Howard Terpning | A Lifetime of Art

Moving Day on the Flathead [1981], oil, 40 x 58. painting, southwest art.
Moving Day on the Flathead [1981], oil, 40 x 58.

By Lynn Pyne

Two years ago, officials from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis traveled to the desert foothills of Tucson to meet with Howard Terpning at his home. Their mission was to invite the artist to paint a major commission for the museum’s permanent collection and accept its third-ever Award for Excellence. Their proposal included an awards ceremony and a retrospective exhibition.

Initially, Terpning agreed to do the commission but rejected the rest of the plan. “I have done two other retrospective shows and really didn’t want to approach collectors a third time, and I knew all the work that it entailed,” he says. “But through discussions with my wife Marlies over a period of time, she convinced me that it would be a wise thing to do because of my age [73] and all, and she said she would do all of the contacting. With that, I agreed to do the show.”

Medicine Man of the Cheyenne [1983], oil, 48 x 40. painting, southwest art.
Medicine Man of the Cheyenne [1983], oil, 48 x 40.

The result is Terpning’s largest-ever retrospective exhibition, comprising 32 major paintings, and the publication of a third coffee-table book on his work, The Spirit of the Plains People, by Greenwich Workshop. The new book focuses on his paintings from 1992 to the present, picking up where his previous book, The Art of Howard Terpning, ended. With text by Don Hedgepeth and an introduction by Elmer Kelton (author of the previous book), it contains about 100 images and will function as an expanded show catalog.

The exhibition will hang only one month—from April 21 through May 20 because Terpning stipulated that the paintings be absent from his collectors for no longer than two months. “We felt people would be more willing to lend them if they didn’t have to give them up for a longer period of time,” he says. “People were all very agreeable they seemed pleased. Hopefully, all of those who lent paintings will be at the opening.”

Terpning is eager to see the paintings again, and he expects displaying them together will magnify their impact. “It’ll be like visiting a lot of old friends, and some newer ones,” he says. “I really look forward to it.”

The Weather Dancer Dream [1997], oil, 50 x 42. painting, southwest art.
The Weather Dancer Dream [1997], oil, 50 x 42.

Terpning’s new painting for the Eiteljorg collection is a 48-by-56-inch oil titled Blessing from the Medicine Man, which will be unveiled for the first time at the show’s opening. Including research, preliminary sketches, and a half-size drawing, the completed piece required more than three months of concentrated work. As with all of his works, Terpning researched the subject meticulously to ensure that his portrayal would be as historically accurate and honest as possible. Blessing from the Medicine Man depicts a scene from the Blackfoot nation’s Thunder Pipe Ceremony, which takes place in the springtime after the first thunder rumbles in the sky. The Blackfoot, who live in Montana, are people of the northern Plains.

“For the Thunder Pipe Ceremony that I witnessed in the early 1980s, they attached two large teepees together, so you could go from one to the other,” Terpning recalls. “Native American spectators witnessing the ceremony stood inside one teepee, and the participants in the ceremony occupied the other. The reason for the ceremony was renewal—to bless all of the people and to hope that everyone would be provided for in the coming summer. They prayed for the protection of all the people.”

Too Many Snows [1985], oil, 32 x 60. painting, southwest art.
Too Many Snows [1985], oil, 32 x 60.

The all-day ceremony involved prayers, blessings, and the opening of a large, complex thunder pipe bundle containing many sacred objects. Those wanting to be blessed approached the medicine man one by one on their hands and knees. The medicine man held a small container of red paint, probably red earth mixed with animal fat, which he used to daub a streak of red paint on each cheek, forehead, and chin, representing the Four Directions. Terpning was among those receiving the blessing.

Plains Indian cultures such as the Blackfoot have fascinated Terpning through the years because he is drawn to the horse culture of the nomadic hunting tribes. Though violence was a reality in their lives, Terpning prefers to depict the everyday activities, ceremonies, and reflective moments of his subjects rather than the heat of battle.

Terpning’s interest in western history dates back to age 15, when he spent the summer at his cousin’s ranch in Durango, CO. He fell in love with the western landscape, did a lot of hiking and fishing, rode on horseback, and camped out by himself in the mountains. From that time on, he was an avid student of the West.

Terpning attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and the American Academy of Fine Art, apprenticing with the famous Haddon (Sunny) Sundblom in Chicago. He became a successful and prolific illustrator, doing commercial work for publications such as Time, Good Housekeeping, Newsweek, and Ladies’ Home Journal. His 1960s stint as a Marine Corps civilian combat artist in Vietnam resulted in paintings now displayed in the Marine Corps Museum in Washington, DC. He also painted more than 80 movie posters, including those for The Sound of Music and Dr. Zhivago.

Searching for something more artistically satisfying, Terpning began painting portraits, including a portrait of a Sioux Chief for his daughter, Susan. Then, at age 47, Terpning took several months’ break from his commercial work to complete three paintings. They sold, and he relished the freedom of painting what he chose and discovered that he was happiest when painting his favorite subject, western history. Thus marked the beginning of Terpning’s fine-art career and his transition away from commercial work. Moving to Arizona, he established himself as a preeminent fine-art painter, quickly becoming a member of the Cowboy Artists of America (CAA) and National Academy of Western Art (NAWA).

Since then, Terpning has received numerous awards, including two NAWA/Prix de West awards for Moving Day on the Flathead in 1981 and The Trophy in 1996. Both were purchased for the perma-nent collection of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Last year he received the Autry Museum’s John Geraghty Award for his contributions to western art.

Reflecting on his career, Terpning says he hopes his work will give people a greater awareness of and appreciation for the history and people of the American West. “I think that as time goes on and the world keeps spinning, we have a tendency as part of human nature to lose our sense of history,” he continues. “Really, without our history, we don’t have a future. We can’t forget our past. I think that is very important, because our knowledge comes from a sense of history, and we have to know who we were and where we came from in order to go forward. In painting the Plains Indians, I’m telling a part of the story of our American West, certainly a very colorful and dramatic part of our history. It’s also a part of our history that we can relate to, and it’s not that long ago.

“The Plains Indians were very, very special people in so many ways,” he continues. “I’ve always tried to paint people in an honest light; I have tried not to romanticize them. But I certainly have painted them in a favorable light.”

Terpning is quiet-spoken and modest, with a greater inclination to talk about the subjects of his paintings than about his own creative intentions. “I let my paintings do the talking,” he says. “The emotion that I feel comes out in the paintings, and I hope they move other people.”What does the future hold for Terpning? “More paintings,” he says with a smile. “I look forward to the next painting, and hopefully I can improve. That’s certainly what I strive for. I do want to slow down and probably get involved in more special projects and major works. But I have no intention of stopping.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ.

Featured in April 2001