Once Upon a Time
An Introduction to Terri Windling's Art
by Ellen Steiber
It's hard to separate Terri Windling's art from her fiction, her essays, her travels, her friendships, her spiritual beliefs, or from the magical environments she creates. Having had the good fortune to share a home with her for ten years from 1990 to 2000, I've seen how each of these facets of her life nurtures the others, how they're all part of an integrated whole that's inspired by myth and fairy tale and is rapturously in love with beauty in all its forms. She's recently championed the term interstitial arts, a term for arts that defy easy categorization, that cross all boundaries and refuse to sit neatly in any one genre, groove, or medium. It's a fitting description for Terri's own multifaceted work.
Every artist's work is in some way a sum of life influences. Terri's work honors the artists who've shaped her more directly than most. She's quick to say that the earliest and most enduring influence on her vision and imagination was a book she was given as a child: The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, illustrated by the French artist Adrienne Ségur. (There is, in fact, a group Terri dubbed the Sisterhood of Ségur, that includes Wendy Froud, Heidi Anne Heiner, myself, and countless others who have this in common:
All of us grew up on the Ségur book and none of us has ever gotten over it.) Ségur's work, which bears the influence of Renaissance portraits, is jewel-like. She managed to not only capture the beauty of the tales, but to endow both their human and animal characters with what I can only describe as a luminous nobility of the soul. Terri has written eloquently about why The Golden Book of Fairy Tales was so important to her, how it was a bridge into a world of beauty and magic as well as a road map for survival. [You can read her essay on Adrienne Ségur here.] I suspect Ségur's influence also had a lot to do with Terri's passion for rendering animal forms. So many of Ségur's paintings illustrate an intuitive connection between the human and animal realms, which has become a powerful theme in Terri's own art. Love of fairy tales led her to the artists who next became major influences: the turn-of-the-century English fairy tales illustrators (Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, Warwick Goble, etc.), the Pre-Raphaelites (particularly William Morris), and the artists of the Arts & Crafts movement. In the early 1980s, while she was working as an editor of fantasy fiction in New York City, Terri became friends with a group of Boston artists that included Thomas Canty, Robert Gould, Phil Hale, Rick Berry, and Sheila Berry—many of whom (Hale being a vehement exception) were exploring a modern version of Arts & Crafts ideals called New Romanticism.
“I used to take the train up to Boston on weekends and hang out in their studios,” Terri recalls. “It was incredibly inspiring to be around others interested in the same kind of art that I was—particularly after feeling like such an oddity in college for being obsessed with Victorian art while everyone else worshipped Jasper Johns. Suddenly I was able to talk about Morris and Waterhouse and Rackham to my heart's content, with others who shared my enthusiasm. We were all young then—I was in my early twenties—and those were important, formative years for me. Tom, especially, had a strong impact on my ideas about art, books, and design.”
In the late 1980s, established as one of the most influential editors in the fantasy field, Terri decided to leave full-time editing work in order to write and make art herself, and she moved up to Boston, where she rented a studio in the city's North End. There, in the Castignetti Building at 63 Endicott Street, the Endicott Studio was born.
The studio was an old warehouse space with windows overlooking the Boston skyline, close to Fanueill Hall Marketplace and the docks of Boston harbor. She invited Sheila Berry to share the space, and in the following year Rick Berry and Phil Hale took over a painting studio one floor below. “Sheila and I liked to go out, roam the city and draw together,” she says. “I knew quite a lot about art and art history, but what I really needed was to learn how to draw properly. Working with Sheila, and running in and out of all the other studios in the Castignetti Building, was a crash course in art making. There were print-makers, art restorers, painters of all kinds, even clothing and furniture designers in the building. The writer James Carroll had the studio next door. It was a good time to be in the North End, when rents were cheap and artists could still afford it.”
During this period, Terri often worked in brownline prints (in a process developed by Thomas Canty): images rendered in soft sepia tones, highlighted by pencils and chalks. A number of these brownlines depicted fairy tale heroines and mythic figures, but there were also images of this world, portraits of couples dancing or lovers curled together in sleep. Reveling in a life now filled with canvases and paints and endless cups of Italian coffee, Terri took life-drawing classes, co-sponsored a group for women artists, and organized a number of exhibitions, many of them mixing art and books and co-hosted by Ellen Kushner (a late-night d.j. on WGBH Radio at the time), such as “Urban Romanticism,” and the tongue-in-cheek, “You Too Can Be a Pre-Raphaelite!” One of the most powerful Endicott shows had a far more serious theme. “Surviving Childhood” featured a series of courageous, heartbreaking, large-scale charcoal drawings by Terri, each a glimpse into a blue collar childhood defined by domestic violence. The show in turn inspired her later anthology, The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors.
