By Norman Kolpas
“To get the full value of joy,” wrote Mark Twain, “you must have someone to divide it with.” By that measure, artists Terri Kelly Moyers and John Moyers are reaping joy’s full value. Not only are they happily approaching their 29th wedding anniversary in September, but they also share successful careers as realist painters of the Southwest. They share a studio that’s steps away from their home on the outskirts of Santa Fe, and they almost always exhibit their works together in two-person shows.
“We’re always setting the bar high for each other,” says Terri of their collegial relationship. “You tend to forgive things in your own work that others wouldn’t. You need that other eye to catch things.”
Terri Kelly and John Moyers first caught each other’s eyes back in October 1979 at the Okanagan Game Farm in Kaleden, BC. Both were attending an annual artists’ gathering organized by two illustrious painters of wildlife and nature: Canadian Clarence Tillenius, Terri’s mentor, and Canadian-American Robert Lougheed, with whom John was studying in New Mexico. “John was wearing a cowboy hat and was really tall and skinny and, I thought, very
kerning1cute,” Terri recalls. “I absolutely remember the moment we were introduced.” Adds John, “We pretty much instantly became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Two dramatically different paths had led to that first meeting. Terri grew up in Calgary, the oldest of three children raised by a single mom. “All I ever wanted to do was draw, draw, draw,” she says of her early years. “It was definitely a compulsion, and people in my family weren’t quite sure where I was coming from.” That drive led her to enroll in the Alberta College of Art and Design, but she left after the first year. “They just promoted contemporary stuff, and that wasn’t what I was looking for. I was really disheartened,” she says. A community-college program in interior design provided her with a few art courses that were more realist in their outlook, she says, “but they were not what I wanted, either.”
In 1978, when Terri was 25, a dramatic turning point came. Her mother passed away, leaving a small inheritance to Terri and her sister and brother. A friend told her about an arts summer school being conducted by Tillenius at the Okanagan Game Farm. Her sister urged Terri to enroll, using her share of the money. “I was afraid of going, but my sister came with me, and we arrived with a little fold-out tent-trailer,” Terri remembers.
“It was an epiphany,” she continues. “This is what I’d been searching for. I was introduced to the world of fine-art painting. It was just mind-blowing.” She stayed in touch with Tillenius, who saw promise in the young artist and invited her and just a few other students to join him and Lougheed that autumn at their first annual Okanagan retreat.
John’s arrival at the second such gathering a year later was the result of very different circumstances. He grew up in Albuquerque in a home surrounded by art and the materials of its creation, thanks to his dad, noted western painter and sculptor William Moyers. “I always drew and painted,” says John, “and my dad let me use pretty much anything he had in his studio.” Despite the fact that John always thought he’d become an artist, his father wasn’t so sure. “He was more realistic and thought it was not such an easy road for me to take,” John remembers.
But young John took that road anyway. After graduating from high school, he set out for Laguna Hills, CA, to live with Noel Tucker, his father’s former art teacher and a successful Disney animator. By day, John attended the Laguna Beach School of Art, receiving classic atelier-style training. “Then, I’d come back at four, eat some food, and go to life-drawing classes at Saddleback College. I was really busy that year and got all I could out of the experiences.”
The next year, 1978, John enrolled at California Institute of the Arts, the innovative college founded in 1961 with the support of Walt and Roy Disney. He found himself among many brilliant, soon-to-be-illustrious students. John Lasseter, now chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation and acclaimed director of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Cars, showed him around the campus. Tim Burton was a senior at the time.
Following his first year at CalArts, John accepted an invitation to be mentored in Santa Fe by Robert Lougheed, with whom he’d studied while a senior in high school. He headed home to Albuquerque and began a series of regular drives between the two cities to learn from the master. “He simplified everything for you,” John says of the experience with Lougheed. “He had a great work ethic, did not tolerate being lazy about your approach, and insisted that you work from life whenever possible.” John excelled under his tutelage and, of course, was invited that fall to participate in the Okanagan event, where the fateful meeting with his future wife occurred.
