A Safe Place

Looking for a way to tell a story . . .

I know I have mentioned many times before that after teaching in Canada for several years Kathy and I moved back to Texas where we started our new careers, me a scenic artist, Kathy an art and antique restorer/conservator. At that time in Dallas, mid/late 80s, there was a booming stage production, movie, live theater business that employed a lot of full-time as well as freelance artists. I started at Applied Arts Studio in Deep Ellum but soon found myself a full time scenic at Dallas Stage Scenery. While there I eventually became lead scenic and responsible for running the paint crew mainly because the job was always given to the last man standing—the everyday grind, workload, deadlines, designer expectations—an incredible turn over.

It was my last few years at Dallas Stage that I started thinking about my past work. Leaving Dallas Stage full time and going freelance gave me the extra time to maybe start making art again. Kathy had never really stopped her own work but I had stopped completely. Starting over was going to be a real struggle. Painting sets for theater and various stage productions involved long hours and was physically exhausting; it completely changes the way you see and think about painting. I didn't want to think about work or art or my reasons for making something, maybe just go into my small studio and relax, drink coffee, listen to music, escape and just paint something. No pressure to make art, just paint and make stuff . . . try to enjoy painting again. I do remember spending a lot of time looking at street art, Japanese tattoos, outsider art, Chinese costumes, aboriginal art . . . tried really hard to stay away from art books and magazines.

I also remember looking at the work of James Hampton, a janitor in Washington, D.C. whose creation The Throne of the Third Heaven is truly an amazing piece and still one of my all-time favorites. A perfect example of a spiritually driven, passionate work by an outsider artist who offered unpretentious work made almost completely from found objects. The inspiring scale also offered the hint of it being part of a much larger plan. I found that really fascinating. I also became a big fan of the work of Emery Blagdon who was born and raised in rural Nebraska. School dropout who took charge of the family farm after the tragic loss due to illness of both parents as well as four of his brothers and sisters at an early age. Driven to change his environment, searching for peace and comfort he started creating his Healing Machines in a shed behind his house. Made from scraps of found material, holiday lights, wire, tin foil, small glass bottles of elements from the local pharmacy, beads and small pieces of anything that would blow in the wind and reflect light. Emery was convinced his Healing Machines emitted energy and possessed special healing powers.

I found the work of Hampton and Blagdon so inspiring. The reasons for the work were so pure and simple. I kept thinking of my new work and the reasons for starting over. Asking myself why was always in the back of my mind. It is the art school thing I guess, always seems to be the question artists are asked first, tell me about your work. I started thinking a lot about family. As I mentioned earlier I grew up in small town Texas, son of a minister, a deeply religious home. I still remember the "God Bless This Home" needlepoint on the kitchen wall next to the oven. Dad would set up his easel in the living room and paint images he collected from magazines while listening to Pat Boone and Tennessee Ernie Ford records. There was always something going on with somebody in the family . . . Mom, Dad, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, all involved in something: painting, collage, sewing, knitting, quilts, shirts, dresses, curtains, some worn, some things proudly decorating the walls. Neatness counted, don't get outside the lines so to speak. Not a lot of thought being given to why it was being done—out of necessity, maybe Christmas gifts, maybe because they simply enjoyed doing it. I liked that—paint because you love to paint.

I know it's not that simple, it's much more complicated than that. We are always searching for a way to tell our story, myself included. Altars, tablets, imaginary creatures, burning buildings, natural disasters things that influence us daily . . . starting the story with a triptych but needing more panels so simply adding more in order to finish the story. The search to tell a contemporary, autobiographical story of growing up the son of a minister in small town Texas in the 60s—heaven/hell, good/evil, saints/sinners, conflict/compassion, foolishness/forgiveness, guns/God . . . the search for a visual language, a lot to think about, it wasn't easy.

All that being said, the Altar pieces started it all. Sometimes I would spend days just painting small pieces of cut wood or even found wood from the back yard. Other days I would stack them all on top of each other, the next day I would turn them all upside down. I would cut them up, rearrange, change color or pretty much just try something, anything new. They ended up being a collection of thoughts and ideas that were accumulated over time and took the form of Altars in an attempt to give them a kind of special meaning. They even had hidden compartments where personal treasures could be placed.

What has developed as a result of the Altars pretty much dominates my work. A combination of collected patterns and painted textures placed together in a new environment. This became really evident in the GMO pieces—genetically modified organisms—which were imaginary laboratory creations. Being lab creations allowed total freedom, inspired by Siamese fighting fish and exotic beetles, pretty much anything goes!

Family memories have dominated my thoughts for quite a while now. Looking back on the Chisos Mountain pieces, one of the wonderful memories I have of my Dad was a vacation Kathy and I took with Mother and Dad to Big Bend National Park in the early 1990s. Dad was having health problems and he knew it but one day while we were all sitting around the kitchen table there at their house, Dad said let's go to Big Bend! It wasn't long after that we were on our way. I often find myself going back through old photos and reliving these wonderful moments. Little did I know at the time just how much of an impact this trip would have on my work. Years later I still find myself staring at the photos and trying to figure out how to deal with the memories.

Searching for a way to tell a story is an on going process . . . family, personal surroundings and just everyday events. Using tablets, Altars, GMOs, graffiti-covered burning houses, landscapes, pop-up postcards, natural disasters, Chinese costumes . . . the list goes on.

I'll have to admit it is pretty scary sitting alone in your studio with your own thoughts! I see why people can't do it. But believe me it is worth it. I agree with Emery Blagdon, I think our work protects us, provides a wall that surrounds us and shields us from all the unwanted noise out there. When the work leaves the studio it carries those powers with it. When you walk into a gallery you can feel it. You know you are in a safe place.

Born and raised in Texas, Terry Hays received his BS from West Texas State University and an MFA from Texas Christian University. Following graduate school, he spent eight years teaching painting and drawing at the University of Manitoba School of Art in Canada. Shortly after a return to Texas, he began painting large sets for stage productions and television, returning to teaching for a few years at Southern Methodist University in the theater department where he taught scenic painting.