Jessie Peterson Tarazi sits amidst an intimate group of twelve. There happen to be a lot of painters in the crowd, and everyone sits close, leaning in. Tarazi has pieced together a map of her Lowcountry home, complete with intricate line drawings of landmark mansions, favorite creeks, the oyster bateaux, the old Haig Point Lighthouse. She has the group giggling with the story of the Daufuskie ape. He came from Savannah and lived out his final days climbing the lighthouse flagpole. She speaks about the island post Civil War, when northern industrialists bought big tracts of land for hunting, padding the area with zebra and water buffalo. The grand mansions and illustrious families weave a rich and compelling history, a deep sense of place and play. It is from this historical backdrop that Tarazi paints.
Tarazi’s training began in earnest at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a two-year magnet program for the state’s emerging artists. After earning an undergraduate degree in fine art at Carnegie Mellon University and a masters at the New York Academy of Art, Tarazi returned to her roots. She became fascinated by what she calls cabinets of curiosity, the bagatelles and mementos of the great Southern women who raised her. Tarazi zeroed in on still lifes then, her subjects: creamy pink conch shells, dusky beach glass, delicate birds’ nests, bleached white skulls.
“I’m really into the idea of silver and what it means. It’s a relic of family, pieces of history from parlors and dining rooms. Imagine women in Charleston burying their silver in the backyard when the War came. Also it’s a whole lot of fun
This sense of history, of legacy, is present in Tarazi’s work. Her still lifes are moody and rich, echoing dramas of the past. Indeed, Tarazi studied the great masters. At Carnegie Mellon art was taught free form—the concept of expression questioned at every turn. At the Academy, however, Tarazi found structure, precision, form. She learned to paint in a fine and classic style.
“You can learn so much from old masters by painting copies. It’s sort of a forgotten thing, but it teaches you to paint thin and fine. I was doing a lot of copies at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art]. Vermeer taught me glazing and pigments, about lead whites and bone blues.”
This bit piques the audience’s attention. Scattered hands go up and interested artists ask about mixing oils and preference in brands. Tarazi is thrilled, and the talk takes a left turn into the rabbit hole of pigment—coal black and ochre, the effect of light on silver from just three earthy paints. As she speaks, Tarazi sits on a short stool in front of a massive canvas. It’s of bleached coral. The knobby fingers are awash in light, reaching out from the shadowy darkness beneath. It is magnificent, nearly three-dimensional. She gestures to it: “Once I went big, it gave me a lot of freedom. I was taught to never show my underdrawing, but I actually love seeing it! When you can see the process, it makes you more connected to the painting. There’s more texture and depth.”
And it really is remarkable, the depth and quality of her paintings. Up close the brush strokes lay atop one another in violent contrast. But from afar a silver cup shines as if it might fall off the canvas with a clatter.
“It’s been amazing to spend time on Kiawah. It is the same as where I’m from but different, new inspiration. I spent this morning painting to the Jungle Book soundtrack and drinking mimosas!”
Tarazi’s husband is in the crowd and smiles at this. “Oh, I just got married to this guy,” she says, and the audience whistles and claps.
After her rigorous education, Tarazi has the bright-eyed excitement of a young, actualized artist. Her calendar is packed with commissions and travel. Though her home is New York City, Tarazi is often in the Lowcountry, on Hilton Head Island and in Charleston.