Artist Spotlight: Terry Elkins

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In an effort to leave behind the distractions of everyday life, artist Terry Elkins prefers to paint on location rather than in his studio, a practice he began more then 25 years ago after moving to Bridgehampton. However, when he’s out on the bluffs of Montauk, painting seems secondary while the main purpose for being there is to appreciate the beauty of the landscape. He has been living on the East End since the late ’80s and has witnessed the evolution of the area in those decades, Hamptons Monthly caught up with Terry to learn how he strives to preserve the landscape, the culture and history, one painting at a time.

How did you first come to painting? Where did the spark come from?

I’ve been interested in art and image making since childhood. As I got older, art school pointed me in the right direction. When I was in graduate school at the University of Houston, I met some great artists through their visiting artist program who encouraged me to come to New York. After a few years in SoHo and two solo shows, I moved to Bridgehampton. That was in 1988. I’ve been here since, painting from the subject matter around me.

Several works in your Maritime and Nautical series appear to use a map as a canvas; can you tell us a little more about that?

I found a set of nautical charts when I moved into my studio, left by the previous tenant that contiguously stretched from Eastern Long Island to Cape Cod. The charts oriented me to where I lived, surrounded by water. It wasn’t long before I was drawing and painting on them and collecting charts to make collages combined with drawings. The first images were simple dory shapes drawn over local waters. The empty dory symbolized the bay men of this region and a bygone era. Then lighthouses and other maritime subjects entered as the work evolved. Aside from their functionality, the charts are quite beautiful, and when drawn over or superimposed with a recognizable image of that area, they make visual sense as does the image of the Montauk Point Lighthouse over the chart of Montauk. It grabs your attention; it’s a way of communicating an idea to the viewer.

You have quite a collection of Lighthouse Prints. Tell us about that as a source of inspiration.

I’m interested in their historical and architectural significance. As an artist, I’m reminded of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, who were also inspired by lighthouses as a subject matter. Shadows cast by hard light or the mood of a foggy outline add to the drama. Like the metaphor in “The Keeper’s Concern,” the light from the lantern has gone out, the door is open and lit only from the keeper’s light as he climbs the stairs. He’s a sentinel, a guardian who watches over others. There’s also a commercial niche I’ve been able to develop. The prints have allowed me to reach thousands of people who could not otherwise afford a piece of my work.

What elements of the Montauk landscape bring inspiration to you? Why are these most intriguing?

Everything about it is inspiring. Standing at the lighthouse overlooking the view out to Block Island, watching the waves wrap around the point, or walking along the beach looking up at boulders precariously lodged in the bluffs above, sheared off the tops of the Green Mountains in Vermont by the last glacial period, deposited here 20,000 years ago. Even on a bad day it’s beautiful.

While painting on location, do you bring all of your materials with you or is there a selection that allows you to capture a moment then come back to it for finishing?

Logic would say you bring only what you need when I go out to paint, and whatever you need you must carry and then you come home with a painting. However, if you forget something important like bug spray or a palette knife you’re out of luck. Painting on location is an ongoing process for me. There are times when I go back to the same place for days, even years, at the same time of day to catch a certain light in order to finish a painting. Every now and then I’ll bring home an unsatisfactory piece only to scrape all the oil paint just off to salvage the linen. Some days I set up to paint and find myself exploring for hours, never picking up a brush. It’s not what I’ve done at the end of the day that’s important. Ideas often come together at the end of the week or while working through a series.

What are you currently working on?

For the past few summers I’ve been doing constructions, using small pieces of driftwood applied to canvas. There’s a tactile element I enjoy, a three-dimensional relief to these works. When I begin I’m never sure how it all might fit together. The piece “Driftwood Beach” started as an unsuccessful painting. It was a risk adding the driftwood and the result was something I’d never imagined. Right now I’m painting from the same familiar subjects and the landscape around me as before, but the driftwood series has helped me approach old ideas with a fresh perspective. Most artists will say you have to take chances with your work if you’re going to evolve. Sometimes you make a mistake, and sometimes the outcome is rewarding.