Why do the artists do what they do — Teresa Elliott
I became aware of Teresa Elliott’s work in 2012, when her painting ‘Deliverance’ has earned a top award at the 2012 Art Renewal Center International Salon.
It is a truly striking piece. Described with words, it’s a realistic work showing three adolescent children interacting in a natural pool of mud. One would imagine that a lot of mud in a painting wouldn’t necessarily involve a feast for the eyes in terms of interplay of saturated colours and light — but that is exactly what is enticing about this painting.
Seeing this one work made me curious about what else the artist could do — and so I went on clicking. I kept on clicking for a while, because my screen was overflowing with stunning images. Surprisingly, the majority of the images weren’t of humans — they were paintings of bovines. Depicted against the backdrop of dramatically lit skies, the close ups of the animals were painted with rich colours, capturing the beautiful coats and soulful expressions of the particular breed of cattle, Texas Longhorn.
The truth is, there is already a billion of images of animal art out there. Some of it is executed with exceptional skill and expressiveness, but otherwise there is not so much variety to the theme. After all, why should we seek a different perspective on how we look at animals? Animal art has always been — and will remain attractive because of the way animals look and the way they make us feel.
However, our relation to animals has changed. Long gone are the times when the animals were venerated as sacred beasts, feared and respected for their physical superiority, or valued as dependable working force. Technology has changed our world, and we are no longer living close to animals, wild or domestic. Some domestic animals are amusing us as pets, others are treated as little more than raw source for production of our food, clothing and fashion items — on an industrial scale. At the same time, the dwindling numbers of wild animals are surviving by the skin of their teeth on the outskirts of rapidly growing human settlements.
What makes Teresa’s paintings of longhorn cattle stand out and separate her from the other animal art artists is her understanding and the unique ability to convey the individuality of each animal. She doesn’t offer the opportunity to point and exclaim :”Look, how cute, fierce, quirky or beautiful they are!” No, they are looking at us in the same way as portraits of humans. Their eyes connect with ours, and when we feel the connection, we can also feel how these beings experience love and joy, loneliness, and fear in almost the same way we do.
Since I have been given the opportunity to ask the artist herself, I was looking forward to find out how and why Teresa Elliot chose her way.
Teresa’s started her artistic career as as an illustrator and graphic designer, and that gave her the confidence to figure out by herself how to paint using oils.
“After a disappointing 5 years in a 4 year college art program all through the 70’s I managed to keep my hand in the visual arts through free lance illustration in Dallas. My undying love for 2 dimensional art through illustrating in Dallas. Twenty five years later at 50 years old I tried to revive my original intentions to become an artist after I stumbled on April Gornik’s landscapes in a Dallas gallery. That triggered something in me, I felt a surge to move forward. Her cool atmospheric paintings were the perfect foil for the unbearable Texas summers, so not only did I feel uplifted, I was stirred to investigate. After some ridiculous attempts to do large landscapes without any real knowledge of how to build a painting I stopped to read some books on the subject and decided to work smaller. All my big grandiose landscapes were painted with too much stand oil and cracked. About that time a coal black longhorn with white horns sitting in dark green grass caught my attention near my house and that started an odyssey of animal art. I went back, climbed over the fence for a closer look at these gentle beasts and started on a series of cow portraits. I took them to a local gallery.”
A local gallery in Ft. Worth gave her a show in 2006. The show sold out — and soon she was selling her striking paintings of longhorns not only to locals, but to collectors around the country.
Teresa discovered the rewards of her artistic talent as early as in kindergarten: after drawing a bird, she found out she could get positive strokes — and that was a revelation.Although she has been always visually oriented, all that was available to her as an inspiration in childhood was Disney or magazines. Then, when in Chicago, she saw a painting of Rembrandt and Hopper’s “Nighthawks” which made an unforgettable impression on her. Since that moment, creating art became her driving force and her irreplaceable companion in life.
“It’s the need to connect to the world, the need for attention and to feel everything is going at the right speed. It happens mostly when I’m painting the face; everything seems to recede into the background except when I’m about to capture the essence of an expression.”
Her favourite part of creating is research and looking at art.
“After getting my reference materials I love the rapturous beginning of starting a painting. The middle is where the doubts come in, but by the end I’ve hopefully, tackled and forced the problems into submission. The last 20% or so is satisfying.”
When she works, she likes to have music in all four corners of the room, but sometimes she notices she hasn’t turned it on at all.
Her studio is situated in the hills of West Texas. It sits on a bed of ancient lava rock looking over a vast old ranch.
