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. This is the second half of our two-part conversation.
Q: Emily Carr lived, painted and wrote in British Columbia. Her style was modernist and post-impressionist. Her earliest paintings are orientated toward aboriginal themes. In her later years the land, particularly the forest became her subject matter. Your interest in chronicling British Columbia seems to run parallel to Carr’s. How much influence has Carr had on your work?
A: If I had to name one master artist who has had the most impact on my approach to art it would be Emily Carr. It is not her painting style that has influenced me so much but rather it is her approach to her subjects and her struggle as an artist that give me inspiration and resilience on those days where frustration or doubt lurk to keep me from picking up my brush or lifting the camera up to my eyes. I didn’t know that she wrote for many years and once I discovered her writing I read everything that has come into print. We have many things besides painting and this beloved coast in common. We are both dyslexic which can make writing a challenge particularly in the days before spell-check. We were both able to settle into painting full-time in our early fifties. We both prefer our own company in nature to that of anyone or anyplace else.
Q: The landscape artist Tom Thompson would often disappear for days searching for the perfect location to sketch a scene he already had mentally formulated. Do you find yourself doing that when you go about with your camera or sketch pad?
A: Since I have the good fortunate of living on the doorstep of my subject I don’t really have to disappear to focus days, weeks and months on painting and photography. Or maybe I am mostly disappeared and just don’t think of it this way. Photography seems to fit easily into almost daily long walks with the editing being done late in the evening. This photography schedule however doesn’t work as well for me as painting time. I like to have chunks of time for painting and frequently set up what I call “painting days” where that is pretty much all I do. This is particularly necessary if I am working on a large canvas of 26 x 36 inches or larger.
Q: Though there is orderliness and smoothness to your lines, there is also intensity to your technique that captures those jarring notes we often observe in nature. In this paradox, your lines capture the quietness and harmony as well as the violence of the natural world. Have you spent a lot of time studying the expressiveness found in different types of lines?
A: Nature has no mood. We transfer a mood to it. What it has is movement and light that gives us clues to how we might experience it. Our representations of these clues in a painting do not come from exact replication or an attempt to perfectly render a picture of a subject. The replication tells us what something is but gives us few clues about how we might experience it. The experience of the subject is expressed through the use of line and the movement of the brush. To do this I do not study what lines mean and then try to replicate them as in a mathematical formula. Instead, I immerse myself in my exploration of the subject. If you could read my conversation with myself it might go something like this:
I can feel the wind on the water. Yes, right here. If I were this rock what part of me is being warmed by the sun, slapped by the sea and hidden below the surface? As that tree what do I notice about today? How does this fit with what I experienced an hour ago and yesterday? Where is the sun? Where is the influence of the moon? What might I smell or have smelled. Where are the tensions? Who do I want to be as the viewer? Where do I want to be viewing from?
All the while I am having this conversation my paintbrush is working the canvas up answering me in brushstrokes rather than words. So lines in my painting are an intuitive language used to communicate between my subject and the painting’s eventual viewer.
Q: Both your paintings and photographs reveal faithfulness to the effects of movement and light of the natural world. At the same time there is spontaneity of fragmented touches of vibrant colors. This brings a balance of robustness, sensation and perception to your paintings as you capture the uniqueness of a moment. How would you explain your method—its chief characteristics?
A: Rather than attempting to replicate the visual scene or subject I see my job as allowing you to feel it within the core of your being. To do this I must find a way to develop an engaging impression of my topic so that the viewer is enticed and invited into the painting or photograph in such a way that in their viewing they are experiencing and completing the work with me. My goal is to leave the viewer with hints as to what is going on within and beyond the edges of the picture frame. The painting or photograph, even if it is tranquil and still on the surface, absolutely must run deep within the viewer’s psyche. My method to achieve this goal is simple. I must show up fully and completely myself. I must be naked and vulnerable in my painting and photography. There are no tricks or easy steps – unless it is to follow ones breath. But even then I must notice that I am breathing.
Q: The sky is important to most of your work, as is the movement of the sea. In a letter to the art critic Adolphe Tavernier, Alfred Sisley stated, “The sky cannot merely be background. On the contrary, it contributes not only through the depth given by its planes, it also gives movement by its form, by its arrangement in harmony with the effect or composition of a picture.” Are you using the sky in the in same manner as Sisley to create a realism of depth?
A: Yes, very much so. We can only really understand natural light by understanding the sky. It changes everything within seconds and sometimes less than seconds of what is around us. I once noticed a photograph that was very beautiful but something was odd. Something in the photograph grated on me. Then I read that the photographer had changed the sky because it was overcast and it was the only day they were able to photograph this particular historic site so they change the sky to one of a blue sky with light cloud. However the reflections in the water did not fit with the sky and neither did the light and shadows on the foliage. So the photograph was like a song being sung out of key even though the lyrics were very beautiful. Last week I was doing a small plein air painting and in total of 30 minutes the water had changed colour three times because of how the clouds were moving across the sky. If a sky works well in a painting it is one of the first clues to the viewer about the depth and perspective of the painting or photograph. If a nature photographer or painter does not pay homage to the sky I believe their work may suffer from this oversight.
