As a kid in Houston, in the early '60s, Terrell James liked to lie in the grass and watch the sky. Sometimes she did it alone. Sometimes a bored friend would join her. The clouds billowed in the wind, and Terrell interpreted them: This one's a sailboat, that one's a bat's wing -- no, wait, now it's a white rhinoceros.
She grew up to be an artist. Usually she makes abstract paintings, and if this were an art review, it would tell you that her works show Cy Twombly's influence, or that they contain landscape elements, and generally involve transparent washes of color interrupted by scribbles or curvy hard-lined shapes.
But this isn't a review. It's a story about Terrell, and you will probably understand her art better if you imagine that she paints pictures of clouds. When you look at her paintings, you see this color or that shape. How you interpret them -- as a sailboat or a bat wing or a white rhino -- depends on you, and the precise moment you're looking. An eyeblink later, everything shifts.
In February "Ring of Seas (and Summers)," a show of Terrell's work, was hung in the black marble lobby of Wells Fargo Plaza, the curving green-glass skyscraper that towers over the corner of Smith and Lamar. Terrell liked the way the paintings looked in that dark, shiny, corporate lobby, so different from the white-walled galleries where her shows usually hang. She also liked to watch passersby pause in front of her work -- businesspeople between deals, enjoying their building's high-toned amenities. They were not the usual art crowd.
The show opened with a lunchtime party, and Terrell's husband, Cameron Armstrong, took a photo that shows a small crowd clustered around her. They were asking questions: What do the paintings mean? Is what I see what you were thinking?
At most art openings, you don't hear questions that direct. People might talk about technique or an artist's development or how the work relates to another artist's. Maybe, Terrell said, art people don't ask about meaning because they feel they already understand the work. Or maybe they're afraid of offending the artist.
But Terrell was happy to explain. Red August, the painting that greeted visitors to the show, began last summer when Terrell traced the tree-dappled light that late in the evening flickered through a wavy glass window and onto her canvas. "I wasn't making some big ideological point," she said. "Just transcribing. Later I thought about the end of the day, and the movement of the earth, and I realized that it's about the passage of time."
Galena, a line of ten rectangular steel plates, is also about time and nature. Terrell started with lots of the plates, and left a few in their factory-fresh state. Most she brushed with different combinations of household substances -- humble stuff, like salt, vinegar, Epsom salts or baking soda. She left the treated plates in her backyard, to be coated in dew, pelted by rain, or maybe covered in falling leaves. Some plates developed greenish patinas; others rusted.
In Mesa, squiggly forms that resemble sea creatures drift across a background of sandy, dry colors. As a kid, Terrell was fascinated by shells and fossils: ghosts of a time long past, records of a place that no longer exists.
At the opening lunch, the guests listened with interest. But weeks later the gallery guest book showed that not everyone was charmed. "Art," someone wrote. "HA!"
The comment amused Terrell. Obviously the writer hadn't understood her work the way she wanted it to be understood. But he'd at least tried to understand, and tried so hard that failure made him angry. He was moved to leave a record -- a record that in some ways resembles Terrell's paintings of her studio's afternoon light. They were both recording moments in their lives.
As the show was being installed, Terrell suddenly realized where, precisely, Wells Fargo Plaza is: at the corner of Smith and Lamar, catercorner from the site of her great-grandparents' farm. Her grandfather Jack Crowley liked to say he was born at that intersection. That was in 1895, when Houston was smaller than Galveston. Houston's downtown, about a mile northeast of the farm, was the kind of place where commercial buildings might proudly rise three or even five stories into the air.
By the time Terrell was a kid, her grandfather ran the family business, Southern Printing, at the site of the old farm. Terrell would visit him there, then cross Lamar to see the tile-roofed library. The Julia Ideson Building, as it's known, still stands, though it's no longer the library but the library system's repository of local history, a sweet old-fashioned place that seems barely related to the big '70s-built Central Library next door.
The intersection's low-rise commercial buildings disappeared during the oil boom; skyscrapers rose on the eastern corners. In 1980 Southern Printing gave way to a parking garage, and on the side of the unfinished garage, the Houston International Festival commissioned 24-year-old Terrell to install Sailpiece, a gigantic temporary sculpture. Against a humongous rectangle of safety netting, Terrell hung huge pieces of cloth of the sort then covering downtown Houston: tarps and nylon fire-proofing screens. The "sails" billowed in the spring wind. Depending on how you looked at the sculpture, you might see an oil economy moving full speed ahead, or an empire-building phase as transient as the wind and the construction.
Mayor Jim McConn saw a line full of laundry, and he complained about Sailpiece on news radio. It was Terrell's Giuliani moment: She was, briefly, the representative of Art Misunderstood by Yahoos. The Houston art world rallied around her, and someone even circulated a petition in her support.
But the controversy blew over, and after two months Sailpiece came down as scheduled. It survives now as three lines on Terrell's résumé; in photos taken by a friend; and as a Betamax videotape that Terrell keeps meaning to have converted. She's forgotten the kind of details that people tend to forget: exactly what year it was, and whether Sailpiece was one word or two.
In fact, as "Ring of Seas" was being installed, she drove past the parking garage without even thinking of Sailpiece. She was startled, in fact, to remember her grandfather: that he had been born right there, at that intersection. Weeks later she remembered Sailpiece.
"Ring of Seas" is about time and its cycles, about history recorded or fossilized, about places and things that disappear or change beyond recognition. Terrell realized with a jolt that her life kept returning to this particular place, each time new and strange. Her great-grandparents' farm, her grandfather's printing company, her own moment as a cause célèbre. All were gone, disappeared like the dappled light of a summer evening. When the people in the skyscraper lobby asked what the paintings meant, that was what Terrell tried to explain.
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