Howard Terp­n­ing: Un­seen Gems

Howard Terp­n­ing gives Western Art Col­lec­tor an ex­clu­sive look at new works from his Tuc­son stu­dio.

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS - By Michael Claw­son

In 2016, Howard Terp­n­ing sub­mit­ted a sin­gle piece to the Autry Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can West for its an­nual Masters of the Amer­i­can West ex­hi­bi­tion. Few peo­ple knew at the time, but it would be his last con­tri­bu­tion to a ma­jor mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion and sale—the great Western mas­ter was re­tir­ing from gallery and mu­seum shows.

But it wasn’t a full re­tire­ment. “As long as I can hold a brush, I’ll keep paint­ing,” Terp­n­ing has said on many oc­ca­sions since then. The artist, who re­cently turned 90 years old, has not only lived up to that prom­ise, he’s also had two pro­duc­tive years in the stu­dio since his last Autry ap­pear­ance.

“I’m not mak­ing them as big as I once was, that’s for sure. They’re more com­fort­able pieces, medium works done in rea­son­able sizes,” he says from his stu­dio in Tuc­son, Ari­zona. “I’ll tell you though, I don’t miss the damn dead­lines. Not at all. When you have to have works for dif­fer­ent mu­se­ums and galleries and the [Cow­boy Artists of Amer­ica], it can make paint­ing feel like this big push that you were al­ways fight­ing with as you worked all day and into the night. Now I get to paint on my own sched­ule. And it’s a re­lief—my God is it a re­lief. I didn’t know how much I would en­joy it un­til I didn’t have to deal with it any­more.”

This new nor­mal is a bless­ing and a curse: a bless­ing for Terp­n­ing, who can en­joy a more leisurely pace in his stu­dio, but a curse for fans who no longer have a way to see his new­est paint­ings. To break this un­in­tended drought of pub­lic Terp­n­ing paint­ings, the artist has shared works cre­ated in the last two years with Western Art Col­lec­tor.

The works, just un­der dozen, have been sold pri­vately to ded­i­cated long­time col­lec­tors of the artist or have re­mained in the fam­ily col­lec­tion. And un­til they come to auc­tion, it’s un­likely they’ll be seen again any­time soon.

One of the first pieces Terp­n­ing cre­ated fol­low­ing his Masters ap­pear­ance in 2016 was A New Be­gin­ning,

fea­tur­ing a Na­tive Amer­i­can cou­ple on horse­back and packed ready to travel. “The In­di­ans had ro­mance when they were very young just like ev­ery­body else. Some­times a new

cou­ple would move away from their camp and pitch a crude teepee in the wilder­ness and live alone for a while, and that’s what’s go­ing on in this case. It’s a recog­ni­tion be­tween two peo­ple that shows how ob­vi­ously they’re con­nected both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally,” the painter says. “It’s some­thing I had never painted be­fore, a mar­riage or re­la­tion­ship in that way. I had taken a lot of pho­to­graphs one time up in Mon­tana up at a ren­dezvous that I was vis­it­ing. I stayed there for a few days in a teepee and had the op­por­tu­nity to pho­to­graph and record lots and lots of peo­ple. In the ma­te­rial I gath­ered at that event was a pho­to­graph of this young Black­foot woman who lived near Brown­ing. I used her as the model.”

The paint­ing fea­tures a com­plex idea—a man and woman in love, who de­sire to live alone dur­ing the hon­ey­moon of their mar­riage—and yet Terp­n­ing can express so much in just the faces, even just glances of the eyes. The goal of his work is to find those com­plex sto­ries and tell them in a way that is sim­ple and ef­fec­tive, but also in a unique way. “I’ve al­ways been very ab­sorbed in my thoughts about the Plains peo­ple, so I just search for these gems of ideas that come to me as pos­si­bil­i­ties. What­ever it is, though, it has to be read­ily un­der­stand­able for the viewer,” Terp­n­ing ex­plains. “For in­stance, I’ve been read­ing this book about the Co­manche, about how they would hold cap­tive white chil­dren in Texas. Any­way, the Co­manche loved to cut the tele­graph lines. They fig­ured out a way to splice horse hair onto the line af­ter they cut it so the line didn’t hang down. Of course, peo­ple would ride out to fix it and they couldn’t find the cut line and it would cre­ate quite a dilemma. I like this story but there’s no way in hell I could do a paint­ing of it that would fully ex­plain it all. So I’m al­ways on the look­out for things that are in­ter­est­ing and that can also be ex­plained eas­ily.”

In Black­feet Scouts in the Flat­head Val­ley, Terp­n­ing paints three Black­feet fig­ures peer­ing at a buck­skin bag that lies in on the bank of a shal­low stream. The men look puz­zled, but also cau­tious: could this be from a friend or foe? The bag’s ori­gins re­main un­clear. “In this case, the Black­feet would range all over, and they would send war par­ties or pa­trols into the Flat­head Val­ley. The buck­skin bag could have be­longed to an­other tribe, so out of cu­rios­ity they pick it up to ex­am­ine it,” he says. “This was ac­tu­ally on the Swan River in Mon­tana, quite a few miles south of Big Fork. I liked how the spring floods would change the land from year to year. We went down the river with a guide and took lots of pho­to­graphs; I was just search­ing for some­thing that ap­pealed to me and I found it.”

