Sunday, December 8, 2013

Courtroom Artist, Plein Air Painter and Mad Sketcher: An Interview with Bill Ternay

Hi friends. Today I have something new for you: an interview. A couple of years ago I met Bill Ternay through blogging and as we got to know each other I discovered he'd had a fascinating career. I asked if he would mind doing an interview and fortunately he was game. Below is our conversation and a sampling of his work. You can follow his blog, Postcards from Philly, here.
REMPEL: Bill, we met through our blogs and I have to say the thing that initially blew me away was your command of sketching and your dedication to your sketchbooks. I believe you're on your 59th sketchbook?
TERNAY: Actually I just started number 60, since 1974. With very few exceptions, my primary sketchbooks ever since art school have been the traditional 9"x12"x1" black "Art Student" kind. I got in the sketching habit as a kid in South Jersey, whiling away the otherwise boring time between waiting on customers in my parents country store.
My first job after art school (1964) was in the art department of KYW-TV 3, in Philadelphia.
In 1974 I decided to go "freelance" as an illustrator. A high school art teacher friend gave me a new sketchbook and said, "Bill, I know you sketch all the time, so I want you to start your new freelance career with this book: "number one." The only thing I ask is, when it is filled, give it back to me so I can show my students what they should also be doing." He said he'd make sure I got it back, after his death. Well, that old friend is now in his late 90s! But he did finally give me sketchbook number one about a year ago.
REMPEL: Bill, you've been a painter, an illustrator and for a large chunk of your career a courtroom artist. I find that a fascinating occupation. Can you tell us how you came to that profession?
TERNAY: While working at Channel 3 I was one of 7 artists in the art department. I was the only illustrator. Pennsylvania is one of the states in the U.S. that does not allow cameras in the courts. Our news department started sending me to cover trials. It was scary at first because I had to become familiar with what the "rules" were when dealing with the judicial system. To this day I try to include the bailiffs, deputies, and the lowliest of court personnel in my court-art, 'cause each has their little "territory," and each can totally ruin my day. Once they see themselves on TV or in the newspaper, they are my friend. My earliest drawings were done back in the studio, from quick sketches done in court. Now I complete them in court...and miss out on lots of lunches, because of the crazy "same-day" deadlines. But I love the challenge.
Rempel: I imagine you were exposed to many hours of horrific testimonies over the years. How did you deal with that?
I must tell you that, although way down on the list as a source of income, being a courtroom artist has been  the most challenging and  satisfying (to my ego) thing I've done as an artist. But you are correct about the horrific element, when it comes to murders, etc. With the exception of those rare times when there is not a jury present (bail hearings) and I get to have a view from the jury box, I'm usually sitting on the 2nd row from the front, and on the side of the courtroom where the victim's family sits.
The reason for that is it gives me at least a 3/4 view of the Defendant, who sits on the other side of the courtroom. Sitting with family members who I often get to know, if a long trial, certainly provides for many painful moments. I am a father of 3 sons, so when there is a Coroner on the witness stand, describing in great detail, and showing images of the murder victim...and my job is to draw...whatever? That, needless to say, is very unpleasant.
On the other hand, I get GREAT PLEASURE out of drawing a defendant as the jury is announcing unanimously that he or she has been found GUILTY. And it's always fun drawing arrogant crooked politicos! Over the years onlookers have asked me if I can draw and listen at the same time to what's going on? I remind them one is "left-brained," the other "right-brained, so no problem."
And yes, there are some books out there by courtroom artists. Right now my top personal project is to add my "coffee-table" book to the small pile, which I am in the very early stages of writing.
REMPEL: After getting to know you a bit better and wandering through your blog I learned we have a few things in common: we love plein air painting, Vincent van Gogh, France, photography and Halloween.
So first of all: our love of France. You were there teaching a workshop in 2010. Your posts from that time are wonderful and had me aching to return. Being surrounded by all that beauty - was it tough making mental edits in such a visually arresting environment? Did you approach your plein air painting any differently?
