Eiteljorg Museum

Indianapolis, IN




Seeing What the Heart Knows: The Art of Howard Terpning

April 21 - May 20, 2001


Once in awhile, we mere mortals have the chance to meet a person who is destined to be remembered throughout history. If circumstances are ideal, we will meet him amidst his best work, surrounded by admirers, peers and well-wishers. Such a chance will come in April, when artist Howard Terpning, 73, and 30 original paintings hand-picked by the artist come to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.

Ostensibly, Terpning's visit to the Midwest will be to receive the Eiteljorg Museum Award for Excellence, which recognizes a lifetime of achievement by an artist. He will be only the third artist to receive this award, after Wilson Hurley (1991) and Kenneth Riley (1993).

At the same time, the Eiteljorg Museum will open the exhibition Seeing What the Heart Knows: The Art of Howard Terpning, which runs for only one month, April 21 through May 20. At a deeper level, however, Terpning's visit is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for people to stand in the presence of greatness.

Former curator of collections, Robert B. Tucker Jr., and John Vanausdall, Eiteljorg Museum president and CEO, persuaded Terpning to do this exhibition. Sadly, Mr. Tucker died unexpectedly on June 16, 2000 (at age 41). The exhibition will be dedicated to his memory.


The storyteller

Terpning has received more accolades than has any Western artist painting today. He has won more than 20 gold and silver medals, including five Colt awards and a Stetson award from the Cowboy Artists of America. He won the Prix de West award from the National Academy of Western Art and the first $250,000 Hubbard Art Award for Excellence. But nothing means more to this quiet, unassuming man than the respect he has earned from Native Americans, the subject of his work for the last quarter of a century.

Plenty of artists have painted Native Americans and scenes of Native American life. But no other artist has earned the title of "storyteller" among the Native peoples of North America. He has be granted this honored title because of the care he takes to portray his subjects accurately. Ray Gonyea, curator of Native American art and culture at the Eiteljorg Museum, explains why accuracy is so important to many Native Americans. "The public has a stereotypical image of Native Americans that they've derived from Hollywood movies and from artists who didn't care whether they painted an Iroquois from the East in the dress of a Native American from the Plains," Gonyea said. "In contrast, you can look at any Howard Terpning painting and see that even down to the smallest details, he accurately reflects the people and the time represented in the work. This is the way it ought to be done."


Hallmark of accuracy

Terpning has painted since he was in his early 20s. He documented Vietnam War scenes as a civilian combat artist, a "harrowing experience," he told the Eiteljorg's president and CEO, John Vanausdall. He painted movie posters (including The Guns of Navarone and a reissue of Gone with the Wind), created advertising art and illustrated stories and articles in such publications as Ladies' Home Journal, Reader's Digest and Time. In his mid-40s, tired of painting what other people told him to paint, he began painting for himself. Among his first portraits was one of Sioux Chief Gall, done for his daughter Susan. But it wasn't until he was nearly 50 that Terpning realized what intrigued him most were Native Americans. Living in what used to be Apache country, he began studying historic photographs of American Indians, fascinated by the differences among tribes. As his respect for them increased, so did his sense of duty to portray them as they really were.

Terpning has remained true to that duty throughout his career, spending time researching his subjects and visiting the scenes of historic events. He keeps a personal collection of Native American artifacts for reference and uses contemporary Native Americans as models whenever possible. In every painting - in the faces of the hunter, the storyteller, the medicine man, the widowed woman - Terpning's respect for the human beings who are Native Americans is lovingly detailed. And his compassion for the cultures that were nearly obliterated comes through subtly, without sentimentality, but with strength.

"We could have learned so much from the American Indians, if we had had the interest to listen to them and pay attention to them," Terpning is quoted in The Art of Howard Terpning. "... We could learn to pay more attention to what goes on around us, to cherish our environment and not abuse it the way we do."


A rare treat

Terpning has completed more than 300 paintings of Native Americans. However, Seeing What the Heart Knows: The Art of Howard Terpning is not a retrospective. It is an exhibition of 30 works, nearly all of which are held in private collections across the country, that the artist personally selected for display at the Eiteljorg Museum. It is only the second one-man show Terpning has agreed to. (The other was at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., in 1985.) Terpning and the Eiteljorg Museum also plan to unveil a new painting at the award ceremony on April 19.

"The show of my work at the Eiteljorg Museum will be a proud moment for my wife and me," Terpning wrote to the Eiteljorg in the fall of 2000. "We will have the opportunity to see many of my paintings - which are old friends - that we haven't seen in years, and we will also have the pleasure of seeing so many of our wonderful friends whom we have grown to know and love...To put the frosting on the cake, I can't imagine a more beautiful museum to exhibit my work in than the Eiteljorg Museum."

John Vanausdall adds: "Howard Terpning has developed a well-deserved reputation as the leading contemporary figure in traditional Western art. A major one-man show of Howard's work has not been assembled since the mid 1980s, yet the quality and compelling nature of his images has continued to grow to near perfection. The Eiteljorg is proud to present Howard with its rarely given Eiteljorg Award for Western art. Through the accompanying major exhibition, the museum hopes to capture for the public in one place at one time the breadth of Howard's extraordinary vision."


Quotes concerning the artist

"As the millennium approaches, the art work of today's finest artists will be compared, critiqued and catalogued. In the end, only a handful of names will be recalled as the best of the 20th century. That list of masters will no doubt include the name of Howard Terpning." Quote from "Putting Heart into History: The Art of Howard Terpning" by Diana Comer, Cowboys & Indians magazine.

"Among all American artists painting the West today, who will be remembered - perhaps revered - 100 years from now? A good bet is Howard Terpning." Quote from "Howard Terpning, Storyteller" by Don Dedera, Southwest Art magazine, September 1989.

"Howard Terpning has received more accolades than any Western artist painting today - and with good reasons: He is a master storyteller. Each of his paintings is a significant work, and his accurate and sensitive depictions of Native Americans will tell their stories for many generations to come." Quote by Thomas F. Tierney and Allen J. Duerr in "Masters for the New Millennium" by Vicki Stavig, Art of the West, November/December 1999, which named Terpning as one of 12 artists "whose work will live on into the next millennium and beyond."

Read more about the Eiteljorg Museum in Resource Library Magazine

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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