Working Boundaries: An Interview with Terrell James
Terrell James. Photo: Ashley MacLean
Terrell James is a prolific local painter, sculptor, printmaker, and creative working to a unique set of standards. She paints with conviction and her motivation for change and growth has gained her global recognition. James has called Houston home her entire life, and although traveling worldwide, she still remains a driving force regionally, working with organizations, museums, and institutions across the state. This May she was chosen as the 2023 Texas Artist of the Year by Art League Houston, along with Jesse Lott as the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award in the Visual Arts recipient and Poppi Georges Massey as the 2023 Texas Patron of the Year. Each year Art League Houston pays tribute to those whose work or patronage has had a significant and positive impact on contemporary visual art in Texas.
“These artists have influenced generations of younger artists and have contributed significantly to the visual arts in Texas throughout their distinguished careers,” says Art League Houston Executive Director Michael Peranteau. “Terrell James has been on a running list of artists for quite some time. We are honored to have them here in Houston and this is an opportunity to pay tribute and recognize them to the extent they deserve. I have known Terrell for a very long time and I’m excited about this round of awards and glad to have her as part of them this year.”
At the beginning of September, I was able to catch up with James to discuss the Texas Artist of The Year award, her history, and the importance of community engagement.
Paul Middendorf: Terrell, you have been an active component in the Houston arts scene for decades now. Having grown up here, you are so much a part of what is going on in the creative community. As I understand from my conversation with Michael Peranteau that you had one of your first shows with him some years ago?
Terrell James: One of my earliest shows during 1981 in Houston was the group show opening of Michael Peranteau and artist Max Pruneda’s space on South Almeda at the Center for Art and Performance. It predated DiverseWorks by a short amount of time. I remember telling Michael the two organizations should join forces; a piece in the Chronicle about DW’s first downtown Travis space came across my desk at the Archives of American Art, where I was organizing papers for the Texas Project, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
That first show included four artists. They included Terry Elkins, Fletcher Mackey, myself and the first ever show for Jesus Moroles. The opening was quite a spectacle.
Middendorf: Michael and curator Jennie Ash have been extremely active within the community. They’ve certainly made it an effort to keep their ears to the rails to know what is happening. How were you approached? What does it mean to you to be awarded Art League Houston’s Texas Artist of the Year Award?
James: Being named Texas Artist of the Year by the Art League carries a great honor. Such an impressive roster of artists have received the award. One of the first was my teacher, Dorothy Hood, the mother of Texas Modernism, now being reintroduced in an extensive museum exhibition and accompanying book, organized by Susie Kalil for the Museum of South Texas, in Corpus Christi. That organization houses the vast Hood archive.
Because Jesse Lott, one of my favorite artists, is receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award this year, I was especially enthusiastic about the timing. We have been friends since the 1980s. And it has been fun getting to know Poppi Massey. We have a lot in common, and I am looking forward to spending time with her.
Middendorf: To date you have exhibited across the globe. You are represented in Houston, Portland, New York City, and Dallas and have worked on projects in Germany, China, Peru, Mexico, and beyond. What is it that drives you to work on such an international scale and yet still remain local to Houston? How does this effect your work and direction?
James: New York is very important to me and I love having a place to show my work there. It allows me to visit the city regularly and often. How can one measure the value of seeing work in the museums and galleries in major cultural hubs? So much to see, to absorb. Of course it helps me think in new ways, and grow, in new ideas, more ambitious projects. I love Berlin, where we first met, when you had a project there; and I have been lucky enough to exhibit and work in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Now I have an opportunity to get to know London more through a gallery new to me that has invited me to join them. But my home is Houston and I am grateful to have great friends, a long history. You can’t replace that rootedness to a place. A significant part of my work here is with Hiram Butler. We share a vision and friendship that goes back to the first week he moved to town. So many of the opportunities for my work to move from city to city comes through Hiram.
Middendorf: It seems from your resume that you aren’t just a painter. You have worked on several large scale installations and been involved in many interdisciplinary projects. You seem to take a bolder approach to painting by being so involved in many different forms. Where do you feel this comes from? How does this play into your overall approach to presenting to the viewer?
