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