Cutline: Terry St. John is a popular teacher as well as a talented artist.

Terry St. John, instructor and former chair of College of Notre Drone art department, just wrapped up a 45-painting show at the Hearst Art Gallery at St. Mary’s College in Moraga.

Even to a novice, his paintings, largely landscapes, are impressionistic, with detail insinuated rather than limned. Backgrounds and middle grounds are in bold colors, drawing attention to new parts of the image. In the St. Mary’s catalogue, Curator Marvin A Schenck called St. John’s paintings a “unique combination of expressionism and impressionism.”

St. John’s oil-on-canvas paintings seem to clutch a moment with vivid color. His relaxed figures range from central to peripheral to minimal, sometimes with one hand in pocket, one of St. John’s own stances as he talks to students at Notre Drone.

The St. Mary’s show opened student Dan Tierney’s eyes to St. John’s work. “I had only seen reproductions before that. It makes a big difference when you can see it and get up close to it and concentrate on smaller parts of the painting.

“You can look at brush strokes and I can almost understand, in a way, how he did it. Being able to see it in person is a world of difference,” Tierney said.

St. John uses a technique called plein-air, where work is done as much as possible on-site, in open air. His canvases are large, only limited by the size of his pickup truck.

Tierney’s admiration for St. John extends beyond the gallery to the studio. “If he knows you’re interested he’ll do anything he can. He’ll help you out as much as you want and stay after class and all those things that make a good teacher. He’ll recommend artists and tell you who your work reminds him of,” said Tierney.

“The art department here on campus, which is basically three instructors, felt that Terry’s work would be a good one for a show,” said Schenk, curator of the Hearst Gallery. I’m very impressed with the role he’s had in plien-air landscape painting in the Bay Area.

Over the 20 years Schenck has followed St. John’s art he has seen the canvases grow in size. “His work tends to fluctuate between identifiable form and a more abstracted form that’s less easy to identify. He flows in and out of that. I think the most exciting thing is (his) work of figures in the last few years,” Schenck said.

Jennifer Kristie is a past, present and future student of St. John’s. She graduated from the CND program under his tutelage and now he advises her at the California College of Arts & Crafts.

“He is familiar with my painting because he’s been there since the beginning, so we have that teacher/student history we just keep building on. I just keep learning more and more because he knows me so well. It’s a really important part of my development still to have him be my teacher,” she said.

“I started painting my second semester of my freshman year, which was 1992, at CND. I’d been painting for a few months.”

Kristie asked St. John for his honest opinion. “‘Do I have what it takes to be a serious artist?’

“He said, ‘Keep at it and keep working, it’s all practicing. No one is a great artist the first few years. You have to stay dedicated and committed to what you want to do, and yeah, you have what it takes’,” she recounted.

“He noticed I took an interest in landscape painting, so he invited me and another student to paint with him and a group that he’s been with for several years, on the weekends.”

Artists have professional difficulties and St. John’s experience has been passed on. “He’s a really good studio teacher, but he’s also good at helping you become an artist (with) your day-to-day life. Like when you’re feeling down about studio time … and what’s it like be an artist, he helps with it,” Kristie said.

“He was a great teacher because he spent time with his students and gave them the individual attention they really need to become the artists they wanted to become. I hate to use the word mentor, but he falls under that title for me. He says, ‘You have to do it yourself, but I will be here to help you’,” she added.

St. John studied at the San Francisco Art Institute under James Weeks, a Figurative School painter, in 1960, then refined his training at the California College of Arts & Crafts. Before joining CND he was curator of modern art at the Oakland Museum.

As former art department chair, St. John was responsible for a number of changes over the last few years. When he took over the department, “It seemed like the art program was floundering a little bit,” he said.

His goal was to establish a strong fine arts program where graduates go on to good graduate schools, become good artists and get employed. “It’s become a much more cohesive art department,” he said.

One of the changes he oversaw gave lead to a new direction and new leadership at the school.

“We had to wind down the interior design program. For it to be a good program it had to be seriously upgraded with a huge commitment of money and had to be a lot bigger program,” St. John said.

He felt that size program would overwhelm the fine art needs, but changes needed to be made. “We already had a graphic design program and the way to go was to expand that; there’s a real practical spin on it for the students.” St. John hired Betty Freidman, who took over this year as department chair.

Friedman has worked as a graphic designer and “knows more about computers than most people at the college,” said St. John. College of Notre Dame was able to offer students a class in printmaking as Friedman is a master printmaker as well, he added.

Though St. John has no official connection to the Wiegand Gallery, teaching studios are in the same building and he volunteers his time. Currently he is arranging a show for faculty member Terrell Smith for this Spring at the Wiegand Gallery.

This article was written by William Cracraft/Freelance News Service and first published in 1998 in the 75th Anniversary Edition tabloid published by Alameda News Paper Group. Any accompanying photos were also taken by William Cracraft. It is reproduced here as a portfolio piece.


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