Artist Tara Walters Paints Her Psychic Visions. Then They Come True

Portrait of Tara Walters in her studio.

The drive from artist Tara Walters's cornflower blue Malibu hideaway to the parking lot of her sunlit studio in the downtown Los Angeles Arts District takes 25 minutes, if you time it right. It takes closer to an hour and a half if you make an innocent stop at the Palisades Village Erewhon, which ends up being too crowded. You console yourself with gluten-free, sugar-free brownies from Lauren Conrad’s favorite bakery down the street and then head back to Erewhon to validate your parking ticket with a single cucumber seltzer. No matter how fast or slow you drive afterwards, the sloshing in the back seat is inevitable. It’s not the seltzer, but the sound of two tall plastic buckets filled with clear seawater Walters collected off the coast of Point Dume yesterday.

“Pretty good,” says Walters, as she stands in the middle of her industrial studio, evaluating the water’s transparency before snatching a still-wet painting as large as she is from the wall. In one fluid gesture, she lays the bowing stretcher gently on the floor and drowns it in a hefty pour of saltwater. There will be more waves to come before the painting is finished. I imagine an exhausted Mickey Mouse in the studio below, bailing out a rising sea like in Fantasia, but of course, in reality, the puddle will soon be dry. Tomorrow, after the water evaporates, only the tea leaves and trace minerals will remain: a shimmering film suspended in oil paint.

The process of marrying paint and sea is reminiscent of 1950s action painters like Helen Frankenthaler, but relatively new to Walters. It is the result of a series of epiphanies the 33-year-old artist had during graduate school at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, studying with professors like artist Laura Owens and critic Bruce Hainley. While the former remains a mentor, it is the latter whom Walters credits with pushing her to paint by putting the kibosh on a series of burned compositions on canvas she used to apply to school. “Bruce said, ‘Stop painting with fire. LA has enough fires,’” recounts Walters with a laugh. “I would not be where I am today without him.”


Down a material crutch and overstocked on candles, Walters decided to lean into astrology and spiritualism to see if another door would open up. It was not the first time she had reinvented herself. As a teenager in Washington, D.C., she was a wild-horse breaker, ballet dancer, and choir girl, known among her teachers for her penchant for art. So when she injured her face playing softball in her backyard, a year in bed wasn’t an opportunity for rest and relaxation but a chance to shift directions.

Walters eventually became a weekend ceramicist, a vocalist by the name of Faery Teeth, and a member of Lee Barron’s Cloud Club, the avant-garde Cambridge, Massachusetts–based artistic cooperative counting Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer as members. She also decided to return to both horses and school, landing at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where her teachers told her grad school was a necessary next step.

In the end, her many life experiences collided at a weeklong psychic retreat in Ojai. It was there that Walters found her new direction and began, as she calls it, “dropping in.” “I would just see all of these visions. A horizon. A boat in the mist. A moon. And then I would start painting them or write them down to paint later,” says the artist. She later adopted a surrealist technique that involved pressing a wet canvas face-down on the studio floor to see what pareidolia emerged from the debris.


Walters informally refers to this misty body of work as her “future-telling paintings.” That is what some of them have gone on to do. Before she found her bungalow tucked in a hidden lurch of Malibu coastline, she painted its view. A month before her beloved horse Cessna passed away, Walters put the finishing touches on her first official portrait, which doubled as an homage to a formative encounter with Laura Owens’s untitled horse painting from 2004. When Walters saw the work in the artist’s 2017 survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art, she took it as a sign she could be a painter too. “The freedom in her work gave me permission,” she says. “There weren’t a lot of other artists painting the subject matter she was and being taken seriously for it.”

Art history interests Walters, but it doesn’t subsume her. I’m the one who starts name-dropping to see what will happen. I open with Rose Wylie, Cecily Brown, Florine Stettheimer, and Karen Kilimnik: chicks who love their horses, flip the canon upside down, and aren’t afraid to wash out. Walters concedes the point—“I love them”—and then counters with her hometown heroes: the Washington Color School. “I paint in stains,” she says. It’s true that Walters now builds all of her paintings layer by layer using a technique that recalls the saturated, unprimed canvases of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, but she adds her own LA twist.

Walters discovered the process by accident around the same time she learned to drop in. “I had this bucket of seawater hanging around the studio for a long time, and then one day in a fit of frustration with a painting, I dumped it all out. When I returned, my studio was covered in glitter,” recalls Walters. “I thought, This is insane. What is the ocean showing me? Then I started figuring out how to mimic that effect in the paintings. It evolved into this primal state where I was just staining and staining and staining and staining with water and paint.”


The first suite of these fortune-telling saltwater paintings comprised “Whispers,” Walters’s ArtCenter graduation show in 2020. The following year brought “Dropping In,” her well-reviewed debut at Kristina Kite Gallery, which featured hazy tableaux worthy of Lisa Frank: big bouquets, fairy-tale castles, and frisking dolphins. None of these figures made it to the edge of the frame, nor did any of Walters’s paint—instead, her images remain suspended inside the canvas like wavy portals to other dimensions.

This has become a visual idiom for the artist and a gentle reminder that her images are of the mind and spirit rather than of the earth. In creating these gateways, Walters hopes to transport the viewer to other planes of consciousness. “I always like the part of the painting where it looks like it’s abstract and then it’s not,” says Walters. It’s these moments of misreading that make space for the doubt necessary to believe in something intangible. I’m not surprised to learn Walters identifies with spiritualist artist and medium Hilma af Klint, who loaded her canvases with cookie crumbs and keys to other dimensions. They share a belief in painting’s ability to deliver the viewer to the sublime.

By some fate of Walters-sized proportions, after spending the day shadowing her pilgrimage from sea to studio, we are reunited not a month later in another improbably surreal setting: Venice, Italy. Walters is making her international debut at Barbati Gallery with “Sailing to the Garden Party.” Later this fall, I’ll see her again in another port, London, for her solo presentation with Kristina Kite Gallery at the Frieze Art Fair. I don’t know if I’ll make it to Shanghai for her show at Antenna Space in May 2024, but if Walters sees it in one of her dreams, it might happen. At the moment, she is working on a door painting, adding a knob where there originally wasn’t a way to get in. What will happen when she opens it? Just beyond the threshold, I hear the waves of decision and coincidence crashing into one another like an ocean’s roar.