James: Just a painter! Well, it’s true. I am known for working with a variety of mediums and materials. Print making has always been a favorite, since woodblock work in teen years. There’s a surprise element in pulling a print, because the touch is not immediate, as it is in drawing or painting. There is something magic that happens between the work you do and the press itself. A change, often a gift.
I’ve worked at shops in different parts of the country, and for several years, in Berlin. Traveling to work at different facilities is a great way to know the other artists, working along side them, and collaborating with the printer makers.
About twenty years ago I started making sculpture in wax and later bronze. Then in clay. First unfired, almost like finding the shapes three dimensionally that I had been painting for decades. And a new kind of information came to me, by being able to turn the shapes, see shadow and depth in the chambers and holes through the forms. This jumped right back into my two dimensional work with a new energy and clarity of the things in the paintings.
I was invited to work by the master ceramist, Hiroshi Sueyoshi, at the Panco Clay Center, Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina. A series of vessels were the result, after a two year process. He said he invited me because I brought to life the spirit of the clay. Other artists in clay impose their will on the material, but that I “listened to the clay.”
Working on large walls, indoors and out, has also been liberating. I thank Mariana and Nestor for the chance for me to have an ongoing mural across at AvantGarden, one of the coolest places in town. I like being able to infiltrate earlier marks, to repair and recast the piece that now is about ten years old. One painting on a wall in the artists’s village Songzhuang, Beijing, called the East Village of Beijing, was completed then blown up with dynamite the next day. This was an ongoing constantly shifting group installation, and I was pleased to be invited to the beautiful decay and creative chaos all around us. So the shifting, the temporal, is another sensate venue of my work.
Probably, I have a natural curiosity in what the different materials, some new to the market, will allow, will foster. Every new kind of paint, well, I want to try it, to see what properties it has that make it different. Children gravitate toward other children in a public place. Dogs need dogs. Artists need supplies, new experiences, for the joy of it. This can lead to some confusion for the viewers. But given time, one’s work comes together and even makes a sort of sense.
Middendorf: With your long career as an artists you have also played a key role within the Houston art scene. You have sat on boards, taken the role as editor for publications, and been on committee after committee. Where do you find the time and how do you feel this cross pollinates with your career as an artist?
James: I have been interested in the arts in Houston for as long as I can remember. Seeing the city expand and reinvent itself into the dynamic place it has become since my childhood has been exciting, even astounding. After all, you, Paul, moved here. Can you say why?
Middendorf: Uh oh Terrell, you are breaking protocol. I’ve been here in Houston now for just shy of six years. There are few cities that I would use the word enchanting. Houston is one of those cities. Lawndale Art Center brought me out when I was living in Portland Oregon, to jury the Big Show and I fell in love. You and Lawndale had thrown some lovely mixers where I met some of the greatest people I have known. Houston has such a small town feel to it for being such a large city and everyone here was so collaborative in nature. I had already been thinking about expanding my projects and moving to Houston was the perfect direction. It really is an amazing city for making things happen. So lets get back to you Terrell!
James: Being a talker, an explainer, in some ways I think I am a born educator. We are all part of the chain of work, the teachers that have steered each of us, and I think of this as a continuity of tradition. And of knowledge. Philip Glass once said that he is only eight generations from Beethoven. So, as a teacher in the painting department at the Glassell School for thirteen years, and filling in here and there both at Rice and UH, I feel like I am part of an important continuity, not to mention that teaching has taught me as much as my myriad students.
The same goes with my participation one boards over the years, especially DiverseWorks and Gulf Coast/Art Lies, helping steer the growth of the various non-profit organizations. Engagement with other artists, writers, performers, is key to my own thinking and practice. We all need to talk to each other, to explore new ways in to the creative. That’s how we learn and grow and come up with ideas together.
As the 2023 Texas Artist of the Year, Terrell James will be featured in an exhibition in the Art League Houston Main Gallery from September 30 - November 19, 2023. Art League Houston will also present an exhibition in the Art League Houston Front Gallery featuring a survey of works by 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Jesse Lott. All three awardees will be celebrated at the 2023 Art League Houston Gala, hosted at Hotel ZaZa on Friday, October 14.