Arts Magazine: I Wuv You

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

I Wuv You

Growing up with artist for parents, Oakley Tapola, soon to be six, already shows a near inescapable talent for drawing, detail, and observation. But her artistic precocity and her first "group" show with her parents, in the "I Wuv You" exhibition opening February 19, 1993 in the Minnesota Gallery, leave her slightly shy and ambivalent. Asked what it feels like to be having her works shown in a museum along with her parents', Oakley makes a silly face and shrugs. Art-her own or her parents hanging on walls is evidently nothing remarkable in her experience. Art is life, life is art. The family that paints together, stays together. "Oakley talks about 'the studio' the way other people talk about the rec room or the kitchen," say her mother, Melba Price. With one studio, her mother's upstairs in their home, and another, her father's, in the garage, Oakley simply assumes that making art is what families do. Together the threesome-Oakley, Melba, and father Bruce Tapola-are using their "I Wuv You" show, part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, to make some statements about true family cohesion and both the legitimate and illegitimate uses of love and family association. Billed as a "nuclear family production," the show, according to its organizer Frank Gaard, a member of the artists panel of MAEP, offers a glimpse of a family with creativity as its center.

The show's tongue-in-cheek starting point, according to Tapola, is the degradation of love embodied in cutesy plastic "I Love You This Much" statues.

"There's something awful about those plastic models," he says. "The true emotion is completely obscured in them. So we're using these dumb, smarmy things as a contrast to what love really means."

Through the heart-shaped entrance to the gallery one sees on the far wall an eighteen-foot. Neanderthal family, a reminder of the family's endurance as a social unit, placing the viewer somewhere on the aeons-old continuum.

Price and Tapola's most ambitious collaboration in the show is a wall of one hundred faces. The acrylic, charcoal, and gouache paintings, each twenty-two by thirty inches, raise questions about human connections with both blood relations-past, present, and future-and the mass of humanity. The paintings are the best place to see the contrast in styles of Price and Tapola, both of whom like to work mostly with figures, but Tapola's tending more toward caricature. "My work in general is usually more personal," says Price. "His is more political."

Tapola gives rein to his wry humor in a sort of "family of man" tree, tracing in acrylic on masonite the evolution of the species, with Phyllis Schlafly below an amoeba. Humor erupts again in a kind of a word-association exercise ("some people have called it a defective flow chart," he says) using family. The associations include "Patridge," "Manson," Sly and Stone," "Ties."

In a deliberate twist, Oakley's work gets the traditional museum treatment-neatly framed and hung in a row, gallery style, but at kid's eye height.

Humor and not taking oneself too seriously are obvious values to the Tapola-Price family. Esteem for art and art-making is also a given. But there is more to the "family values" Tapola and Price want to pass on to Oakley.

In their own lives, the two parents have made vocational choices that offer personal, but not necessarily financial, satisfaction and enrichment. In the same way, says Tapola, "We hope Oakley learns to follow her heart. I hope that she finds what she wants to do and goes with it."

Despite having relinquished solid economic security, Tapola and Price believe their sacrifices to pursue art have been "minimal." Being a family of limited means in fact, says Price, can teach Oakley that "there are more creative solutions" to meeting needs. The value of resourcefulness and creativity are thus implicit in their life-style.

At this stage in their lives, they have also chosen to spend as much time as possible with their daughter, both of them ensuring a certain amount of flexibility in their schedules (for their bread-and -butter income she works on a contract basis in drafting, he for the Minnesota Museum of Art on the exhibitions crew)

Like all working parents, Price and Tapola must cope with a built-in tension between the demands of family life and work life. Having a child has changed things for them, but, they assert, their work has not suffered from the loss of personal time that naturally comes with parenting. "Our time is important, and having a child actually makes us better at managing our time," says Price.

With spending time together and art&#151making as the family ethos, it is no surprise that Oakley, a kindergartner at St. Paul's Museum Magnet school, derives some sense of herself from the mountains of artwork she produces.

"At school she's becoming known as 'the little girl who draws the best.' Doing art is becoming part of her identity," says her mother.

For a visitor at her home, Oakley shyly pulls out three blue-felt-pen drawings she has done depicting intricate scenes that reveal the inspiration for her latest artistic phase-Disney's Aladdin. Then she slips in a small drawing with the words "George Bush" (spelled exactly right) scrawled at the top. Beneath the works is a man in a suit with a yo-yo dangling from one hand and what Oakley says is half a kite ('it broke") in the other (surely deep symbolism). Her parents look slightly abashed at this, and hasten to interject that it's nothing they said. Heaven forbid they should try to foist their political sentiments on the innocent.

"No," says Price in mock denial, "it couldn't have been Bruce yelling at the television during the election campaign."

Holly Bridegs Elliott is a freelance writer and editor who lives in St. Paul.

Citation: Holly Bridges Elliott, "I Wuv You," Arts 16, no. 2 (February 1993): 9-11.