'Tanster' Pays It Forward for Women's Cancers

A subtle conceptual public art project
One of the Tanster’s paintings on a Southampton roadside

Artworks began appearing in public locations in and around the Village of Southampton in September. Spray-painted with a bright, glittery palette, some were abstract, some included letters and words, and some bore the stenciled face of a helmeted Valkyrie.

They showed up outside the Southampton Arts Center, the Golden Pear Cafe, and along Route 27, among other places. Embossed labels spelled out “@gemeinschaftprojekt,” but there was no artist’s signature. More often than not, the works disappeared soon after being placed in public. It had the look of a subtle conceptual public art project.

Anyone deciding to make off with one of the works, however, would find on its back a sheet of paper giving a partial explanation, beginning with “Please pay it forward to women with cancer.” Directions for payment by check are given, as is a link for paying online. The beneficiary is the Coalition for Women’s Cancers at Southampton Hospital. The label refers to the C.W.C. Tanster project.

The mission of the coalition is “to create and sustain a supportive network for women affected by breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers” by focusing on early detection.

But who or what is the Tanster? During a recent conversation at the Golden Pear in Southampton, the arrangements for which were straight out of an espionage novel, the Tanster revealed herself as a woman who prefers to remain anonymous.

She grew up and lives in Water Mill, attended the Sorbonne, graduated from Stony Brook University, earned a master’s degree in film production from the New York Institute of Technology, and worked for Getty Images.

She also does body work — before starting the current project, she fixed up and spray-painted old Vespas and Mercedeses. “I’m really into seeing how machines work,” she said. “I’m interested in Tesla, who was such a brilliant inventor but never received the recognition he deserved during his lifetime and died penniless.”

“ ‘Gemeinschaft’ means ‘community project’ in German,” she explained. “I asked myself, ‘Will I do better giving away or keeping my stuff?’ For me, nothing is proprietary. You want it, take it. Yesterday I put a piece outside the 7-Eleven, with their permission. I went inside to get my coffee, and when I came out it was gone.”

The artworks in public places are only part of the Tanster’s endeavor. Gemeinschaftprojekt, her Instagram feed, features not only artworks — she has produced more than 200 since September — but also photographs of cars, dogs, and whatever else strikes her fancy. On average, she posts three or four images per day and has more than 1,200 followers.

Will McLear, the owner of Ocean Graphics in East Hampton, came upon her Instagram feed and contacted her about sponsoring the project. The company has placed print advertisements on its behalf and will print the explanatory decals for the backs of the artworks.

The Tanster also shoots videos and posts them to her YouTube page. Many of these are short instructional videos such as “How to paint with screen-print stencil” or “How to spray a rainbow.” Others are animations, many in fast-motion, of the creation of her spray-painted works. One might also encounter a high-speed, 13-second motorcycle ride around Southampton.

“There’s a person in Northern Alberta copying my tutorials on how I make my art,” she said. “There’s a guy in Australia for whom it’s completely changed the course of his Instagram.”

The hospital is the only charity that benefits from the project. “It’s not just about sending money to the hospital,” she said. “It’s getting people into the frame of mind of giving. I really believe in what the hospital is doing. It’s a fantastic cause, and everybody from Hampton Bays to Montauk has a connection to it.”

Looking ahead, the Tanster hopes to enlist Volkswagen as a sponsor. “I’d like to paint a rainbow on a car and put the link to the charity on the side. People would photograph it, and their published photos would promote the charity. It’s the people’s car, and it has that hippie tradition of people painting their VWs.”