johnsbury School, Concord, Newark, and Walden. Each class they worked with coupled a type of music with a season. For example, fall was paired with African drumming. Students would sketch on big pieces of paper while they all listened to music. The result: fall colors and big, bold patterns. In Concord, they had a local classically trained cellist play while they worked. Once they were done, Tara would take all the sheets of paper and drawings back to her studio and work on incorporating them into her mural design. At times it was hard, because some kids grew attached to their work. But ultimately she used as much of their work as she could. And it wasn’t just about the final result, but the experience of enjoying music, and allowing that to be expressed outward in artwork.