It was during the 1980s that Terri began visiting a small Devon village in southwest England, where artists friends Alan and Marja Lee, Brian and Wendy Froud, and (in the late 80s) Robert Gould all lived. Each time she went back, the conviction that she'd like to live there herself grew stronger, and in 1990 she left city life behind and moved to Devon. In Devon, she was not only living in a Rackham landscape, but she was surrounded by artists who, like herself, practiced the wisdom of William Morris and Vanessa Bell—believing that one's art extends into one's living space, that every inch of one's house is a canvas, to be painted, decorated, continuously made beautiful. When she first moved into her 400-year-old stone cottage, she researched the building's history and found that it had originally been a weaver's cottage. I remember how right this seemed to her, an affirmation that she was in exactly the right place, carrying on a lineage of sorts, weaving together all the strands of beauty, all the colors that delighted her, everything she held dear, into her fiction and art.
While making her plans to move to Devon, Terri visited friends who had moved to Tucson, Arizona—and much to her own surprise, she fell deeply in love with the Sonoran desert and the mixed cultures of the American Southwest. Never one to be adverse to new adventures, and trusting to her instincts, she promptly decided she'd divide her time henceforth between Devon and Tucson—which is how we came to live together, as I was interested in moving from the East Coast to the Southwest.
We rented a house (actually, three houses over the next ten years), which she shared with me during the winter months. One of the things I loved most about sharing these homes with Terri was watching her transform perfectly ordinary spaces into ones that felt positively enchanted. When we first moved to Tucson, the bright Mexican colors seemed garish to us both. We preferred the subtler, quieter Eastern or European palette. Before long, however, we'd both fallen completely in love with the Mexican aesthetic. (Something in the desert landscape changes your palette, makes you thirst for bright colors.) Our third rental, where we settled for seven years, was just a small, run-down Sixties tract house (albeit on beautiful desert land), but with paint and imagination Terri somehow turned it into a charming faux-adobe ranch. She painted our kitchen walls in bright Mexican yellows, purples, blues, sage green, dark pink (it was supposed to be rose, but that's another story) with ripples of gold in Mexican patterns around the doors. The living room was an exquisite wash of soft browns and beiges, like an old adobe wall, with the silhouette of a desert sycamore tree painted in white, and Navajo red edging the dusk-blue door. I don't mean to rhapsodize about living room walls, only to give you an idea of Terri's ability, compulsion, to transform space. To make it all art. As she says, she can't live in a place without making love to it.
Terri has described the art work she did back in Boston as a kind of apprenticeship. She says, “I didn't find my own style until I moved to Tucson and started seriously painting in oils. In the desert light, my palette, technique, and imagery abruptly changed.” Though she now has proper studio space in the Tooleshed/MOCA Arts Buildingin downtown Tucson Beckie Kravetz), when we first moved to Tucson her “studio” consisted of her drawing table set up in a corner of our kitchen. No matter. She began her myth-inspired “Desert Spirits” series there, and our three cats were fascinated by the process, contributing to it whenever possible with fur and footprints. These pieces were not in the New Romantic style of Canty and Gould and her art circle in Devon. Rather these paintings were born of a more eclectic range of influences from Mexican Surrealism (Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington) to Bill Worrell and Holly Roberts. The strongest influence of all, though, was the desert itself, the greens and browns and blues of the Sonora, the endless skies and the mountains that change with every shift in light, the javelinas and jackrabbits and roadrunners who were the true owners of our property, the coyotes that sang us to—or startled us out of—sleep, and the blend of cultures—Native American, Latino, and Anglo—that have made the desert their home and embodied it in stories, songs, and art.