The studio is spacious and bright, with many windows and skylights. She also paints with the doors open so her dogs can come and go as they wish. However, while the dogs are able to get out , other visitors might walk in. Indeed, the wandering herds, deer and turkey are showing up frequently while she is ‘dancing’ around aided by her favourite piece of studio equipment — her large easel on wheels.
“ I fantasise about having a perfectly organised studio, but too much empty space must not be what I really need because no matter how much space I have, I’ll mess it up. I like to have everything ‘out’. My easel on wheels has to be my life saver — I’m either chasing the light or its chasing me. So, I move around the room trying to avoid glare and at night I turn on the overhead lights to paint by, then I move again. It’s a crazy way to work but I like it.”
Her choice of subject matter are purely personal and have no hidden messages or overtures. When she paints people, she mainly uses her daughter as a model, primarily because working with her feels very comfortable.
“ Any message in the resulting work with my daughter is collaborative; her input shows up most of the time in the work. Paintings of my daughter pretty much reflect her emotional state.
The animals represent my longing to have them always in my life. They are not self conscious and that makes them easily accessible and cows in particular are everywhere in Texas.”
Although seeing the cows everywhere is a common experience in Texas, Teresa came to experience something rather rare when she displayed her paintings of longhorns at the enclosed space of the exhibition.
“I was standing next to one of my calves at a museum show in West Texas when a tall old rancher said, “I wonna hug’im.” I was stunned. An experienced rancher would hardly say such a thing because the realities of raising thousands of cattle and and taking them to slaughter would not endear him to displays of affection. Yet, I hear this over and over about my animal art. I can only conclude that being raised in a family where physical affection was never expressed has revealed itself in the art.”
Important as it is to cherish those precious moments in an artist’s life, it is equally important to deal with challenges — so what are her challenges?
“Mood swings are forever something I deal with. I can have a really good day with lots of energy and positive feeling, then the next day it seems I have to pay a price for having a good day with lethargy and paralysis. It’s like I have no control. Also, if I come up against a particularly difficult passage in a painting and it’s not working out I can become quite hostile.
I thrash about with social anxiety which makes it stressful to show up for events. I do my best to cover that up, but beforehand I do some extensive suffering. Back in 2006 it was much easier, but now with social media it’s all I can do to keep from losing heart. With all that required of an artist’s time outside the actual picture making it’s easy to become overpowered. For the first time I see why the big timers have assistants. I would love to have help. That would lessen the loneliness inherent in the occupation and speed things along.”
Regardless of her personal challenges, Teresa’s -career has gone from strength to strength. I was interested to know what helped her on her way.
“Illustrating, being involved in marketing and meeting deadlines really helped prepare me for the necessary presentation of my work to the public. The business side of being a working artist is really important which I haven’t paid enough attention to. Networking, emailing newsletters are things I’ve unfortunately ignored. I’m better at it lately, but that would be my advice to any artist today: pay attention to ‘the other stuff.
A turning point in my career was being in my first figurative group show in Santa Fe. I became interested in people again. Although I had done countless pastel portraits before college at a theme park, I lost interest. Seeing figurative art in Santa Fe got my attention and renewed my interest, but this time in oils.”
She hasn’t had to seek the opportunities. In her opinion, doing the best work one can do is the best way to open new doors. Although she thinks social media can be a challenge, there is the good side, too — as a lot of opportunities are found there.
“I have two opposing views on this. Sometimes I see myself totally lost painting that results in original interesting work. No internet, no checking on what everybody else is doing. No influences. On the other hand, I want to know whats going on and that can be a bottomless pit and a real time eater. Truth be told, I will be always pay attention to other artists work. I enjoy it.”
I proceeded by asking whether she enjoys her own work in the same way — and whether she has a favourite painting she can name.
“My painting “Deliverance” is the one. I remember the afternoon many years ago I was watching my young nephews and my daughter bashing around in a gully full of rain water. I yelled, “STOP!,” and when they did, it was suddenly silent. They completely relaxed, and it was magical. I like it best because people had opposing views about what was really going on. I see that as a good sign that maybe it’s a piece of work that will have an afterlife, but who knows.
There are too many animal paintings that are favorites, but I will say “Sweet Talker” is one.”
Recently, the human figure has found its way back into Teresa’s work. In July this year, her recent painting “The Arrival” will be displayed at “Painting the Figure Now” group exhibition at the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin.
It seems to me that it doesn’t really matter whether Teresa’s subjects are humans or longhorn cattle. She approaches her often large-scale canvases with the confidence and subtlety that results in a powerful presence. The most important part is underlying invitation to share the moment of intimacy that connects with the viewer.
Personally, I wholeheartedly share the sentiment of the old ranger: I wonna hug’em, too.