Arts / Galleries

This Fourth Generation Houston Artist Captures Nature In Enchanting Oil Paintings — Terrell James On View

Time and Tide at the Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery

BY // 06.21.24

Terrell James has loved art since the age of four while studying at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s then Museum School, now the Glassell School of Art. A fourth generation Houstonian and seventh generation Texan, James’ family has a rich connection to Texas.

“My great grandparents’ farm was located where the Downtown Public Library is,” James says. “That was before I was born, 120 years ago.” 

James was named Art League Houston’s Artist of the Year in 2016. Her artworks are included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Menil Collection, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. recently acquired James’ Field Study #725 (2018).

James’ latest Houston exhibit dubbed “Time and Tide” is showing at the Josh Pazda Hiram Butler gallery through June 29. It continues James’ lifelong passion for art and decades-long association with gallerist Hiram Butler. The scale of James’s artworks, richness of her color palette and love of nature in all its forms are beautiful aspects of the artist’s oeuvre.

terrell-james-portrait-2018-2
Artist Terrell James. (Photo by Wolf MacLean)

“The paintings are less atmospheric and seem to refer to landscape more specifically,” James says. “They are still abstract, but it’s not like the painting is a window to a specific view.” For James, who usually works on four or five paintings simultaneously, the artworks naturally evolve together and engage in conversation.

James cites a few artists who inspired her in the studio as she worked on the painting series assembled for “Time and Tide.” She mentions Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s seascapes.

“He has these beautiful paintings where the water is lapping towards the shore, and there are these strange sort of organic sea shell shapes at the edge of the painting,” James notes. 

She sees two of her own paintings — Imminent Day (2024) and Tide (2024) — as connected to these seascapes. In addition to Munch, James’ short list of inspirations for these latest paintings also includes painters Milton Avery, Marsden Hartley and the late Canadian artist Matthew Wong.

“I also love George Bellows’ seascapes — the energy and compression of the rocks and spray of water,” she says.

Terrell James's <em>Tide</em>, 2024. Oil on linen. (Courtesy Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery)
Terrell James’s Tide, 2024. Oil on linen. (Courtesy Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery)

Sometimes, a Terrell James artwork elicits a humorous response. “How in the world have you managed to paint a mink pelt?” quipped artist Carl Palazzolo after viewing James’s painting Groundswell (2023).

Of the amorphous brown form in question, James notes: “It’s really tricky because part of it is opaque and part of it is transparent. It looks like the movement of fur.”

Other works like Mother (2023) evoke earth forms, geological structures and a sense of gravity. With Peninsula (2023), it is easy to imagine blue ocean waters, shifting tectonic plates and continental drift over time.

James reveals that she is planning a series of paintings inspired by Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. Whereas Impressionist painters like Corot, Renoir and Monet painted en plein air, meaning outside, Post-Impressionist Bonnard often painted from memory or a photograph. 

“I am now enthralled by his color and garden views thanks to seeing ‘Bonnard’s Worlds’,” James says of the Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum exhibit. “My newest work is going to be considering the color of Bonnard and some of the energy of his gardenscapes.”

Groundswell, 2023, Oil on Linen, 58 in x 48 in
Terrell James’s Groundswell, 2023. Oil on linen. (Courtesy Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery)

In addition to valuing the work of other artists, Terrell James has always valued the Houston art community and friendship. James holds the late founding director of the Menil Collection Walter Hopps and Caroline Huber, his widow and the former director of DiverseWorks, close to her heart.

“I learned a lot from Walter and Caroline,” James says. “He talked to me about my work a lot, and we had a lot of fun together. Hopps gave me a lot of insights into how my work fit into the bigger context of 20th century art.

“We used to go have lunch together quite a bit. He would tell these amazing stories about his encounters with important artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Clyfford Still, all kinds of friends of his, and his involvement with Rauschenberg. He was very close to Dennis Hopper too.”

James’ Field Study #473 (2008) was included in the Clare Elliott-curated “The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps” exhibited at The Menil Collection in 2023.

In 2004, Hopps wrote an essay in which he described James and the late Virgil Grotfeldt (another dear friend of James’) as the two best gestural abstract artists in Texas. Hopps also noted how James “has mastered a lyric freedom usually seen in watercolor, rather than in oil.”

In her posthumous tribute to Hopps, James noted “how much he respected artists,” always considering how museums could better support creatives.

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Terrell James’s Field Study #473, 2008. Oil and collage on vellum. This artwork was featured in the exhibit “The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps” at The Menil Collection from March 24-August 13, 2023. (Courtesy The Menil Collection, Houston)

One constant within the ever changing Houston art scene is the friendship and camaraderie between Terrell James and Alison de Lima Greene. Currently the Isabel Brown Wilson curator of Modern Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, de Lima Greene has known James since they were both in their twenties.

“She brings a spirit of adventure to art, and the nature of her work is very open to many audiences,” de Lima Greene says. As she observes, James grounds her work in an appreciation of nature and “viewers connect to it easily, even on an intuitive level.”

Although Walter Hopps and de Lima Greene both view James’ work in terms of gestural abstraction, the latter also sees James as belonging to a lineage of groundbreaking abstract artists. Discussing James from an art historical perspective, de Lima Greene mentions two esteemed painters: Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife.

“Just when Terrell was coming of age as an artist, we did a retrospective of Lee Krasner,” de Lima Greene says. “I think seeing a huge show dedicated to a woman artist at the top of her game was very important for Terrell.”

The 1983 exhibition, curated by late art historian Barbara Rose, was Krasner’s first retrospective.

Although James and de Lima Greene met through art, the legendary curator values something that has more to do with life than art.

“Our shared friendship over the decades has been one of the most precious of my life,” de Lima Greene says. 

The exhibit “Terrell James: Time and Tide” is on view through June 29 at Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery. The Gallery is located at 4520 Blossom Street. For more information, go here.

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