Terry Miura | Jazz in Oil

Atmospheric paintings by Terry Miura offer artfully abstracted riffs on the real world

By Norman Kolpas

Terry Miura, Market Street Evening, oil, 30 x 40.

Terry Miura, Market Street Evening, oil, 30 x 40.

This story was featured in the December 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  December 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

It’s early evening in San Francisco. Shadowy pedestrian figures cross a busy intersection as the white headlights of a streetcar and taxis, and the red taillights of dark sedans, cut through the hazy atmosphere. Against a sky turned rosy by evening’s approach, buildings seem to dissolve into the mist, while a grid of electric wires etched overhead anchors the evanescent scene.

So moody is the effect of MARKET STREET EVENING, a recent painting by Terry Miura, that a viewer can almost hear the whoosh of tires, the blare of horns, the syncopation of hurried footsteps. It feels as if the work has been put together as much with modern, jazz-inflected sounds as with pigments—an impression with which the artist might heartily agree.

“The improvisation, spontaneity, and expression you find in jazz is, for me, very much like abstracting a representational scene in painting,” says Miura, who sums up his own particular artistic style as “representational, but heavy on the abstraction.” He finds ample inspiration listening to jazz, especially the evocative modal style pioneered in the 1950s by Miles Davis. “Describing something subtly and indirectly, without spelling it out note for note, is pure jazz,” Miura declares.

With that metaphor in mind, you could say that Miura has been composing a body of paintings that positively resonates with cool, alluring style. From cityscapes that capture the brooding energy of the urban environment, to lyrical landscapes in softer major keys, to figurative pieces that feel like intimate solo variations on a theme, the 52-year-old Northern California artist has established a reputation as—no pun intended—an artist of note. His paintings are held in public institutions ranging from the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and private collections including those of Gap Inc./Banana Republic and, most aptly, The School of Jazz at The New School in New York.

Despite such substantial success, Miura asserts that his early years offered no particular prediction of his future career. “I liked drawing, but not any more than any other kid,” he says of a childhood spent first in his birthplace of Sendai, in northeastern Japan, and then in Ichinomiya, a suburb of Nagoya, where he lived through grade school. “But I was handy with tools, and I did always like making things with my hands, like models of buildings and boats out of wood and paper,” he says. He did have one early passion, however: “I wanted to be an entomologist, and I drew a lot of bugs.”

When young Terry turned 11, his father, a middle manager for Sony Corporation, was transferred to California to help run a new television factory the company had built near San Diego. Miura describes his family’s move as “a total culture shock. I’ve never been very outgoing, and that didn’t help with my shyness,” he says. Throughout junior and senior high in his new hometown, though he enjoyed drawing cartoons, he largely focused his attention on academics and went on to enroll at the University of California’s Irvine campus as a computer-science major. “I thought I was going to go work for IBM or somewhere like that,” he says.

But 1983 was still the early days of the personal-computer revolution, and students had to sign up for time on the university’s mainframe computers to do their work. As an underclassman, says Miura, “I could only get on at 2 or 3 in the morning. It was not a level playing field, and it really killed me not to be able to compete.”

In frustration, he finally withdrew from the school in 1985. Having made some pocket money by silk-screening t-shirts with designs he’d drawn himself, he decided illustration might be worth pursuing and enrolled in the well-regarded art department at California State University, Long Beach. But those studies, too, ended in frustration two years later after a friend invited him along on a visit to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “I walked into the front door,” Miura recalls, “and my jaw just dropped seeing the caliber of the student work there.” In 1987, he left Long Beach, applied to the Art Center, and was rejected. So he enrolled in night classes there, which required no application, spent a year improving his portfolio, and finally reapplied and entered the college’s full-time program as an illustration major.

“That’s how I finally came to art as a serious career option,” he says, crediting the “amazing” roster of instructors under whom he studied. “From Harry Carmean, I learned to draw the figure. He was a master draftsman, and he would talk about the old masters like they were friends standing right there. His class was like watching a magic show,” Miura says. His biggest influence in painting, he adds, was teacher Richard Bunkall, whose large-scale cityscapes offered brooding meditations on the urban environment.

