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Photograph by Rob Lindsay

Atmosphere and Landscape

I love when things exist in this ‘between place’. It’s the space between clarity and question, old versus new, fog or land, the place where you embrace what you don’t know.

by Megan Kelly

When I first meet Charlotte Terrell, she’s busy at work leaning over a painting, applying meticulous layers of linseed-oil glazing to the birch panel before her. A thoughtful and generous host, Terrell quickly welcomes me, but I come to understand that catching the artist working is common with Terrell, who says she paints “at least five days a week. I get up, I exercise, and then I paint.”

Lonesome Place (detail), Oil on canvas, 36” x 36”

Lonesome Place (detail), Oil on canvas, 36” x 36”

It’s a daily ritual of structure that makes sense as I spend time in her studio, where each item has its own place and hierarchy. “When I first began painting, a mentor told me that deciding to focus on painting was going to be work enough. I shouldn’t let my tools, my space, or anything stand in my way.” The result is a bright, tidy, organized space, one that lets the work speak before us and have dialogue with the others in progress around it. As Terrell explains, “Having a familiarity with my tools, my space, frees me to be open to image, to expand the painting.”

The same careful attention, balanced with the immediacy of working, is required for Terrell’s pieces, which start with generous layers of colored plaster spread with trowels. Like the Dutch and Italian masterworks she favors, the process allows Terrell to compose a base structure in shades and tints, a method of generating an underpainting that pulls from the historical painting tradition of grisaille. Using monochromatic approaches to developing a palette of soft, subtle grays and gentle warmth, Terrell lays down sturdy layers of plaster that visually feel velvety and supple. In this act of constraint, Terrell’s skill flourishes: she finds the act of joyful limitation in hue opens the composition of a piece. “I enjoy existing in the space where I can take a bit of this and blend with that, creating these magnificent grays that are responsive and individual to the piece.” Joyfully mixing as we speak, Terrell pulls her favorite hues to the surface, displaying an awareness of created, hand-mixed color that allows her to pursue an intuitive mode of working, complementing her sensitivity to atmosphere.

Without Strife, Oil on canvas, 30” x 42”

Without Strife, Oil on canvas, 30” x 42”

Before finding painting, Terrell worked in New York as a landscape architect, working on projects such as the restoration of Central Park. The work of reimagining physical spaces continues to be a major influence in her own work. The landscapes she portrays draw from memories of spaces and imagined atmospheres, from her own projects as a landscape architect to early memories of lakes and waterways. Moving into painting with fingers, cheesecloth, and badger-hair brushes—“tools that were already a part of my vocabulary” from a career of decorative and restoration painting—Terrell heightens the details in subtle ways, acknowledging an “acceptance of the sweetness of melancholy, of introspection and reflection” and relishing the ambiguity of the blur. “I love when things exist in this ‘between place’,” Terrell says, pointing to favored places on partially finished panels. “It’s the space between clarity and question, old versus new, fog or land, the place where you embrace that you don’t know.” It’s a romanticism to landscape that feels at home in a Jane Austen novel or Edith Wharton setting, creating sudden surges in tree trunks and brush that swim up, recognizable, from the painting’s misty shores, giving the viewer tiny places to inhabit.

Ideal Grace, Oil on canvas, 30” x 40”

Ideal Grace, Oil on canvas, 30” x 40”

Audience forms a fundamental joy for Terrell in painting, and she loves knowing how people respond to the work. When creating the landscape, “I am seeking the ‘Universally Familiar’,” Terrell says, “so I love hearing how the audience takes a cedar tree or a shoreline and writes their own narrative for it. I see Mississippi, while they see Italy. We each bring our memories to where we are when we look at the work.” It’s a purposeful moment of reflection that Terrell loves to encourage in audiences—to hear the work “through the language a viewer brings to it”—as much of her own act of working is based on the philosophy of giving herself “permission to be present here.” It’s no surprise that the resulting paintings feel both grounded and ephemeral, coaxing glistening color and fluidity from the plaster surface thanks to Terrell’s process of “feeding” the plaster and oil with glazes of linseed and Liquin. Terrell is completely present and absorbed when creating the ground, and, as a result, the space itself reflects that presence, calling for the viewer to find home within.

For the full experience of Terrell’s luscious glazing layers and subtle shifts in color, view her work during her solo exhibition at Bennett Galleries and Company in Knoxville, on display until January 2015. Her work is also carried by Bennett Galleries in Nashville, Pryor Fine Art in Atlanta, Quidley and Company in Nantucket and Boston, and Atelier Gallery in Charleston. Examples of Terrell’s current body of exploration can be seen at www.charlotteterrell.com.

My Joy Secure, Oil on canvas, 36” x 48”

My Joy Secure, Oil on canvas, 36” x 48”

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