By Norman Kolpas
The eyes seize your attention, just as they do in any great portrait. Their complexity, light, and depth express a personality captured in full. You don’t feel as if you’re simply viewing another living being but, rather, that you’re actually making a connection with another soul.
No matter that Teresa Elliott’s subjects are Texas longhorn cattle. The subtlety and sureness with which she paints her large-scale canvases lead many folks who encounter them to experience surprisingly emotional reactions.
“I hear people say that they feel as if they are connecting with the longhorns,” says Elliott, hastening to add that she doesn’t intentionally set out to anthropomorphize the animals. “But I have such a reverence for my subjects that when I’m done, there seems to be something in their expressions that I wasn’t aware of when I started. They just wind up having a human aspect.”
Count a lifelong connection to the pastoral American West for some of the reverence that inspires Elliott’s oils. Add to that an equally long-standing affinity for art, and you’ve got a combination of factors that seems to have destined the artist for the success she enjoys today.
Teresa Elliott was born in 1953 about 25 miles due west of Fort Worth, TX, in the small city of Weatherford, the nearest community big enough to have a hospital. Both her parents grew up in Springtown, where her grandfather had a farm. Her father became a salesman and took his young family with him to New Mexico, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and finally St. Louis, where Teresa spent most of her childhood. “But we would visit my grandfather’s farm during vacations,” she says, recalling how she was always fascinated by the animals there.
An even earlier memory, however, involved art supplies: “When I was 2 years old, I was always asking my parents for paper and a pencil. We didn’t have many toys and, left to my own devices, I would draw.” By the time she entered kindergarten, she says, “my skills were pretty good. My drawings were always the most recognizable, the ones that ended up on the classroom wall. I got a lot of positive reinforcement.”
More significant reinforcement came from a set of books her parents bought before she had finished elementary school. “It was called Childcraft,” she says, referring to a popular multi-book series with the subtitle The How and Why Library and individual volumes like Who We Are, How Things Work, and The World of Animals. But it was the one called Art Around Us that really captured her attention.
“It had pieces by Renoir and Van Gogh in it,” says Elliott, her voice hushed with the happy memory. “I pored over those pictures so much that they’re still etched in my brain. We never set foot in a museum or a gallery, so that set of books must have started it because I remember looking at them and telling myself that I wanted to be an artist.”
In 1971, after graduating from Kirkwood High School in Kirkwood, MO, Elliott sought a summer job to help pay for college. The Six Flags Over Mid-America amusement park had just opened in St. Louis, and she got a job there in a shop called Quick Draw. “Six days a week, from 10 a.m. until dark, I would just draw people’s faces—serious pastel sketches, not those exaggerated caricatures you see.” She swears she wasn’t very good at first, but “like a sponge,” she watched and absorbed what more experienced Quick Draw artists were doing. “Pretty soon,” she says, “people would wait in line for me, and the lines snaked around the whole area. I’d spend 15 or 20 minutes on each one, for $15 a portrait, and I got to keep half of that.”
Thus bankrolled, Elliott set off for the University of Kansas, where she honed her art and graphic design skills and also developed a lasting love for photography. Her aptitude for accurate, lifelike, and perceptive drawing gained so much recognition that the art department even recommended her to the local police station, where she worked for a time as a forensic sketch artist, helping detectives nab some dangerous criminals.
“I think that with my intuition plus my skills and experience, I just figured out how to do it,” she muses about that success. “I knew exactly the questions to ask: about the hair, the nose, the mouth, the jawline, the size of the forehead, whether the eyes were close-set or wide-set.” She even considered becoming a courtroom sketch artist.
Instead, she headed for Texas after graduation. “I’d heard the job market was good in Dallas, and that appealed to me because I’d always loved the time I’d spent on my grandfather’s farm.” Alas, her grandfather soon sold the farm, “which was heartbreaking to me,” and booming Dallas “turned out to be just another city.”
Nevertheless, she soon had a thriving career as a freelance illustrator, specializing in fashion illustrations for women’s wear retailers. She also married Pete Czarnecki, a medical supplies salesman, and the couple had a daughter, Emma, now 22 years old.
In whatever spare time freelancing and motherhood allowed, Elliott continued to pursue her passion for fine art. Inspired by the gentle, evocative works of great American illustrators Bernie Fuchs, Bart Forbes, and Robert Heindel, she began to work in watercolors, doing mostly portraits of people and some fashion-inspired compositions.
Then, in 1998, Elliott started to work in oils. The transition happened at least in part because of what she describes as an “obsession” she had with the richly atmospheric landscapes of New York-based painter April Gornick. “It was a really hot summer in Texas,” Elliott explains, “and I just felt starved for moisture, and she does these huge landscapes that look like there’s always moisture in the air.”
Thus inspired, Elliott, too, began to paint her own large-scale landscapes, just at the time her freelance career was waning. “I was lucky,” she says, “that my interest in fine art dovetailed with the end of my commercial work.”
Luck, too, led her to the next big transition. “Living in the Dallas suburbs, I had become visually immune to my surroundings,” she says. One day in 2005, however, something out of the ordinary caught her eye right there amidst the tract houses and power lines: a small pasture where longhorn cattle grazed.
Despite the imposing grandeur of their sharply pointed horns, Texas longhorn cattle are generally gentle and placid. Soon, Elliott was spending as much time as she could spare getting up close and personal with the bovines, sketching and photographing them. Her first portraits of longhorns, often dramatically positioned against stormy skies, soon followed. The paintings almost immediately grabbed the attention of galleries and collectors alike.
With her fine art career soaring and her daughter grown, Elliott and her husband moved a year ago to the more rural surroundings she had long yearned for, in the foothills of the Davis Mountains near the West Texas town of Alpine. There, working pretty much from dawn to dusk seven days a week—“I’m a workaholic,” she admits—Elliott puts together the basics of her compositions on her computer using Photoshop, working both from scans of sketches and from photographs she’s taken of the Dallas-area herd. Once she’s worked out an idea, she’ll print it out and move outdoors to the easel she has set up on a sheltered patio.
Next, Elliott sketches the composition freehand in charcoal pencil onto a canvas, which varies from the occasional 12-by-12-inch painting to, more typically, large-scale pieces, some as big as 4 by 5 feet. Then comes a thin turpentine wash of burnt umber and ultramarine blue to block in the shapes before she starts painstakingly capturing the reality of the subject and scene. For the larger pieces, the entire process can take as long as three weeks, which is all the better for her. “I like to work large,” she says, “because then I feel closer to my subject.”
That feeling of close intimacy, in turn, invariably transfers to those who behold her paintings. And the artist aspires to make those connections even stronger in the future. “My idea is somehow to get human figures in the paintings with the longhorns. I want to keep it pure, simple, nothing like rodeo scenes. The goal, pretty much, will be to show how interconnected we really are.”
InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Evoke Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM; Astoria Fine Art, Jackson Hole, WY; www.teresa-elliott.com.
Group show, InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX, June 5-27.
Jackson Hole Art Auction, Jackson Hole, WY, September 19.
Jackson Hole Art Auction, Jackson Hole, WY, September 19.
Heart of the West, Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, TX, October 2-25.
Featured in June 2009