Terrill Welch is a Canadian artist living on Mayne Island, British Columbia. Internationally recognized, her paintings and photographs have been purchased by collectors and buyers in the United States, Australia, Norway, England, and Switzerland. In 2011, Skinny Artist recognized her among 21 artists to watch in its annual review. She has a popular blog titled Creative Potager.
Q: You were born in the village of Vanderhoof, a small town surrounded by forests and farmland in north central British Columbia, Canada. The town is dependent on the lumber industry. There is an abandoned telegraph line that was converted into a walking trail that runs for about ten kilometers from Hogsback Lake to Black Water Road. As a child were you curious about nature? Were you encouraged to take the time to observe your environment?
A: Many communities British Columbia have these kinds of public walking trails. It is one of the great pleasures of living in this province. However, these groomed and well-kept accesses to nature are not part of my childhood experience. We lived in one remote location or another most of my formative years. The trails around my home on the Stuart River which 27 miles outside of Vanderhoof consisted of those lightly blazed by my grandfather for his trap line, deer trails along the ridges of forested hills and overgrown old homestead roads. My parent’s farm is two miles from the main public gravel road with crown land on all sides of their 460 acres. There is 1.5 miles of riverfront on the home parcel. The environment is shared with moose, deer, fox, coyotes, lynx, wolverine, beaver, muskrats, mink black bear, grizzly bear in the spring and fall – to name a few of the neighbors. Therefore asking if I was curious about nature as a child is at first perplexing. I lived in nature. My mother’s reminders when I headed out were seasonal warnings such as “keep an eye out for that cow moose. She should have her new calf by now and will not want you too close.” Or “The berries have been frozen and are fermenting. Those black bear are going to be hung over and cranky. Give them lots of room and make lots of noise so they have a chance to wonder away before you reach them.” Taking time to observe nature wasn’t just a daytime activity. My mother on occasion would wake us up in the middle of the night to hear the wolves howling or to see the northern lights or maybe a particularly impressive moon. She pointed out plants and named them as we walked and if they were edible we tasted. She also pointed out the poison plants and mushrooms usually accompanied by a story with a fatal ending for some human who had consumed it. She would smell the air and tell us what weather was coming. To this day I acknowledge seasons as much by their smell as by the calendar. We learned the intricacies of each season by the natural world around us. The length of a day and the play of light changing from its angle on the horizon were all part of observing our environment. These are invaluable skills for budding a painter and photographer.
Q: Your training as an artist began at a young age when your mother decided to homeschool you. Was either of your parents an artist? What did they do to encourage you creativity?
A: My mother has always loved to draw and drew and painted mostly animals. She had made a whole set of cardboard cutouts with stands of the family herd of horses as child. They were beautifully painted with opaque poster paints. Her mother kept them as a family treasure. I was allowed to play with them carefully when I visited my grandparents. My father, though not artistic himself, enjoyed whatever we were doing and still does. As I got older and they saw I was serious about painting I received a large wood standing easel and from then on for birthdays or Christmas I often received quality brushes or paints.
Q: Who else during your early school years encouraged you creatively?
A: One of my first memories of other people enjoying my artwork and me realizing it was something that not everyone could easily do was when I was in first grade. During recess and lunch the older students watched over the younger ones in our rural classroom while the teachers took a break. These grades six and seven students would ask me to draw on the blackboard. I remember being puzzled why they would ask but would happily draw horses, cows, pigs, barns, rabbits, trees and so on. One day they forgot to erase them before the teacher came back. The teacher looked at the blackboard and said “who drew these pictures?” I was sure I was going to be in big trouble but put up my hand anyway. She commented on how good they were and how much she liked the way they were in proportion and so on. This was the first public recognition of my artwork. Since, in those early years, I was a child who did poorly in spelling, reading, and math it was my one equalizer in what was often a challenging environment for me even though I loved school and loved to learn.
Q: You have said that you realized you wanted to be an artist after seeing Van Gogh’s Cypress and Wheatfield. What was it about that painting that made you want to be an artist?
A: I was impressed with the way Van Gogh captured the movement of the wind and the breath of the trees in Cypress and Wheatfield. Even as a child of seven years old I knew this was special. This was my own experience of a much different natural landscape and it is very hard to express with a believable time and place in a painting. I wanted to do this. I wanted to be able to translate the fullness of my outdoor experience into a painting.
Q: Once-a-month you traveled to town to obtain new books from the library. You have said that you gave particular attention to the illustrations. Did you copy the illustrations you saw in books? What were some of your favorite illustrated books?
A: I didn’t copy illustrations from books I read or the work of any artist until later when it was part of an art study exercise in high school. I didn’t like colouring books either. I had rolls and rolls of newspaper print to cut big chunks off of and draw and paint what I was observing or thinking about. This was a practice that was encouraged by my mother and my father. It was communicated that I had my own drawing to do and I didn’t need to copy other peoples work. It was like a respect for the creative process and the work of others that a person didn’t copy but did their own work. As to favorite illustrated books from the library none now remain lodged in my memory—even though I can distinctly remember my mother reading not only the name of the authors but also the names of the illustrators when she was about to read us a story. There is an illustration and story that I do remember and it came in a newspaper called the Toronto Star Weekly and it was a cartoon “The Teenie Weenies” by William Donahey that had the best adventures of small people where teapots and the mice were bigger than the people. I use to make up extra stories about them using the cutouts and play with them out in the woods near the house. It is not that I remembered the name of the illustrator but rather I remembered the stories. I can only tell you the name of this illustrator because I am now able to look it up on the internet.
