Terri Hallman: Moving Forward
I can be moving or I can be still,
But still is still moving to me…– Willie Nelson
The lush green foliage and bright flowers of a semi-tropical garden sway in a gentle breeze below the balcony of Terri Hallman’s second floor studio outside Houston, and the artist is starting to think she likes the idea of staying in this place a while. She’s been working in the garden, and for the first time in her 45 years her thumbs are turning green from something other than pigments.
Hallman’s life has been one of movement, geographically and artistically. The stimulation and challenge of new places, mediums, and methods has always invited her to shake off any hint of staleness and try new things. But there’s clearly a counter-force at work as well. Her lively, richly hued, and visually playful paintings are almost always anchored in the straight-on stare of the human face, with its unchanging qualities of quiet observation and subtle vulnerability. This odd equilibrium contributes, no doubt, to the strong attraction in Hallman’s art, which is internationally collected and represented by galleries around the United States and abroad. Now movement and stillness are beginning to find balance in the artist’s life as well.
Only three activities stand out in Hallman’s memory, as she looks back on her childhood in small town Minnesota and Wisconsin. Gymnastics and horseback riding were satisfying outlets for a painfully shy and introverted girl. And when she wasn’t in motion, she had a pencil in her hand. She drew constantly, honing her skills at realistic rendering, even enjoying a phase of meticulously re-creating in pencil the texture and tactile qualities of leather and wood. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the vibrancy of her current work, Hallman never ventured into color, in fine art, until she was almost 30.
By then she had earned a bachelor’s degree in design from Minneapolis College of Art & Design. She spent her last two years of college, and a brief period after graduation, working for a design firm for which she received two international awards for packaging design. She could easily have remained in the design field, she admits. “I loved design. You have elements to move around and figure out, and I enjoyed that. It’s very structured, and I like having a lot of structure and then breaking out of structure.”
As it turned out, life offered its own opportunities for breaking out of structure. Over the years Hallman found herself in a series of diverse creative endeavors in a series of cities and towns, including San Diego and Lafayette, Louisiana. She also traveled around the world. She produced wax carvings as design models for ornate furniture; she worked in advertising, sign making, and framing, all the while gathering hands-on experience with a range of materials and tools. Somewhere along the way she discovered big, chunky colored chalk sticks. One day, about 15 years ago, she crushed some of the chalk and began applying the powder to paper.
“I literally stumbled into this way of working,” she relates. “But that’s kind of the way things always happen with me. It’s an organic progression. I stumble onto one thing, and it’s working, and then I find something better, and I keep going until I hit hard onto something.”
Hallman hit onto an ideal medium for the kind of painting she enjoys, which she has refined and continued. Yet the broad popularity of her work hasn’t stopped her from exploring a range of other materials, among them: clay sculpture, which she hopes to cast in bronze; encaustic on panel, acrylic on board, and mixed media imagery that incorporates such materials as stucco, joint compound, and nails. She also creates striking figurative sculpture by assembling thousands of tiny pieces of wood, each one hand-cut, glued together, and then shaped and finished as a whole. “It’s very time consuming, like putting together a puzzle,” she smiles.
“Still,” Hallman observes, even with so many potential artistic directions, “when I get up in the morning, 90 percent of the time what I want to do is a face.” So, in the upstairs studio above a detached former garage—with the downstairs serving as her woodworking studio—she starts. Putting pencil to paper, she produces a stick-figure structure for the painting: circle and lines for a head, neck, and shoulders. These lines will remain in the finished piece, almost as if the ghost of a child’s first drawing has remained visible under later layers of visual complexity, mature artistic expression, and emotional depth.
Covering the fine lines with thinly cut tape to screen them from the color that will follow, Hallman begins applying pigment. She starts with colors that come in the form of talcum-fine powder; later she’ll add coarser pigments, some as rough as heavy dirt. She uses her hands—never a brush—to rub dry pigment into the paper. Then she applies a clear acrylic spray to set the color, and moves swiftly to the next layer. “After so many years, I know exactly the consistency of each pigment—some are sleek and satiny, some are toothy,” she explains. “Sometimes I scratch through and let other colors come through. All of that is really yummy to me.”
As each section of the painting feels complete, Hallman blocks it off with tape. She won’t see the entire image again until it is finished and she removes the tape. “The beauty of it is, I kind of know what’s happening, even if I can’t see it,” she notes. Sometimes on the final surface, she adds thin washes or dry pigment mixed with oil. “The surface is the best part of my work, the most satisfying part of the process and the way it looks,” she declares. “It’s heavily textured but not built up. There are lots of cuts, surface changes, and layers, and just by looking at it, it’s hard to tell what I’ve used.”
What the artist perceives in the completed piece is a metaphor for—and actual visual remnants of—the passage of time. It’s as if the painting is in motion and the finished work consists of fragmented memories, or snapshots, of the animated image as it evolved. “Sometimes I put writing in it, and then parts of the writing get lost and I don’t remember what I wrote. The words were important at the time, but they’re not important later,” she reflects. “Even if you can’t see it, you can tell a lot has been going on.”
Yet the total span of time Hallman works on each piece is remarkably short. A completed painting can take as little as a day. But that’s a day of hands moving rapidly, fluidly, and almost non-stop. And the swiftness of the process is key to its success. “It needs spontaneous energy. When I start thinking about it while I’m doing it, it doesn’t work. There has to be a loose flow of energy and I just go with it, but I’ve also worked hard to get to the point where I can trust that my fast hand is going to do the right thing,” she explains. Drawing by children, she adds, provides endless inspiration. “It’s really honest and straightforward. It’s clean and crisp, with no pretense. It’s right in your face. I like that.”
As in children’s drawings, Hallman’s paintings often incorporate a simple object such as a house, a bird, or piece of fruit. These iconic images serve as personal symbols for the artist, who notes that each painting reflects her life experiences and emotional state at the time. A bird on the shoulder, for example, speaks of companionship and trust. The symbol was inspired by the sight of a small pet bird perched boldly on the shoulder of the person on whom it completely depends. A house translates as security, stability, and comfort, and is an image that has emerged more frequently in recent work.
Hallman tends to work in non-stop stretches of several weeks in a row, moving between her painting and sculpture studios for six to eight hours each day. Then she gives herself the treat of a week or two of travel to distant parts of the world. Having spent time in 21 countries, she finds herself drawn to places whose cultures and people are distinct from our own, places where the disorientation of the unfamiliar keeps her clearly focused in the now.
“The most important thing is to stay out of your safe zone and be willing to make yourself uncomfortable, in order to grow. I feel like I always need to move forward into unknown territory,” she says of life and art. Then she pauses and smiles. “But there’s something really lovely too about putting down some roots.”