Q: You have described yourself as “a woman living a life of simple abundance.” Generally speaking, is your work about inviting your viewers to open their eyes to see the abundance around them? What do you want the viewer to experience?
A: Possibly there is an invitation in my work for the viewer to open their eyes but I would be remiss if I stopped only at an invitation to open eyes. I want to evoke the viewer’s curiosity and wonder about the world around them. I want to leave the viewer pondering and feeling as if a promise of a possibility for visibility and acknowledgment has been answered. I want this because this is the gift I have been given in my relationship to the world around me. It is a precious gift but one with infinite abundance. It is there for all just because the sun came up as the earth turns around it. All the human problems of life, death, greed, hunger, thirst, sickness, and violence become much smaller when seeing a blue heron soaring over the sea – not insignificant but smaller. The collapse of Wall Street seems like the brutal games of unruly children and a foolish way to occupy our time in what is after all a short time we have to spend living a life. I want my paintings to provide this kind of perspective to the viewer as if they were walking beside me on that beach in the painting or photograph.
Q: In a letter to Louis Arenche, Cézanne wrote, “Nature for us is more depth than surface.” Years later, he stated“. . .one can never be too submissive to nature.” There is a spiritual quality of awe and wonder to your paintings. In your work, you seem to inviting your viewers to probe beneath nature’s surface as you translate its mysteries, conflicts, and paradoxes to canvases, and as a writer. What understanding of nature are you attempting to achieve as you study and paint your environment?
A: We each have something we do well and that is ours to give back to the world. Mine is a life-long love affair with the natural world around me. My environment provides a place of vulnerable detachment for me. I sometimes muse about what it would be like if it were 300 years ago and I must find shelter for the night and my feet are bare in the evening chill. Nature can be deadly if not respected. I think we humans are beginning to discover this again in a grand way from our overall societal disrespect for the natural laws of land, sea and air. There are limits. Not even the sun will burn forever. At the same time, pondering endlessly on an end that is sure is to miss the way a wisp of mist is weaving through the tops of the fir trees in its dance that is most common yet each is uniquely different. This is the tension between death and life and our living swings precariously in the space between them. This must be evident in some manner in a painting if it is to breathe on its own.
Q: During the 2008 election, Stephen Harper stated that ordinary people don’t care about art funding. The federal government cut $45 million from the federal arts budget prior to that election. British Columbia also made deep cuts. Since then, both Ottawa and the provinces have further reduced funding for the arts. If you were given the opportunity to address the House of Commons, or to have a private meeting with the prime minister, how would you define the role of art in the lives of ordinary people? What is the role of art in society?
A: I at first irritably wonder just how much Stephen Harper knows about the ordinary people of Canada. But then I ask myself what if he is right? What if the ordinary Canadian just trying to get by doesn’t care about art funding? Then I ask myself should art be publicly funded? If it wasn’t would art disappear? Would there be no more plays, no more paintings, no more song writing or music? The answer is no there would still be all of these expressions of art but they would likely not be as easily accessible first hand by ordinary Canadians. This is the crime that is committed in these funding cuts – accessibility. Would Mr. Harper be able to say that ordinary Canadians don’t care if they have access to the arts because of art funding? This would be a different more accurate question I think. So if I had a chance to address the House of Commons I would ask these questions.
How old were you when you first went to a public art gallery? What is the last live play you watched? If you could take your children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren to one live musical event this summer which would you choose? Who was your favourite poet or writer to listen to as they read their work out loud? What do you think your answer would be to these questions if you were an ordinary Canadian and there was no art funding? What might you have missed? What might never have been created? Would you care? If as an ordinary Canadian you could choose between funding the building of war jets and sending our citizens to fight in Afghanistan or a summer evening listening to a full orchestra or your favourite singer or see a play under the stars which would you choose? There may be no conclusive results or agreement in answers to these questions but I believe we do care as ordinary Canadians about art funding. In fact I believe we care deeply about art funding. What these cuts disrupt is accessibility not the expression and passion or commitment of ordinary Canadians for the arts. Creative expression and enjoyment are necessities like potable water, clean air and organic food. If we don’t have access to these basic requirements eventually the suffering becomes visible like moth-eaten holes in our societal fabric.
Q: What advice do you have for young people who are just beginning to explore their artistic talent?
A: There is always a way to do what you must do. Find the means, the time and the mentors and do.
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