The first of the “spirits” to emerge from her drawing board was a powerful shamanic figure, “Mountain Lion Woman.” The painting technique is rougher, wilder than the carefully drawn prints done in Boston, with the Mountain Lion Woman's pelt seeming a part of the night sky. Her kin soon followed, a still-growing series of spirits native to the land and inspired by its mingled folktales and myths. Some of them, like “The Spirit of Water and Stone,” are protective figures, but there are also tricksters (both benevolent and malevolent, as tricksters tend to be), healers, muses, and oneiric shape-shifters beneath the desert moon. Beyond the palette of desert colors, these iconic paintings share a number of recognizable elements that form a kind of symbolic language. Many of the figures are wounded, which in Terri's iconography symbolizes the importance of “acknowledging difficult passages of life, as opposed to fearing, repressing or ignoring them; celebrating the strength and wisdom that comes from hard experience.” Female figures commonly have one breast exposed, for clothes half on or half off indicates a state of transformation, “shedding human consciousness or returning to it from a primal animal state.” Both male and female figures are often horned, which symbolizes that they are healing spirits. Many have one eye that is either shut or concealed. Reminiscent of Odin's blind eye gazing into the spirit world, these figures look into the “Wilderness World,” the realm of spirits, ancestors, and myth.
Look closely at Terri's paintings and you'll often find words inked lightly onto the paint or scratched into the background. While some of these words are legible, they are not meant to form complete sentences; they're not meant to be read literally at all. Rather, they're a tribute to the artist's love of words, to her reluctance to cordon off her beloved stories, that is textual art, from visual art. “The words are intended to evoke ancient stories, distantly recalled and half-forgotten. My desert paintings are rarely illustrative of any single folk tale, but of generations of stories, layered one on top of the other—the mingled stories of indigenous and immigrant groups, woven together, affecting each other.” Though each of these paintings is a portrait of a figure who lives somewhere in the interstices between reality and myth, they are also embodiments of the landscape, its harsh beauty and its mystery. “I think of myself as a landscape painter of sorts, even though my work is figurative, because each figure embodies my feelings about a particular piece of land, at a particular time of day. To me, the land and the myths that it contains are inseparable.”
In a lighter vein than the “Desert Spirits” series, some of Terri's paintings (and especially her pencil drawings) can also be whimsical and childlike, picturing thorny cactus fairies, wild-haired tree spirits, young girls with rabbit ears and coyote tails. They're images reminiscent of Victorian children's book illustrations but flavored by the Sonoran desert.
In the summer of 1993 Terri visited Midori Snyder, who was then living with her family in Milan. Terri was smitten by Italy, and in the spring of '94 she returned to rent a farmhouse about an hour south of Florence. There she drank in the master painters of the Italian Renaissance, in particular the works of Pierro della Francesca and Fra Angelico, and made her first monoprints under the guidance of printmaker Jacqueline Warren. Later, back in England, Terri began a new series of oils whose theme seemed inevitable: paintings based on the classic fairy tales. Appropriately, these paintings are in a very different style than the “Desert Spirits.” Their palette is darker, the figures a little more formal, reflecting their European roots, and in them we glimpse the dark aspects found in the oldest versions of the stories. Her Red Riding Hood hints at the sexual overtones in earliest versions of the tale. Her Cinderella is a bold figure, like the heroine of the older renditions. And her Donkeyskin betrays the shame at the heart of this incest story.
Collage is another medium that Terri uses to explore fairy tale themes, often inspired by feminist fairy tale poetry (by Anne Sexton, Olga Broumas, Carol Ann Duffy, Delia Sherman, and others). These are more delicate, disparate images; they don't have the immediate power of the oils, yet they may be the most representative of her approach to art and life. The collages allow her to literally sew together painting, old photographs, leaves and flowers, bits of poetry and fairy tales, lace and buttons, and in one, a discarded glove. They are in their own way portraits. You look at them and imagine the person who read the fairy tale, wore the lace, picked the flower. She has described this work as “combining paintings and drawings with old bits of fairy tale texts stitched right into the page, bringing 'old wives' tales' together with other arts traditional to women: spinning, sewing, lace-making ... a bit of this and a bit of that ... just as cooks create soup, and as women through the centuries have created their lives.”
Sometimes I feel Terri can't help but blend words and paint, image and text, past and present, animal and human. Any one of those things is simply too restrictive for the wealth and depth of her imagination. Her vision of art is inclusive, one that transcends opposites, genres, mediums, times. Paintings, collage, story, poems, dried leaves, and bits of lace—they are all part of a continuum of beauty.
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