TERRI HALLMAN: MOVING FORWARD Southwest Art Magazine®

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.”

©May 2009 - Southwest Art Magazine®

TERRI HALLMAN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

What was your childhood like?

There was a lot of family trauma. When I was five and my father worked with eighteen-wheelers. When he was thirty-five, he was struck in the head by a hub cap that flew off a truck. He survived, but his personality was affected. There was so much trauma around that. The strain was too much for my mother, and she eventually left with her four girls (I have three older sisters, 3, 4 and 5 years older).

There were times when we lived at poverty level. Mother was very good at making things look better than they were; she would serve lunch on beautiful dinnerware. But she was vulnerable and emotionally weak and wept a lot. She let us feel insecure. So as an adult, I feared security for a long time.

The family was so split. For a time, I lived with my mother’s relatives in central Minnesota. Her mother, my grandmother, lived on a beautiful farm, but there was something brutal about life there.

Did you have any interest in art at this time?

I was always drawing as a child. My earliest memories are when I was about six years old. I was disconnected from my family, so I drew. It was really about retreating and avoiding. I only did drawings about women, since I was so familiar with them.

I got a lot of encouragement for my drawings. My third grade teacher was very important for me. Every time I made a drawing, she would hug me and praise me in front of the class. So I kept it up. I was living in Minnesota at that time. I consider Minneapolis to be my home town even now.

Did you have formal training in art?

I entered a Junior College in Hibbing, Minnesota, at twenty-three. The same year, I entered one of those “Can You Draw Fido” contests in a magazine and won a free course. Back then, there was no “on line” schooling; I took the course by mail. At age twenty-six, I entered college. Before that, all I did was draw with graphite pencil. In college, I rarely used color. I received a private art school scholarship to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I did not study fine art, I studied design, though I did have some illustration courses.

In my second year, one of my instructors hired me to do design work. I worked for him for five years. He was German and reserved, but he knew how to handle me. He was encouraging; he upgraded me. He let me know the truth but was restrained and diplomatic. While working for him, I won an award for package design; I remember that the project was called “Profiler”.

How did you become the artist you are?

I was making so much money with my design work that I left school before finishing the last semester. No one seemed to care about the degree, and the last semester was full of courses that I had put off because I had no interest in them. I thought I was going to be a designer forever.

One day – literally one day – after something negative had happened to me, I don’t even remember what. Maybe I had an argument or someone had upset me. I felt that I needed to do something creative. I found a few pastels around the house and some paper, and I started to do something. Afterwards, when I looked at it, I was sort of shocked. It was unlike anything I had done before, and I thought it was really good. Strong. I had always been attracted to fast, expressive art, and this was totally spontaneous and energetic. I got results very fast, and it had a tone that felt real for me.

I took about a dozen pieces downtown and walked into five or six galleries. Some wanted to show my work. Within six months, I had gallery representation in Minneapolis, and within two years I was showing in Chicago and Atlanta. My fine art belongs in my life for sure, because it supports itself. It is a solid rock in my life. It tends to build very nicely.

Where do you do your work?

At the moment, I am staying in Houston. I have a good studio to work in. I have my dry pigment studio, and that is all I can do there. The pigments get all over everything, even though I do clean up, so I can’t do other work there. I also have a place where I do my wood work – basically a tandem garage with a patio in the back for sanding. The former owner had equipped the garage as a workshop. But it gets too hot to work there in the summer.

My house is full of my ceramic stuff. It takes up so much room that I really need more room for it. All of my studios are messy, smelly and noisy.

The ceramics are something new. What are you doing with it?

For ten years, I have been looking for something to build sculptures with. Whenever I need a new material, I go to stores and look at everything that can be used. I tried water putty, but it will decay. I needed the material to be self-supporting. Clay is difficult to figure out how to work with and move with. But it is perfect to join with wood. I had to figure out how to do it by myself, and I had a huge epiphany. A lot of the work is a combination of wood and ceramics. It is still at the infant stage.

I have been obsessed with ceramics for about a year. First I did a lot of reading for about four months, then I worked with clay for about four months, and now I have been spending the last 4-5 months learning glazes. A lot of pieces blew up in the kiln. Nothing has blown up lately.

I am doing some very simple figures, some to be attached to the wall, about 15” – 19” high. There will be several in my show. These are simplified people, not beautiful people. They are humorous, quirky, light-hearted. I call them “Tumblers” because they are a spoof of the reaching, arching, stretching figures that lots of sculptors do. They are about color though the color palette is limited.

I am also doing a ‘heads’ series, about 9” high, and a loose group of people that sort of remind me of scruffy people with torn clothes. I haven’t got a name for them yet. They have non-complicated shapes so that I can pay attention more to the surfaces than to the forms. Some pieces are serious, some quirky. I am also doing a group of birds. I like birds a lot. They are calmer, more placid.

