Tanja Hollander, Artist, Woman Entrepreneur


Artists are entrepreneurs.  They create, they work for themselves and they have to be saavy enough to get someone to help sell their work in order to survive and/or of course they need to sell their own work.  It is hard but if being an artist is part of your DNA it is not something easy to turn off.  After spending some time speaking with Tanja about her journey and the way her mind worked in regards to how her work evolves I was fascinated as I see the same artistic creativity in our oldest daughter Jessica who is an artist through and through.  

Tanja reached out to me through email and told me about her project called "Are You Really My Friend.  Her email completely sparked my interest.  What she had learned from the process of creating this body of work.  She wrote the one crazy thing she realized through the whole experience is you never know unless you ask.  So she asked me to meet and we did.  

Tanja grew up in St. Louis and moved to Maine at 14 years old.  Tough move at that age.  Her father is a guardian representing children in custody battles.  Her Mom was a social worker who started working on legislative around preventive child abuse when they moved to Maine.  St. Louis was becoming more violent and her parents wants to move somewhere near the water that was more affordable and safer.  It was quite a jolt.  Tanja went from being in a top magnet school in St. Louis with a sense of freedom to get around to a less rigorous public school in Maine being beholden to her parents to get around.  She ended up graduating high school early, moved out and got a job as a waitress so she could afford to get her own apartment and begin a life of her own.  Her parents begged her to go to college so she applied to one, Hampshire.  A big sigh of relief for her parents is she got in and off she went to major in photography, film and feminist studies.  

During her college summers Tanja would come home and work for her Dad.  She loved it as it was separate from her art work and by working in a completely different field it pushes you to work on your own work whenever you can.  One summer she spent in San Francisco as she was supposed to go to the art institute there but the money fell through.  She went anyway, stayed with a friend and attended the classes without paying.  She worked for a tyrant artist one summer and much preferred working with her father in something completely unconnected to her photography.

After graduating from Hampshire Tanja worked in odd jobs to make rent.  She went back to SF for a short time realizing how hard it was to make ends meet there.  Her friend had found a gorgeous work/live space in Portland for $450 and Tanja moved back.  They launched a non-profit gallery in the space, lived in the basement and she was able to work on her photography.  It was the beginning of her career as an artist.  The gallery lasted two years between 94-96 and during that time Tanja just shot everything.  

Between 96-98 she began taking photographs of every day life.  Her thesis at Hampshire was self-portraits where she did a lot of nudes and such.  It was the time.  In 98 she was having coffee in her kitchen and she began to shoot out her back window at that time every morning.  The light, the quiet moment was what she began to capture.  She made money a variety of ways from waitressing to doing surveys on the phone for companies.  She wanted to make as much money as she could in a short amount of time so she could focus on her art work.  

The kitchen work appealed to galleries and the economy was coming back.  She started to show in Portland and then in Boston and eventually Jim Kempner in NYC.  People loved her landscapes.  Here is a link to them.  She began showing that body of work in 2000 and continued to sell it through 2008.  She made enough money thorugh those years to buy a house.  She had seen so many artist just blow through the money they made without thinking about the down times as an artist and wanted to be responsible.  She was pragmatic.  She took a year to renovate the house on her own.  She fell in love with architecture and design and began blogging about her experience of redoing her home. Tanja began to realize the importance of home and community.  It was probably the seeds of the project that was to come.

Tanja got a residency in the South of France even though she was done with landscapes. It was the first time in her life that she had a month off without working.  It was a gift.  She was living in this huge castle and began to take nude self portraits again.  Through that process she began taking photographs of the other residents in the program.  She even took photos of the tourists that came through area.  People would change in the photographs but she would use the same location. When Tanja returned to Maine she started having dinner parties photographing each of her guests around the table.  Sharing meals and photographing portraits gave her a sense of community.  She began to take photographs of her friends friends.  Cambodian immigrants started to come into Maine and she shot them too.  It was 2009/2010.  

Tanja had accumulated all these portratis but felt that there was something missing.  A good friend of her self-deployed to Afghanistan because he did not want to deal with his marriage that had gone sour.  She was really angry but wanted to be a good friend.  She began to write him long letters every Sunday.  It became a ritual.  She would listen to the radio while doing it and turn off all technology.  One Sunday that happened to be a New Years Eve she was instant messaging a friend in Jakarta while writing the letter.  Two totally different friends, completely different ways of communicating with them and her wheels started churning.  She got on Facebook and saw that she had 626 friends.  She began to do research about other artists working on social media projects including the definition of friends and family.  Tanja decided she was going to embark on a project to go visit all those friends and photograph each of them and let them tell their story about what it means to be a friend.  

She had zero money left and put her work up on a site where people would get a piece of her work at a certain price if they told her a great story about friendship.  She raised $10K.  She built an excel spread sheet of where everyone lived and started to tell friends what she was going to do.  Her one friend in DC totally got it.  This particular friend worked in the Obama administration who happened to be a photojournalist in war zones and now was one of the four photographers documenting Obama.  She went down to DC got a tour of the White House and took a photo of her friend in her apartment.  It was the first step of the project.  She continued her journey going to over 43 states and 9 countries taking photos of her friends and asking them what it means to be a friend.  So far she has taken photos of 354 people and stayed at over 100 homes.  She has two more states to go to and 11 countries.  

People have been insanely generous.  Tanja has also started to collect twitter feeds when people talk about friendship.  She recently landed an opportunity to show this project at MOCA in North Adams Massachusetts that will be installed in a few years.  What started out as a personal journey has become a global project about friendship, community and home.  How we build families, how our on line worlds connect with our off line worlds.  Her show was up at Jim Kempner this past fall and people would take stick-ups and write down what they think it means to be a friend.  

I love this project.  I am so glad I met with Tanja.  It is the merging of art and technology.  Super interesting, incredibly creative and so real.  How we communicate each other.  This is a link to her Facebook project.  Here are some of the post-its about friendship.  I am looking forward to the exhibit at MOCA and following Tanja on her journey.  Tanja has also begun to follow tweets around friendship that she has retweeted.  Watch her Ted talk above.  It is really insightful to see how Tanja concieved this project that needs to be shown as it is very much a social commentary of our times. 

Comments (Archived):

  1. AG

    Just fascinating.

    1. Gotham Gal


  2. Tanja Hollander

    Thanks so much Joanne – it was great to connect with you as well.