The Pandemic changed everything.
I’m sure this is true for many artists; the prolonged social isolation became a period of self-reflection and soul searching. There was a sense of uncertainty that permeated every aspect of our lives. Yet we still had to produce artwork, even though there seemed to be much more important things to worry about.
Not surprisingly, my creative juices stopped flowing and I hit a wall. Slumps are no strangers to an artist, but this one seemed different, maybe because the whole world was in crisis mode. Try as I may, I just could not work through it as I normally do.
I began to question the work I was doing. Soon, I was no longer sure about my choice of subject matter, tools, materials, or process. I’ve always worked hard to gain control of these things, with the firm belief that one must have a command of the language in order to communicate effectively. And painting is a visual language.
But during this mother of all slumps, I found myself equating control with predictability, and not in a good way. I began to think, maybe I’m playing it too safe; maybe I’m not taking risks with my painting; maybe I’ve become complacent!
Before long, these doubts became truths, and at that point, I felt like I was having an identity crisis. Drastic action was in order. So, to shock myself into a new way of thinking and doing and to tear down my comfort zone, I destroyed about three hundred paintings and thousands of drawings that had accumulated in my studio. It was absolutely terrifying, but ultimately, cathartic.
What followed was a series of experiments and studies where I deliberately used unfamiliar materials and approaches, essentially denying myself the old way of working.
I started painting with acrylics and mixed media on hard surfaces primed with gesso, other times I used black house paint. I painted on different kinds of paper, plastic, and metal. (Previously, I had always been an oil painter, and my go-to substrate was linen.) I put away my nice brushes and picked up cheap house painting brushes and putty knives.
I painted tiny pictures, a couple of inches wide, and also much larger works several feet across, both with the intention of doing something unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
Because I wanted fewer things to think about and to work more intuitively, (as opposed to working methodically and controlling everything) I eliminated color, and only used black and white paint.
I decided that thumbnails and other preparatory studies allowed me too much room for analysis, so I abandoned them. Carefully drawing on my support prior to painting was giving me too much of a safety net, so that had to go as well.
I did away with all reference photos. I wanted to work spontaneously and freely. I did not want to be hindered by what I saw in photos, so I chose to paint only from memory and imagination. I wanted to see where it would lead. I really had no idea what to expect, and I guess that was the whole point. This uncertainty and the lack of predictability was such an adventure.
As expected, it was a huge struggle. Dozens of studies went straight into the trash, but wouldn’t you know it, I found the struggle really exciting! I felt like I was back in school making fresh discoveries.
Eventually this exploration led to a series of larger, monochromatic, urban paintings. I learned to embrace the state of not being in control, of not having an expectation of outcome. It was all about the doing, and the pleasure of the discoveries.
I would gesso (or not) a big sheet of birch plywood and start slapping gobs of black and white paint on it, without any reference or preconceived notion of the result — no preliminary drawing, no thumbnails, no clue. The start of a painting often looked like a bad imitation of a Franz Kline painting.
One of the central blobs would remind me of a figure or a car, and I would start to shape it to make it more recognizable. From there, a context would emerge, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. I would find other shapes and fit them into this visual space.
During the process of creating a believable environment on my panel, I would make drastic changes on a whim. A building would be demolished, figures moved around, cars would come and go. I made a point to just follow these impulses, especially if it meant destroying perfectly good passages. Why? Because it meant that I’m doing it for the sake of expression, not the end product. Not without trepidation and second thoughts, but I almost always found it very liberating and satisfying.
Many paintings from this series have a very noir feel to them, owing to the fact they’re black and white, and also, probably, because I like hardboiled crime novels and 1950’s jazz. The moody, atmospheric qualities of the works of James Cain and Miles Davis are clear influences. The improvisational nature of jazz is something that resonates with me especially. In fact, these paintings to me, feel very much like jazz improvisation, only using paint, rather than sound.
One aspect of this process that I find fascinating is the role of narrative. When a painting includes figures, often a narrative develops, whether intended or accidental. In my case, it plays a large role in this series because of the noir influence. I start thinking about the figures in my painting and their story which naturally, plays a role in how they develop.