It is so exciting, and I so love it. It is an interesting process and very complex. I am growing with it a lot. Working in different media is very satisfying. It is never the same. Your brain never stops. You are always challenging yourself. I am always in a state of development.

All the work I do is related to jig-saw puzzles. If I had free time, I would do jig-saw puzzles. It is the thing about shapes fitting together (laughs).

But you are still working in dry pigments.

I have been doing the pigment work for some ten years, but recently it has been more sporadic. It is good to take a break from it. The last pieces I did were really light hearted. When I am working, I don’t know what they will look like. When the market started to go down, my work got darker. That is my favorite kind of work, because it is serious. But that isn’t an issue anymore. Now the work is innocent and very light.

There is something extremely spontaneous about your work.

One recent book had an impact on me. It was about a sculptor, and she said that she learned not to edit herself. That’s what I try not to do. When you do not think about what you are doing, there is an organic thing going on. You have the music on and you are feeling…I don’t have a word for it…and the work takes on a life of its own. I do not think about what the work looks like, and what I am feeling is what comes out. Organic is a big word about a lot of my work. The process is organic and the forms are organic. There are a lot of elements.

I grow with work. I let instinct take over. Since I work by blocking out huge areas with tape and paper, all I can see is a small part. I can’t see it, so I am not able to tell how I am connecting the dots. I rely on instinct, intuition – based upon experience and the materials, of course, but what I do feels unconscious to me. I don’t “understand” why I’m doing what I’m doing. My work is related to surrealism, particularly the earlier work, in that it comes from the unconscious or the dream state…when something appears without a cause. Every work kind of appears on its own.

The richer, deeper part of that is I have such a long history of working with my materials that it becomes automatic. Have you read Blink? It says that conscious decisions are based sometimes on outside things and can cause you to make choices that are not your own. Blink says it the way I feel it. It is the only place I have been in.

If I am working on a dry pigment head and an eye looks sad, there is nothing I can do about it. I don’t know how to make an eye look happy or sad, looking to the side or directly at the viewer. It is an unconscious level, not about understanding the structure. I can’t be concerned with the way something looks. I need to let it go. Sometimes when I am working, I think, man, this is never going to work; but if I keep going, it works itself out.

What do you feel have been important influences on you?

Traveling has been a big food for my work. I have traveled to Thailand and South China; I like countries that are really rough and different. You get completely in the moment and there is newness, fresh fuel for work. When it has some movement to it, I’m interested. Disorientation is part of it, so I am now going into new areas, new media. They move you out of habits. That very much affects my work. My work is very much part of my life. It is a very conscious effort to challenge myself to stay interested.

I have read about phrenology and physiognomy, related to psychology. I had a really old book on phrenology that had woodblock drawings. I actually loved that book. I don’t know what happened to it.

Events in my life put me in a different state of mind. They create a dynamic for my personality at the time. I am impacted by how I interact with or dissociate from people in my life.

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH TERRI HALLMAN

Q) At what age did you first start to "paint" and what was the subject matter?

A) As far back as I remember I was always drawing. I grew up in a house with 4 sisters and my mother - so my subject was faces - usually women, and horses. (I think they were "male".) A lot of childhood photos catches me with my sketchbook and disconnected from the activity around me. I can see from those photos by age 6 or so that I had already found that place (mentally, psychologically) that I go to now when I work, or my head was up and facing towards the sky, looking inward rather than towards the viewer.

I only drew - pencil, graphite - until about age 25, I tried painting just once in high school when an art teacher wanted me to try. I didn’t like it so I never tried it again. my drawing progressed, typically, into photorealism and I became interested in drawing textures like cloth, leather and wood, etc. making them as realistic and tactile as I could. College made me stop drawing and being so safe and anal.

Q) Have you always painted figurative work?

A)The majority, yes. I find faces endlessly interesting, not necessarily the face structure but displays of some kind of emotion on the face, gestures and gestural, good, bad, darkness and joy - it’s all fascinating to me. I’ve read, and read, a lot about psychology and physiognomy these are my interests. The figure and face is also just a subject for me to practice and develop interests I have in line, positive/negative space, movement, colour and endless others.

Q) What were your early influences and were you exposed to art.

A) Books, museums galleries) I grew up in a small town and wasn’t exposed too much art until college. I remember being blown away by Jonathon Borofsky and any artwork that showed frantic-ness or rapid movement, everything influences. Everything I’ve seen and done has been absorbed.

Q) Any other "arty" people in family (brothers, sisters etc)

A) My mother and one sister had some skills but neither developed it

Q) Art training.

A) An art school - Minneapolis College of art and design. It jarred me into seeing things in ways than I had not been used to (coming from a small town it brought the concept of abstraction into my life and a lot of disorientation. People need that more. I definitely did, the thing I like to say most about art school is that it doesn’t teach you how to be a good painter, designer, and sculptor. It just makes you get a lot of the garbage over with faster.

Q) Did you ever want to do anything else and did you.

