Kara Taylor’s newest work: ‘Tiny Totems’


“Totems can represent many things to many people,” says artist Kara Taylor. “So many cultures feature them, and view them in different ways. They can also be very personal about an individual or a family.” Taylor’s latest body of work is titled “Tiny Totems.”

Taylor’s totems — each one a photograph of a model adorned with an elaborately decorated mask or shieldlike structure — represent a variety of different themes to the artist. The small (16.5- by 23-inch) photos have titles that give a glimpse into their inspiration. Among others, there are “Lucid Dreamer,” “A Call to Prayer,” and “Angel of Free Will.”

Taylor spends half of each year in Cape Town, South Africa, where she has a studio and shows her work regularly. Her adopted second home has clearly had a profound effect on her work in a number of ways, and continues to spark her already fertile imagination in new directions.

“Tiny Totems” is a continuation of a series that Taylor commenced in 2021, and showed examples of last year at her Chilmark studio and gallery. Of that initial group, she wrote, “‘Guardians of Us’ explores a perennial philosophy about the nature of being that borders myth and the relative world. Where the literal and the illusory collaborate; where fact and fiction are blurred lines in the sand.”

This time around, Taylor has further refined the vision by shooting against a stark white background and clothing her model in very simple, draped garments to make the talisman constructions the clear focus of the images. She used a process called Diasec, which involves applying a fine layer of acrylic resin to the surface of a photo without distorting the color or appearance of the paper.

“I really like the look,” says Taylor. “There’s a reflective quality; you kind of see yourself reflected back at you.”

For the totem series, the artist chose to use a single model, rather than draw from a pool of South African–based dancers as she did for the previous series. This time, the same tall, slender figure with long, delicate limbs is posed standing erect and proud, almost emulating a totem figure in human form. The model, FiFi Von, is a friend of Taylor’s — a gender-fluid established member of the Dark Room contemporary dance company in Cape Town.

“I wanted this body of work to be gender-neutral, or conceptually both genders working together, in one full sequence of portraits,” says the artist.

Along with her choice of process and use of a solo model, Taylor has also expanded on her use of materials for the totem pieces (many of which are also on offer as colorful wall hangings). Previously she worked with a selection of repurposed laser-cut shapes — the leftovers from a fellow artist’s project. This time Taylor went a more organic route. “Leather as opposed to fabric became my chosen medium,” she says. “I wanted these to feel more natural. I accumulated many different feathers from an aviary, so the feathers are from living birds, not dead birds.”

A testament to Taylor’s fascination and reverence for birds can be found in another recent group of multimedia constructions. The series “Bower Bird” borrows its title from a unique species renowned for their elaborately decorated nests, designed by the males to attract a mate.

Although the established Vineyard-born and -raised artist continues to create the landscapes that she is perhaps most well known for, she has thrown herself into her most recent project. “I’ve allowed myself the freedom to work in a very different way the past few years,” she says. “Combining the three-dimensional form with the two-dimensional.”

A poet as well as an artist, Taylor provides an artist statement of sorts in verse form, posed as a series of questions:

What is your totem?
Is it specific to heritage, or ancestral place?
Does it tell a story?
Is it a plant or an animal, or perhaps a star in the night sky?
Could the totem be a messenger from the spirit world ?
Does it have religious significance?
Does it reveal itself in your dream consciousness?
Could it protect you from harm?
How do you identify with a totem?
Do you have one, or many?

“Tiny Totem,” a series of new multimedia pieces, will hang at the Kara Taylor Gallery, 24 South Road, Chilmark, through the end of the month.