Born in Regina Saskatchewan in 1940, Terry Fenton took his BA in English literature in 1962 at the University of Saskatchewan, and since then has been based in Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon. He is well known for his many books and articles on most of the outstanding artists of our time, among them Jack Bush, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro and Jules Olitski. He is also known as co-founder, organizer and first visiting critic of the Triangle Artists Workshop in Pine Plains NY in 1982, and for his participation in many other lectures, symposia and workshops in the US and the UK as well as Canada. Less well known are his many endeavors on behalf of Canadian art and artists, and least of all, perhaps, as an artist himself Nevertheless, before he entered the University of Saskatchewan in 1960, he had already had two years of art school, and at his website, you will find many of the powerful landscapes he has painted over the years, mostly showing the great expanses and soaring skies of the Westem Canadian countryside,* more recently, he has also become interested in photography as an art form (though he'd used it as an aid for his painting much earlier). "Adrift, " the painting here reproduced, was chosen because it dramatizes (very literally) the height and breadth of his vision, with that single greyish cloud floating in its enormous field of blue. I interviewed Fenton over the web, as follows:
1. When did you start painting, and why?
I started painting in elementary school in Regina I could draw pretty well and as a result of that my parents sent me to art lessons Saturday mornings starting when I was about 10 years old. The lessons were in the home of an elderly lady named Laura Lamont who had studied at the Ontario College of Art under G. A. Reid, a precursor of the Canadian Group of Seven. Her walls were salon-hung with her own paintings. We (five or six students) mostly copied subjects from reproductions and photographs, though she occasionally set up a still life. We always painted with oil paints and it was there that I learned how to mix paint and lay out a palette, something I was never taught in art school. From 1958-60 I attended Art School at Regina College. I had wonderful teachers, most of whom became members of what became known as the "Regina Five". Between the two years I was there, they were involved in an artists workshop at Emma Lake led by Barnett Newman. They returned changed men and went on to make better, more ambitious art. That made me curious about workshops, though I'd known about New York abstraction in high school via books in the local library and yearned for a taste of it.
2. Have you always painted representational, and if so, why? If not, when did you decide to focus on representation as opposed to abstract & why?
I painted some abstracts in art school and after, but always hankered to paint from nature, although my teachers and most of my artist friends were and are abstract painters (and sculptors). I guess I thought that there was something left to do in representation, especially landscape. This was reinforced by my response to the landscape and a desire to recapture that in paintings; by the fact that I didn't require the large studio that abstraction in the latter 20th C seemed to demand -- which meant that I could work at home when I was curator/gallery director and had little spare time; and also that I didn't carry much baggage from my own art when I was looking at art in the studios of my abstractionist friends. But really I paint landscape because that's what I do best.
3. What qualities do abstract art and your paintings have in common? How do they differ?
I learned a lot about color from Jack Bush and Ken Noland and Clem Greenberg, and about all-overness and painterliness from Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. Clem observed once that I was the only painter he knew who always started in the middle-ground. I suspect that I learned to do that from abstraction. I wanted the distance traditionally the background to carry the expressive weight. The main way representation differs from abstraction (apart from the obvious) is that you have to handle space a different way: you have to build an illusion of space into the flatness; instead of objects in the foreground I try to nail down the horizon.
4. How long have you been painting the landscape around Saskatoon? What do you like about that landscape? What makes you want to paint it?
I painted it in the late 1960s when I lived in Regina and have been painting it again since 1993 when I moved from Calgary to Saskatoon. What appeals to me about the Saskatchewan landscape is its colour and light. I'd been moving in that direction when I'd been in the foothills around Calgary previously, but Saskatchewan is much richer in colour than Alberta -- than any landscape I've experienced, in fact. Actually, I'm drawn to the southern prairies more than to the more bushy "parkland" around Saskatoon, perhaps because I was raised in Regina: they're more open and light-filled, more "abstract" I suppose. And they've seldom been painted.
5. How far do you have to drive from your home in order to get to the open country that you depict? What's the furthest you've ever been in search of a subject?
A lot of my subjects are within a half-hour drive from Saskatoon. My working methods may help to explain this. In the studio I paint from photographs never from sketches or small paintings, although I do small drawings, watercolors, and oils from nature whenever I can. When we go on trips, I take photos out the car window while my wife drives. As a result, many of the paintings are taken from subjects between Regina and Saskatoon, or Edmonton and Saskatoon. When I'm on my own in the car I stop and take photos or sometimes snap out the window as I drive. That said, my far-from-home subjects over the years have been: mountains in Alberta and the BC interior, ocean paintings from Vancouver Island, uranium mine sites in northern Saskatchewan, and the prairie and ranchland in southwest Saskatchewan.
6. Can you describe your current procedure for making paintings, starting with the digital camera as a substitute for a sketch pad? When did you switch over from the one to the other? What media and grounds do you use? What is their usual or typical size? When did you start offering the photographs as artworks in themselves? Do you see them as a substitute for your paintings or a supplement for them?
I've always painted in the studio from photos: slides at first, then colour prints, and now digital. I've always painted from my own photos. I've been using a digital camera for about five years it gives more control over colour than colour snapshots and isn't the nuisance that slides present. As mentioned, I take a lot of pictures on excursions. I sift through them endlessly on the computer, editing, colour correcting, and cropping. I paint mostly on paper, cutting down a heavy watercolour sheet to a golden section (18.5 x 30 in.) I discovered the golden section in the late 1990s. I don't see anything mystical in it, I just love the format for landscapes, the relation of width to height seems ideal.
The photographs are a curiosity. I first encountered photographs as "fine art" when I saw The Family of Man at the MacKenzie Gallery in Regina when I was in high school, but my first experience of fine photographs that weren't "arty" was when I saw the Walker Evans portraits in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Subsequently I booked an exhibition of Evans prints into the MacKenzie Gallery in Regina (where I then worked) in 1966. It was a revelation. Later, I discovered Atget. When I was in Edmonton in the 1970s I began a photography collection at the Edmonton Art Gallery and encouraged (& engaged) photographers to photographs the province inspired by the American FSA in the 1930s. (One Alberta photographer, Orest Semchishen, should be represented in MOMA, but won't be; Western Canada is more off the art map than Eastern Europe or much of Asia.)
My own "serious" photography began when I got my digital camera. It eliminated the need for a darkroom, which was a big obstacle in the past. My photographs are everything my paintings aren't: up close city subjects rather than distant rural ones; human presences (people absent) rather than natural ones. I'm closer in spirit to Atget than to Evans. I shoot in colour, not b&w. I have many thoughts (and misgivings) about that, as colour so often gets in the way in photographs. But it seems to work for me, at least on the computer or TV screen and I seldom make prints. But to talk about photography could take hours and might end up going around in circles. Clem Greenberg loved good photographs and lamented that he could never pin the medium down well enough to write about it.
7. Specifically, how did you find the subject for "Adrift," and what in particular attracted you to it? How did you go about making it?
Adrift came from a photo taken on a brief evening trip South of Saskatoon enroute to Beaver Creek. Looking west to the evening clouds gave me the shot. It's painted on a hardboard panel, very smooth. The hardboard takes paint very differently from the textured (and absorbent) watercolor paper I usually work on. Its built up in thin paint layers. The surface is very matte almost chalky, like gouache.
FROM THE MAYOR'S DOORSTEP
is published in print and on the internet at http://pirihalasz.com about seven times a year by Piri Halasz.
She discusses current art exhibitions and American politics.
The "Deluxe Print Edition" includes commentary on the work of individual artists, not available on the internet.