Because I don’t have a plan when I begin a new piece, the narrative is hidden from me. I watch it materialize and change as I paint the picture. It’s like reading a book and I am finding out what happens as I turn the page. Even though I am the creator, I’m also a spectator, a reader. I come back to the realization that NOT knowing what happens next is the crux of this series. The mystery and uncertainty keep me engaged, and pushes me to make drastic changes on a whim. If I want to find out what happens next, I have to write it.
To get over my pandemic slump, I had to find ways to disconnect myself from thinking too much, planning too much, and following the rules too much. It allowed me to pursue immediacy, urgency, and intuitive expression. And because the process is more visceral, I feel I’m closer to touching upon my authentic voice.
The pandemic is a terrible thing, but if there’s a personal silver lining, it is that I’ve gotten to know myself better, and I’ve always felt that that’s the ultimate purpose of making art.
Anne Smith says
This was exactly what I needed to hear at this very moment. Last year I did a similar thing working in different mediums and outside my comfort zone. It was great last year but now I was falling back into a slump. Going to try some new things. I love the idea of total abandon. Great paintings.
SUZANNE VIECHNICKI says
I really related to this article. Your art work is deeply moving and created with great energy. Good things can happen from misfortune. The pandemic has touched all of us. Hopefully, it has taught us about the courage from within ourselves. We will emerge from this experience with a deeper understanding and an awareness of what we can explore and learn.
Melanie O’Keefe says
Oh thank you!!! This was so very well written. She has so precisely expressed what I also have been going through. I can’t adequately express how much this has helped me.
Ray Hassard says
Terry, these are so astonishing and so strong. I hope you will make them into a book; you already wrote the text for it. I would LOVE to see them in early stages and different choices being made and changes being wrought. I think all artists, and me especially, don’t like to abandon all comfort in the face of a blank surface, so congratulations for facing the beast head on and winning the battle!!!
Felicity Sidwell says
This expresses so well the way so many of us have felt these past months. The questioning and revaluation of our aims and processes. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m struggling to set aside my oil landscapes and move on to more abstract expressions of the shapes and colors of the land that delights me in rural Pennsylvania. It takes courage and “down time” to make change.
William D Marvin says
Thanks for the sharing your very gutsy, honest journey with us. Your thoughts were very fresh and enlightening and yes they caused me to examine my approach. Careful, controlled, and fun but always with the idea of producing a finished product that I could sell. Sometimes that conflicts with the creative process.
You listened to what the painting was telling you and produced some beautiful work. Hats off to you!
Sharon Schwenk says
Loved this. From the confession of despair to the new concepts. I am inspired by your story and perhaps identifying some of your feelings during this time. I have been stuck and need to find a way out.
Ann Watcher says
I have been loving your monochromatic paintings for months! They are spectacular, filled with movement, mood and life. Thanks so much for sharing your improvisational process. Just wonderful!
Susan McKenna List says
Appreciate your sharing your Covid art making experience, wonderful process, paintings and article – congratulations and thank you!
Chuck Manning says
Refined bit of journalism. Truly inspiring and hopeful take on the journey. Superb images, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Linda Harris Reynolds says
Very interesting thought process, and love the Black and White paintings you created! Thank you for sharing your story!
Linda Harris Reynolds
Ann M Lawtey says
Terry’s description of how the pandemic affected him was how many of us feel but hide it, dance around it or simply don’t have the feeling of being able to express what is going on verbally.
How he helped himself recover was daring. His courage admirable. Some of us flounder in the midst of the psychological impact of the pandemic.
I’m keeping this post to remind myself it’s okay to be totally open about how I’m doing treading water in the middle of the pond.
Julie Wileman says
Thank you for this article. Very freeing to hear your process and love seeing your outcome. Finding myself going through a similar process. This is a real encouragement to me.
Jayne Bourke says
Terry, you have heart… knowing this (the article & examples of your work) would resonate deeply with so many of us.
It also reminds me that, despite the hardest of circumstances, the urge to create still lives! You’ve found, like cave painters thousands of years ago, even with minimal tools, lousy light, and less than optimal surfaces, art IS possible.
If/when you return to your normal process or if you embrace a new one as a result of this journey, your work will no doubt benefit from this exploration. There is wonderful power and essential truth/narratives in these paintings! The spontaneity and responsiveness to your initial mark making is just awesome.
Thank you for sharing your personal experience of taking a difficult slump and making it into a powerful & exciting catalyst!
Always a fan, Jayne
Mary Byrom says
This is awesome to hear this.