Gradually, Miura focused his studies on editorial illustration. During his final two terms at the Art Center, he began landing freelance assignments creating editorial illustrations for the opinion and business sections of the Los Angeles Times. Two days after graduating in May 1990, he and his then-girlfriend Siobhan, now his wife of 22 years, moved to New York City, where he began “pounding the pavement,” dropping off his portfolio with art directors and magazine- and book-publishing companies. “I showed my book 150 times before I got a single call. It was to do an illustration for the Journal of Accountancy,” he says. “It was about as dry as it sounds, but I used splashy colors to make it more exciting. I was ecstatic. It proved my portfolio was marketable.” Next, Miura landed an assignment from Sports Illustrated, and over the next three years, he built a steady business for clients including Random House, Scholastic books, Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, and the Washington Post—“along with lots of trade journals like Hospital Gift Shop Management magazine,” he adds.

The freelance life, Miura says, also gave him lots of spare time. “So I drew and painted a lot and went to open figure-drawing sessions once a week.” He began showing his works in cafés and hair salons around his Brooklyn neighborhood, and in 1994, a gallery owner on the tony Upper East Side of Manhattan spotted one, tracked him down, and offered him his first show. “So I got a taste of being a fine artist.”

His hunger for pursuing a fine-art career grew stronger as desktop computing began to encroach on hand-drawn illustration work. “With every subsequent release of Photoshop,” he says, “I could see it becoming easier and easier to achieve the kind of work I was doing with just one click of a mouse.”

Miura thus began a 10-year-long career transition. He and Siobhan returned to California, eventually settling in Fair Oaks, a tranquil community just outside the state capital of Sacramento. The quiet suburban life didn’t completely appeal to him, however. “I realized I was ordering art supplies online so I could talk to the UPS guy,” he laughs. So he rented a large studio space in town and began teaching weekly art classes there to help pay the rent on it. He continues to teach twice weekly, now in a 1,500-square-foot space on the ground floor of an old office building in the nearby town of Rancho Cordova. “It helps me stay connected to people,” he sums up.

Now a full-time fine artist for more than a decade, Miura has reached a point at which the need to render other people’s visions is far behind him. “Gradually, I’ve developed my own way of seeing and doing things,” he says. In a process that continues to fascinate and challenge him, abstraction has come into play more and more in his works. “I find it always mysterious and elusive that these marks and notes and random blobs of paint that I make really don’t look like they have any rules or follow any logic by themselves,” he says. “And yet, somehow, they make a representational painting. It’s the language of painting itself that drives me to understand how it all works.”

In exploring that language, Miura keeps expanding the range of tools he’ll use “to push the paint in unexpected ways.” Take one of his figurative paintings like SERENADE, for example. Like most such works of his, it began with one of the thousands of rapidly executed charcoal sketches he’ll do from live models during his figure-drawing classes. He picked out a shape that would have a strong impact on the viewer even with minimal detail, then chose a moody color scheme of mauves and grays to complement the flesh tones, applying the paint in blocky strokes using brushes, a palette knife, rubber scrapers, his fingers, and even credit cards—all with the goal of “making marks that are surprising.”

Even in pieces that may seem more conventional, like his serene landscape SONOMA IDYLL, such application of paint produces a lively surface that delights the eye in its own right, regardless of the pleasing scene that also results. It’s almost as if the Northern California landscape he first observed is the original, simple melody, and Miura’s painting has become its jazz rendition.

It’s an approach that Miura says he intends to continue pursuing with ever-greater dedication. As he puts it, “I like the poetry in such a way of seeing the world.” 

The Christopher Hill Gallery, St. Helena and Healdsburg, CA; Sekula’s Art, Sacramento, CA; Holton Studio Gallery, Berkeley, CA; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; Sloane Merrill Gallery, Boston, MA.

This story was featured in the December 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  December 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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