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Model/Artist Terry St John: Figurative Drawings 1961-2001

 

An exhibition of figure drawings by the Bay Area artist Terry St. John will be shown at the Wiegand Gallery on Notre Dame de Namur University campus in Belmont, from January 18 through February 23, 2002. The opening reception is Sunday, February 10th from 2 to 4 p.m.

Terry St. John was born in 1934 in Sacramento, California. In 1966, St. John received his M.F.A. from California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Many consider Mr. St. John to be the true inheritor of the Bay Area Figurative tradition.

For over 20 years Terry St. John was a curator for the Oakland Museum. He is a leading authority on modern California painting. He taught the Outdoor Painter Project at University of California Santa Cruz for 12 years. He also was an art professor at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California where he taught from 1990 until his retirement in 1999. Terry St. John is one of the most widely exhibited painters living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has had numerous one person shows over the past 20 years, and has exhibited with Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco since 1991.

Mr. St. John is known primarily for his landscape painting, but his use of the figure has been ongoing. Some of his most recent work includes large-scale figure paintings, several of which are shown in this exhibition. Not only do we find figures in the landscape paintings going back to the nineteen-seventies but there is also a large body of figure drawings that extends to his student days in the late nineteen-fifties. This exhibition is intended to explore that particular body of work. For the most part, these drawings have acted as studies for the artist in his development of germinal ideas about space, composition, form and tonal values. A catalogue with 19 color reproductions is available.


Comments About the Drawings

by Terry St. John

 

This exhibition features a selection of drawings which were chosen from the periods in which I have been most active drawing. Until now, it never occurred to me to have a drawing show. For the most part, I have simply been satisfied to view them in my studio after they were created. Later I would put them away in a cabinet without looking at them again for long periods of time, often a decade or two. In addition to the pleasure of making them, they have allowed me to develop germinal ideas about space, composition, form, and tonal values. While working on paintings in my studio, this information has been invaluable, helping me to develop images that would have been otherwise impossible to create.

My comments about the work will be brief. They will be confined primarily to a description of how the drawings came about, in addition to some attempts to convey my emotional and formal concerns at the time of their creation. Also, I acknowledge the artists who made their studios available to the drawing groups I participated in. Graciously they provided a space for five or six artists on a regular weekly basis for long periods of time, often a year or two.

The earliest group of drawings in the show are from the early 1960s. During this decade, I frequently used myself as a model. These works were often a form of therapy, reflecting what was actually transpiring in my life. This can be seen in the earliest drawing in the exhibition (Self Portrait as Postman, 1961), which shows me unhappily in a uniform that I wore as a postman, a job which enabled me to earn money to keep my art efforts afloat at the time. Often, far more than 1 realized, I frequently captured the tell-tale intense moods that I was in. A year later, after I was married, I made a number of ink wash drawings on butcher paper of landscapes, domestic scenes, and still lives. These are less turbulent pieces and represent a more tranquil view of the world than the previous works (Landscape, 1964). From these pieces are the two Berkeley cityscapes which were done from a car on Telegraph Avenue near the campus, depictions that predate the tumultuous street activity that occurred there following the Free Speech demonstrations in 1964.

The nude drawings in this chronological grouping were all done in the mid 1960s in drawing sessions artist Bruce McGaw hosted at his Albany studio. It was here that I developed a specific direction that I have continued to pursue, producing work where the space in which the figure was placed became almost as important as the figure itself. In these works the model and her surroundings become part of a total image in which all pictorial elements are essential to the success of the drawing. With a Speedball pen, dark shades of ink and direct brush strokes on paper, I was able to develop drawings more rapidly than before, employing strong dark and light shadows to anchor the model to the picture plane. The shapes that I worked with often resemble a checker board of contrasting values, giving them the dramatic impact that I desired. At the same time, I discovered that strong lighting, with its attendant raking shadows, can radically transform a prosaic studio into a highly charged environment where mystery and moods can more easily be suggested.

The drawings of the 1970s were done in Oakland on the waterfront in a 5th Avenue marina studio of the late artist William Snyder. This was a wonderfully expansive space that Bill made available to our group at night time. The 'Noir' waterfront ambiance of the studio was reinforced by its proximity to spaces which were often dens of various illicit activities from counterfeiting to car chopping.

In addition to continuing to work primarily in black and white media at these sessions, I incorporated colored inks and watercolors in several drawings (Quick Studies of Susan nos. 1 and 2, 1978). These pieces show the interior of a painter's studio, stacked with canvases in the background, behind the model, who was illuminated by intense, huge overhead incandescent lights. These drawings, because of the fragmented and cluttered backgrounds, have a type of cubist complexity that I soon abandoned to return to a more direct abbreviated, visual approach.

The most recent work of the exhibition is from the last two decades. In 1993, Roy Schmalz, head of the Art Department at Saint Mary's College, and Charles Strong, Director of the Wiegand Gallery, were inspired by the 1993 Elmer Bischoff drawing show at the College of Notre Dame, which featured works by the late artist which were created in various drawing groups. Schmalz and Strong decided to start a new drawing group as a type of homage to the late artist. To do this they invited a group of artists to work at Moraga on Saturday mornings, artists who for the most part had either studied with him or knew him.

The sessions were held in a long and narrow studio full of numerous drawing tables and chairs. In spite of the cramped space, I found it a good place to draw, one in which the curves of the model contrasted nicely with sharply angled, rectangular furnishings. My initial drawings employed soft lead pencils on paper and featured an ersatz cross-hatching to obtain dark and light contrasts, contrasts which became greater as the weaving of pencil strokes became more layered during the rendering.

The second set of drawings were done on Stonehenge print paper, a soft, blottery type of paper with buff coloring. This print paper made it possible to get rich tones but proved very difficult to work with. The ink soaked into the porous sheets more rapidly than with the papers I had used before. Because of the special properties of this paper, I had to work more directly than in previous sessions. I soon developed a very rapid visual shorthand while depicting the model. The process was somewhat like cartooning because the Speedball pen lines delineated the models in blunt, caricaturing strokes. Also, due to the paper's absorbency, I had to apply many layers to get the dark tones that I desired.

The composition of the drawing group changed as well as the location. It moved to Suzanne Schumacher's Oakland studio. At first, I continued to work with Stonehenge paper, but soon decided to use Bristol paper, ink, brush, charcoal, white conte, and Speedball pen nibs to execute pieces that had some of the advantages of painting. They could be easily reworked, even collaged with pieces of unmarked paper, to eliminate unwanted areas. By this process I developed a way of working that allowed me to create a more complete image than in previous drawings.

When that session ended in 1999, 1 continued life drawing in my studio by hiring my own models. The image on the cover (Model Reading, 2001) is representative of the way that I am still working. I found the advantages to drawing by myself with a model of my choice are considerable. Among other things, I can select the pose that I want, the lighting that I want, as well as the length of the pose that I want. As for the future, I envision my drawings will continue to evolve as they have in the past, building on what I have created before.

 

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Wiegand Gallery at College of Notre Dame in Resource Library Magazine.


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