I am always outside painting in some wild natural area already so the pandemic didn’t affect my work at all.
To see you change your materials, methods and process is fabulous! This art is still going to be you, more authentically you and you ditched the comfort zone! 😊
Teresa Madsen says
I’ve always loved Terry’s work, and am lucky enough to have a commissioned painting by him which is the highlight in my home. As a fan of film noir I am in love with these new works! No-one rocks urban landscapes better than Terry.
Liz Phillips says
Wow! So well put and very fascinating. Your ability to create a mood…with sound, from scratch, is mind-boggling to me. Very inspiring.
Casey Cheuvront says
Thanks for sharing your change up in process and for your personal response to the pandemic. I’m sure a lot of us went through the same thing. But your response is brilliant and more effective than mine, which was to avoid my studio for months on end. A reminder to avoid complacency as an artist and in life in general.
Hopper Carol says
99% of us would never throw this much caution to the wind. I admire what you have done while at the same time being shocked.
De Selby says
Always the drive to get things “right”, and looking to sell–imprisoning. I’ve always viewed collage with feelings of superiority, but dang, if I’m not tearing up rice paper and using acrylic mediums to create a textural stew for my precious oils to sit atop! Truly enjoyed seeing your pandemic pieces.
John W Fleck says
This article really clicked with me and my own journey as of late.
I am not the type of artist that wants to ever get a set way of working. I think constant exploration and experimentation are key. Maybe not for all, but I would get bored otherwise.
I appreciate Terry sharing this very much. All the best!
Laura Wambsgans says
Your story is inspirational, enlightening and encouraging. The Noir series of paintings are incredibly powerful! You took the situation of pandemic powerlessness and flipped it into having super painter powers. For years I have admired your work and theses new paintings are a whole different level.
Robert Impellizzeri says
Brilliant adaptation to the pandemic and exploration of his personal expression!
Carol Griff-Gianni says
Very brave and courageous!!!! Thar’s living in the moment for sure, hence, a very spiritual progression it seems to me. Congratulations!
Adrienne Cremins says
You expressed completely and beautifully the artistic process which the pandemic and its ramifications have stimulated. Everything has changed, and reinvention of what we do and how we do it is the creative way to cope with an insane situation. In fellowship with what you went through and, in awe of the results you shared – Thank you for this article.
Shirley Fachilla says
Immediate, fresh, wonderful. The kind of work that shows the viewer something new and unexpected every time they look.
Ned Mueller says
Bravo Again, Terry! I’ve been going through the same thing..but have yet to make the break that you have..I have had some pretty serious health issues the last few years and I think I just had too much to deal with! I hope a lot of Artists get access to this as it is truly inspirational! You always have been brave and different, so no surprise in a way!! Take care, Ned
Sarah Dowling says
Elsa L Mathews says
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts and finding out about your process. You echoed what many of us are feeling and took direct steps to proceed. I love the narrative in your paintings.
Mark White says
I also experienced the block although I didn’t tie it to the COVID situation. And, I did not take the changes
I made to the level that you did. I have yet to trash paintings, although, that probably is a good idea as it
would get rid of a lot of negatives as well as subtle influences staring me in the face every day. I have been working on some different subject matter which I have wanted to do for a long time.
Thanks for sharing and here’s to all of us moving on!
Mark Monsarrat says
Obviously, your reckless abandon is informed by many years of experience and great underlying skills.
But your story is inspiring nonetheless!
Donna Lewinter says
I absolutely loved this article by Terry Muira. I have been following his artistic journey for years now and started to see these fabulous black and white urban landscapes appearing on Instagram . I find it fascinating how adversity can lead to change and therefore sometimes an artistic slump can be the beginning of a dramatic change. Terry had to do something drastic to save himself-and in doing so he discovered a way of painting that is more visceral than cognitive, engaging him in the process rather than the result. The the lessons in this story are invaluable.
Ed Penniman says
Well stated, Terry, always great to see what you are doing and how you grow.
John LaPorta says
Bravo! That takes a lot of courage and the faith to let go…and I think if we are pursuing the potential of creative beauty with paint then we must eventually travel this road in some form or other. It comes through the process and out of the work and provides the food. The image or result is , whatever it is and will take care of itself. Best!