A sim­i­lar scene tran­spires in The Echo of Gun­fire, in which three Na­tive men search for the source of what may be their doom. “That was re­ally fun. It’s a canyon in the Big Horn Moun­tains. A river runs through the bot­tom and the sides slope up away from the river mak­ing these ver­ti­cal canyon walls. A ri­fle shot can echo through there just right,” Terp­n­ing ex­plains. “I had some great ref­er­ence of those fallen trees that I put to­gether with the fig­ures. And I re­ally liked the reactions of these war­riors. I know first­hand what it’s like to hear gun­fire and not know where it’s com­ing from.” Terp­n­ing knows first­hand be­cause in 1967 the then-il­lus­tra­tor went to Viet­nam as a civil­ian com­bat artist with the 1st Di­vi­sion, 5th Marine Reg­i­ment. Al­though jun­gle com­bat was cer­tainly new to him, the Marines were not— he had been a Marine in 1945 and 1946. “It had been only 21 years since I had been in the Marine Corps, so I felt very com­fort­able with these kids. I was an old man com­pared to them, but I was phys­i­cally fit at the time and they took me in and we did ev­ery­thing to­gether,” Terp­n­ing re­mem­bers. “I was still young enough and fool­ish enough to be in­volved, and the mil­i­tary just let me go wher­ever the op­por­tu­ni­ties al­lowed.”

Terp­n­ing, who ended up see­ing com­bat dur­ing his artis­tic de­ploy­ment, re­turned to The Echo of Gun­fire say­ing, “I just wanted to im­part that idea of anx­i­ety and ten­sion, of won­der­ing where the en­emy was and not see­ing them.”

Other new works take on a more tran­quil mood, in­clud­ing Beauty in the Field, a work that has strong im­pres­sion­is­tic el­e­ments in the green grasses around a del­i­cate fe­male fig­ure who is grasp­ing at pink flow­ers—“i just wanted to do some­thing that looked peace­ful and quiet, also sort of re­flec­tive,” he says—and The Artist, which shows a man paint­ing his war

shield in a shady patch of grass. “They would of­ten take a stick and cut the end ver­ti­cally, sort of chop­ping at it un­til the end would get these fuzzy bits of wood. It was a crude paint­brush,” Terp­n­ing says, adding that he’s never had to paint with a stick. “I also have never painted sit­ting on a buf­falo robe ei­ther.”

With Seek­ing Guid­ance from the Great Spirit, he re­turns to his great in­te­rior teepee scenes, for which he is well known. This one is filled with ob­jects on the ground, on the fig­ures and hang­ing from the teepee’s sides. The in­te­rior has a lived-in qual­ity as small de­tails fill the outer edges, while the mid­dle por­tion is largely empty, which al­lows two of the fig­ures and a mag­nif­i­cent pipe to cut won­der­ful shapes into the neg­a­tive space. Seek­ing Guid­ance from the Great Spirit and A New Be­gin­ning are likely the only two works seen by the pub­lic in the last two years—both have been made into lim­ited edi­tion can­vas prints by Fine Art Pub­lish­ing, the ex­clu­sive pub­lish­ing com­pany for Terp­n­ing’s works.

Re­cent stu­dio works also in­clude two por­traits, The Last Medicine Man and Three Tro­phies, which fea­tures a man wear­ing a buf­falo robe with three draw­ings rep­re­sent­ing scalps. “The Last Medicine Man is about Ge­orge Kick­ing Woman, the last medicine man on the reser­va­tion in Brown­ing, Mon­tana. I knew Ge­orge from a pe­riod around 1989 when the Green­wich Work­shop was do­ing a video of my work up in Brown­ing as well as other places. The pro­ducer of the video rented a he­li­copter and we went up on top of Chief’s Moun­tain, a sa­cred place for the Black­feet peo­ple. Ge­orge, even though he was get­ting older, had never been there be­fore and he fig­ured he would never get up there so he was very pleased to go with us and sit on top of the moun­tain,” Terp­n­ing re­mem­bers. Ge­orge Kick­ing Woman passed away in 2005, but Terp­n­ing fondly re­calls work­ing with him and paint­ing him.

An­other new piece, Work­ing for the Gov­ern­ment, is the spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to Terp­n­ing’s last Autry piece, The Honor of Be­ing Pipe Car­rier. Both works fea­ture Na­tive Amer­i­can rid­ers gal­lop­ing di­rectly to­ward the viewer down a hill as dis­tant fig­ures ride into the back­ground of the paint­ing. “I didn’t do the paint­ings to re­peat my­self; it was purely an ac­ci­dent. For this one, though, I put the Spring­field car­bine in his hand and had him wear­ing a scout’s uni­form as the cavalry ap­pears way in the back­ground with the flag,” he says. “It was fun paint­ing this one as he’s charg­ing hell-bent for leather down the hill.”

While this is a fairly com­pre­hen­sive roundup of Terp­n­ing’s lat­est works, it will quickly grow out­dated sim­ply be­cause he has no plans of stop­ping and, al­though in par­tial re­tire­ment, he can’t give it up. It’s the artist’s mis­sion to keep cre­at­ing. Books will be read, pho­to­graphs flipped through, sketches made and oil paint will find its way onto a brush once again. And even with­out dead­lines, Terp­n­ing has his call­ing and ever on­ward he marches. “I’m lucky,” he says. “Very lucky.”

The Artist, oil, 26 x 26”

Black­feet Scouts in Flat­head Val­ley, oil, 28 x 37”

The Echo of Gun­fire, oil, 36 x 42”

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