A) I worked as a designer through and after college. I liked it a lot but did it only for a few years. I took on some more menial work just to get by as an artist. I’ve worked as a framer and I worked for a signage business for a few years, I loved it, unfortunately, I often got fired from these jobs. I don’t work well for others if I don’t like the way they do things.

Q) What drives you?

A) Fear of dullness, well... yes

Q) What do you most like about your work?

A) It’s really me, I believe I keep it real

Q) What do you hate about your work?

A) Its temperamental, how I’m feeling each day will show through, it means I have to keep my life up and invigorated in order to work well. I need to be working well in order for my life to be working well. I need to keep my life satisfying in order for the work to be good. And I need to be producing good work to be happy..la de da my life and work are welded together, I have to keep tight control of this.

Q) As above about other people.

A) When they don’t say what they really mean.

Q) Explain a bit about the technical process you go through to achieve your work.

A) later

Q) Favourite colours.

A) Usually my favourites are red and yellow, the stronger and more saturated the better, I always have a secondary colour love at any given time, right now it a sort of blue-jeans blue, because my work is layers of colour on top of each other, combinations of colours next to each other or showing through are interesting to me, mixing a new colour or finding new pigment is driving fuel for work.

Part Two

I might be skipping around

Q) Favourite artist(s).

A) I don’t usually like to answer this question because there are far too many.

Q) Favourite music, writer, film of all time.

A) I listen to all and every music, I have to love the music I’m listening to while I work so I am endlessly searching for new things I haven’t heard, I guess trying to list names for any of these groups feels wrong to me, I have too many favourites, lately I put in Kirasawas "dreams" dvd during my down time and I’ve been watching "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" repeatedly, they are both very satisfying to me.

Q) What makes you laugh, cry.

A) I have some friends with great wit, they make me laugh, I cry whenever my feelings get hurt, but only for a few seconds.

Q) Most embarrassing moment.

A) You first

Q) What does in mean to you for people to love your work?

A) It’s great, but I feel pretty separated from the idea of this, I have a musician friend that said it best, he said that if he ever made it really "big" you'll find him in his basement playing his guitar.

Q) Does it bother you if people do not like it?

A) Not at all, it bothers me if a person thinks their opinion would affect something I’ve worked so hard on and feel so right about.

Q) Explain a bit about the objects in your paintings, what do they symbolise.

A) I have an idea that my few constant symbols and/or words cover nearly everything, since my work is generally a reflection of my state of mind or events in my life, I will sometimes (organically) put one of them in a piece, I should first mention that the beginning of nearly all my work starts with a stick figure - similar to child drawing, this is the first vantage point that I am stemming the piece from and it also is a place of "unknowing" I will give a list of a few symbols.

The bird on the shoulder represents the trusted companion. this began from a friend of mine that had several birds, they were so incredibly fragile and their entire life hinged on how carefully she cared for them, yet they were completely trusting of her, this signifies a solid association.

The house is about security and base, "home sweet" is a more dynamic and feeling perspective of this. The running horse represents unencumbered freedom and strength, also movement the writing (most of the time) on my work is rarely meant as literal, the words may be important at the moment but as the piece transforms they are often forgotten, it is often, also, more about handwriting (the shapes of the letters or words - as it expresses) than the words themselves.

The apple is about structure, base and core (no pun intended) its form is basic, to me it’s rather static and un-dynamic there are also many metaphors that the apple has been used for and it belongs in that group.

The pear can around as a spin-off from the apple, is about beauty and warmth, the shape, colours and taste are widely varied and , to me, much more elegant and beautiful than the apple. I tend to think of the apple as noun or verb and the pear as adjective and adverb.

The pea - which I rarely use - is a sort of solitary nothingness, its just a circle-form without any other distinguishing features, one amongst many. I usually use it in black and white also - which strips it of its only description - green.

I think one of the most constant things used throughout my work is the separation of line and mass (or form) it reinforces the transience of the moment and lapse of time, it signifies movement.

Q) Happiest time.

A) I tend to be rather manic, my happiest times happen often

Q) First exhibition.

A) I was naïve, I thought it was important. I can say now that it was right near the moment I started to plunge into destitution.

Q) Aspirations for the future both personally and with your work.

A) Im not sure where I picked this up, but its taboo to speak of this.

Q) What do you do to relax?

A) I sleep at night

Sorry for these one-liners, Sheana. I’m not able to connect to some of the questions.

Q) Plans for this year.

A) I’ve been stewing about sculpture for a long time now, trying to find materials or processes that seem right for me, this year, I’m hoping to make it work better.

Q) Who do you admire most in the World?

A) My cat, she's got it easy and doesn’t know any better.

Q) Who would you like to have dinner with?

A) Tony Greenberg, a man I’ve never been able to pin down.

Q) When and how do you know when a painting is complete.

A) This has always been obvious to me, the same way you know when you’re finished in the shower, all the parts are done.