After that first encounter in 1979, John and Terri communicated occasionally. “It took him forever to ask me out,” laughs Terri. “And I thought, well, come on!” Following the next year’s get-together, John finally suggested a date. “After that,” he says, “we were on the phone all the time.” They married in 1982 and settled down to lives as working artists—and eventually as parents, too, raising their son Josh, now 19 and a budding filmmaker studying at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Over the past three decades, the couple has built diligently upon the artistic foundations laid by their respective mentors. “We do it the way we were taught, and we don’t deviate from that,” says John. Beyond the fact that they both consider themselves realist painters whose subjects range from landscapes to nature to figures, they resist self-labeling. “That’s for other people to do,” says Terri. “We just paint what we love, and it’s in a realistic style.”
What’s clear from both Terri’s and John’s extensive bodies of work, however, is how much of that love they put into their paintings, combining passion with the skills they’ve honed and the experiences they’ve shared over their years together. As much as possible, they still try to paint from life: heading frequently into the northern New Mexico countryside; making multi-week trips to Canmore, near Banff, each summer and autumn; and traveling farther afield wherever and whenever they can, including Hawaii, Mexico, France, Spain, and a journey sometime next year to Italy or England.
“Bob Lougheed always said to paint what you see, because nature is the best teacher,” explains Terri. Adds John, “During the course of the year, we do piles and piles and piles of plein-air paintings. Even if you have no intention of selling that work, when the time comes for you to do your studio work, you’re way more prepared for it. It’s like practicing free throws before a big game in the NBA.”
Extending that analogy a bit, you could call the latest works from both of them stylish slam dunks, executed with dazzling skill and flair. Consider, for example, John’s 40-by-20-inch oil HANG AND RATTLE. A tribute to his father, who died last year, the energetic yet spare work depicts a cowboy riding a bronco out on the range. “My dad loved to paint images of bucking horses from the 1920s and ’30s, and the title is an old saying you’d hear from cowboys when one of them was on a horse out on the range: ‘He’s hanging and rattling.’”
Asked how he captured the image from life, however, he admits he executed this one “pretty much out of my head.” That kind of action is simply too fast to paint alla prima. “And there’s no point in going to a rodeo to photograph a bucking horse, because they’re trained buckers and look different from how a horse would buck on the open range.” Adds Terri, “John has painted so much from life that he knows how a horse is built and what the light would be doing.”
Terri herself glories in what light does. The 24-by-48-inch oil EL TEJIDO DE LA FAMILIA, which won the Frederic Remington Painting Award at the Prix de West Invitational in June, is a perfect case in point. Depicting young women dressed up for fiesta in heirloom wraps and traditional colored-glass beads, the painting “is about the light and how it’s hitting the models’ figures and coming through the shawls,” says the artist. Her work, she observes, is generally more intricate in design and detail than her husband’s. “But,” she continues, harking back to lessons learned from Tillenius and Lougheed, “you still need to follow the rule of having a focal point, leading the eye always back to what is most important in the painting.”
So, what is most important to John and Terri Moyers as they enjoy the full benefits of their artistic maturity? Their inner eyes always lead them back to traveling and painting on location. “In some ways, Terri and I are both very open-minded about art, but our approach is very narrow-minded,” says John. “We do it the way we were taught, and we don’t deviate from that.” Freshness, Terri continues, comes not from new ways of painting but from new locations, new subject matter. “You don’t want to keep doing the same thing you’ve done. You want to keep reinvigorating yourself.” Traveling and painting together as they do, they’ll likely get the full value of that reinvigoration.
Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; Nedra Matteucci Galleries, Santa Fe, NM.
Two-person show, Claggett/Rey Gallery, August 4-14.
Western Art Invitational, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ, October 21-22.
Three-person show, The Forbes Gallery, New York, NY, November 30-February 2012.