Tana Smith says
Terry, your story struck me as the archetypical hero’s journey. It is a long and difficult psychological process in which a person often feels lost and powerless. The only way to emerge from such a journey is to continue the struggle. Not everyone dips into the psyche as you have. These paintings show where you have been and how well you completed the journey. The artist is often the carrier of such themes, black and white, darkness and light. These paintings are not “lovely” or “beautiful” in the typical critical sense; instead, they are meaningful and strong. Good work, Mr. Miura.
Rick J. Delanty says
Terry, I admire the honesty, transparency, and clarity of this Journey Into the Unknown about which you have written, and which you have so intimately experienced. In one of my representational drawing workshops, after a series of several classes, one of my students asked, “So when do we get to Expression?” Perhaps that is THE question: When do we get to use all the training, fundamentals, principles, and purposeful practice to create Art, those creations that lead us into exploring ourselves in a deeper, more spiritual way. The role and significance of First Instincts, and the revelation of “alla Prima” as the most truthful response leaps to the fore in all you have most excellently written. I not only enjoyed your description of what took place in your journey, I am taking notes. Thank you for this, Terry!
Alisann Smookler says
I, too, found myself questioning my mediums, subjects, etc. Perhaps the Pandemic was a message to Stop, Breath and Change Course. I went from painting with Acrylics for decades to setting up my studio to paint in Oils. It has been a learning curve for sure…but one that has brought me to a new creativity and joy I have not felt in a while.
Your article is spot on…your work exceptional. Thank you for saying what so many of us are thinking and traveling this journey with you.
John P. Weiss says
Wonderful, authentic work. It’s good to experiment, try new tools, and explore new directions. These monochromatic urban pieces are so refreshing. Congrats.
Alan Gibbs says
Terry you are an inspiration
chick curtis says
What an intelligent, vulnerable, exciting and inspiring article. An existential crisis met head on with sheer blindness and faith at the same time. You needed to write this article just as much as we needed to read it. Thank you for your courage, daring, and creative audacity. I feel a surge of energy.
Penny Otwell says
Love your article and will print it out and read it again. You’ve taken COVID challenges with generous honesty and have learned to trust yourself. I’m fascinated with your reference to painting from memory. That you honor your memory to proceed in this painting process. You have the skills to pull this off with these spectacular paintings. Thank you for writing this —
Stephanie Jamgochian says
Wow! Fascinating and relatable article. I too fell into the “mother of all slumps” and did almost nothing the first year. I felt like a failure as an artist and wondered what the hell was going on-I mean I was at home all the time-I should be painting! Creating! All the time! No distractions! Then, finally I started changing things up, doing smaller pieces in other mediums, then much larger pieces-larger than I’d done before and entirely different subjects based on my pandemic experiences. I went inward focusing on what was directly around me as opposed to far-flung images of other landscapes and places. But amazing what you’ve done and the creative process you’ve developed is fascinating and insightful. That takes a lot of guts to just ditch everything you’ve ever known. That is very courageous. Thank you.
Marsha Hamby Savage says
I had put this article in a folder to come back to. I am so glad this morning I have read your article. It is inspiring and gives me ideas for what I have also been doing. I love starting from a reference, and then going to my memories, and wiping out and changing as the painting speaks to me. Or is it my inner voices/psyche speaking to me? This article is well worth reading several times. I have followed your work for many years. Thank you for giving.
Rick Rotante says
Terry- truth be known, many, myself included was affected by the Pandemic. I lost my gallery and studio in New Mexico. Lost my students. I questioned myself, my reasons for painting.
Not to make this too long- I also threw out my way of working. I dismantled many works from their frames, refurbished countless canvases. I work in oil, pastel and charcoal. I discovered a new way of working. Combining my love of faces, people and added abstraction. My new work is a combination of abstraction and realism. It has evolved over time but started with my love of western. Indigenous peoples. I painted two shows in larger format than I usually paint. The result was 42 new works in a style I have never worked before. Since then I have created 78 works in this new style. Being sequestered, I had nothing to do but paint.
If there is any good side to the Pandemic, it made me discover myself and hopefully become a better artist and person. Thank you for sharing your story.
Nikki Davidson says
Total mind blowing art!! Your compositions are so terrific I’d love to use them as studies for my students if you will grant me that permission. I teach underpainting as a gold standard in building composition and find that breaking up your compositions into large masses simplifies the process.
Thanks so much for this glimpse into your world of creativity.