Q: Williams Lake where you lived is some distance from galleries or museums. How old were you when you first went to a museum or art gallery? Do you remember your immediate reaction to the paintings?
A: My first memory of seeing any painting first hand by a “real” artist was not one in a gallery. It was watching Cariboo Chilcotin landscape artist Hazel Henry (Litterick) painting en plein air in oils at my grandparent’s place along the Stuart River. At about nine years old, I watched and asked questions as she worked. She was trying to get the angle of the scow that was used to barge horses, cows and equipment across the river to sit at the right angle on top of the river in her painting. She gave the finished painting to my grandparents and I always noticed that she was never quite successfully resolved the problem of the scow. My actual first experience with what might be called a credible gallery of paintings was the year I was maybe fourteen years old and a traveling exhibition of paintings by Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871–1945) arrived in the town of Vanderhoof by semi-truck and trailer. I remember walking in this long narrow space and marveling over her paintings which I was familiar with from art books. Family members thought her work too dark and brooding to be enjoyable but I loved it. The sweeping engagement of her trees on the canvas as she struggles to capture the wisps of light the leaked in stubbornly through the rain forest canopy made my heart beat fast with desire and appreciation for our natural world. Now living on the southwest coast of Canada I understand these darker threads of expression that are so much part of her paintings. In my later teenage years I traveled to Vancouver and was taken to galleries by my aunt. Some of these establishments required a person to ring a bell to be let in. This experience was eye-popping and intriguing as an aspiring rural artist. I saw many styles of painting from abstract to representation including Chinese and Aboriginal art. However, the first time I was to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa Canada was in the fall of 2001. There were classes of school children shuffling through in one gaggle after another. I remember wondering if they knew how fortunate they were to see these paintings up close and personal, paintings that I had not seen except in books until then.
Q: Your training is more in the European style of mentoring and tutoring. Who were among your mentors and tutors that had the most influence on your development as an artist?
A: Yes the European style of mentoring and tutoring seems like the best way to characterize my self-selection of art teachers through a life-long adventure of learning and discovering art and creative expression. Early on and close to the completion of my final high school year one of my mentors and art teachers, Sheila Timmins, discouraged me from going forward into art school. She felt that because of my early learning of the backbones of drawing and painting at such a young age, art school would be tedious. In her opinion it likely wouldn’t have much new to offer. Even worse, it might undo some of the lessons that had become intuitive and automatic to my creative process. She suggested that I search out individual teachers and mentors to continue developing my painting. Reluctantly I agreed and rightly or wrongly this is the path my artistic career has taken. There have been many mentors as I pursued charcoal drawing , figure drawing, water colour painting and oil painting. These were mostly done during the winter along side a life filled with academic studies eventually leading to an undergraduate arts degree with a major in Sociology and a minor women’s studies. This was all rolled together with working in the social services field and raising two young children as a single parent. How I was able to continue my artwork, participate in group shows and hold two solo exhibitions of my watercolour paintings during these years is still a mystery to me. But it did happen.
Two other instructors besides Sheila Timmins are worth noting for their impact on my artistic development. The first of these is Watercolour artist and teacher Jack Peterson who I took evening classes with while living and working in Prince George B.C. He taught me to honour the relationship between the painting surface, the painting, and the desire of the artist while respecting the viewer’s need to complete the painting they are viewing. Watercolours painted on wet paper drive home the need to relax into this complex relationship and embrace the freedom of happenstance and a certain amount of mystery that comes with each painting.
The second instructor who still has a huge influence on my painting is that of artist and renowned Canadian teacher Glenn Howarth. I took three years of figure drawing and painting lessons with him in small classes of less than six students. During this time, I learned more about how humans see, and how that can translate into a drawing or painting than at any other point in my art career. I attribute the strength of my current work in oil painting and my photography to his insightful tutelage. I would still love to be working with him but unfortunately he passed away in the summer 2009.
Q: Were there any Canadian landscape painters, such as the Group of Seven, also known as the Algonquin School, that influenced you as you searched out the patterns and textures of your subjects and developed your techniques?
A: I of course was aware of the Group of Seven and admired their work but my daily teacher of patterns and textures was and is nature itself. I never go a day without noticing how the light falls or how it provides me a different view in the same location as the one I saw the day before. My conversations with my subjects are most often direct, unedited and raw. I have few conscious filters from the work of other artists that translate these experiences for me. This might be partly because these conversations were started long before I was significantly exposed to the possibility that other artists could assist in my understanding of what I was used to experiencing directly. So though I enjoy the music of another painter’s brushes on their canvases I tend to return to the subject itself if I want to engage in furthering my own exploration. There is one recent exception where as part of a special project I painted a painting using the images of other photographs to paint a place I have never been. It was a huge learning curve as I had to do extensive research to provide enough information on that location to satisfy my other senses and my sense of time and place in order to be able to paint. I learned a valuable lesson. I paint with my whole self and every bit of information I can gather on my subject and not just with my eyes.
Images are © Terrill Welch – All Rights Reserved
Recent Charles van Heck Articles:
- The Importance of Color and the Composition of Light: An Interview With Janet Vanderhoof
- Dispatches From Mayne Island: Lessons on Life, Death and Leadership
- Dispatches From Mayne Island, Part Two: Conversing with Stevens, Einstein and Carr
- Dispatches From Mayne Island: Meditations on the Writings and Paintings of Emily Carr - Part One, Possession
- Intimate Stories from a Two-chambered Heart: An Interview with Roberta Murray