TERNAY: I had two free days to paint on my own while in Provence, before the students arrived. Although in the workshop we used acrylics, my personal works were in watercolor. I was very excited to be painting in the Medieval town of Bonnieux, but I feel my first paintings were a bit tighter than I'd hoped. I did 6 paintings, and the final 4 were looser because I was no longer intimidated by, as Bonnard would have said, "la Motif."
REMPEL: At your plein air workshops you have students with varied levels of experience but is there one concept above all others that you try to instil in everyone?
TERNAY: First of all I ask everyone to show up with "Beginner's Mind." Harder for those who've had any kind of experience; easy for the novice. Instilling the importance of VALUE STUDIES is my focus more and more these days. In my own work and that of students, problems in paintings more often than not have to do with not exploring compositional options before picking up a brush. Ditto color studies. All seen as extra work, especially by those who have experience, but never done by them. Happily some students have a "eureka" moment when they do the preliminary sketches. I think this would apply more to "representational" paintings, and less so to abstract or more expressive kinds of painting, where the final image is the result of an evolving process in the act of painting.
Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, Pierre Bonnard
REMPEL: What artists do you currently have a crush on? And do you have one long-standing love? 
TERNAY: I have always considered myself fortunate to have very wide-ranging tastes in art, of all kinds. From Andy Wyeth to Andy Warhol and almost everything in between and on either side. I may not always understand what I'm experiencing, but I try to keep an open mind, and a wide belief-system. So many people (including artists) think there are good and bad "kinds" of art. I think there's just good and bad art. I love the works of David Hockney, Wolf Kahn, the late Lucien Freud and Alice Neel. Each has been prolific, willing to take risks, and couldn't care less what the critics say. I love so many English and Asian watercolorists. But since I seem to be more than a bit of a "Romantic", my biggest crush continues to be saved for Pierre Bonnard. His color is always lush, his compositions skewed and surprising, and for me he is a constant source of inspiration; my "touchstone." My second choice would be Vincent Van Gogh.
REMPEL: Yes, looking at other artists work is vital. When I was young I didn't understand that. I was focused on refining my own skills. The painting styles I didn't understand or care for I kind of passed over. As I grew in my education I realized that being exposed to a variety is key! What are your thoughts about art education in schools?
TERNAY: That's a tough one to answer. I recently taught a one day watercolour workshop for art teachers K thru 12 and they were a very well-meaning and enthusiastic bunch. I had to give written justification for the "suits" in the New Jersey schools that what I was teaching would be information that teachers could then pass on to their students, which was pretty easy to do. The teachers told "war stories" among themselves about lack of financial and administration support for the arts in the majority of schools. So sad. Even worse is the fact that a few of the "art" teachers areas of expertise were in other fields, like history or chemistry. They'd replaced art teachers because they had the tenure. On the other hand, I live in a very wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, with the majority of residents very well educated, who demand their kids get quality education in the arts. For better or for worse, it seems to come down to the old adage "Money talks."
REMPEL: And art appreciation in the masses? I heard an interview with Rosanne Cash by Jian Ghomeshi (Q, CBC radio) and she said something I thought was very astute. Now I'm paraphrasing, but in the course of their discussion she said she would take sex and religion out of the discussion among politics and put art education at the top of the priority list. She said if you listened to Miles Davis for instance, really listened, your mind would get stretched and your synapses would get fired up in a different way and then you could think differently about other issues: money, health, work, politics, global issues... And she stated she thought art and music and poetry had changed things more than politicians ever had. I absolutely loved that. What are your thoughts?
TERNAY: Someone once said "Artists are the "High Priests" of society." Throughout history cultures rise and fall, and it is the art they leave behind: architecture, cave paintings, carvings, jewelry, whatever, that informs us about those cultures. I would say Ms. Cash is very perceptive. Although I am in the graphic arts, I think THE major form of communication around the world is music. There is no doubt we artists, in whatever medium of expression, have amazing power. I believe most governments, even those who support the arts, are aware of  "Arts" potential to change minds, to enlighten, to engage, and sometimes to enrage.       
OK, time to go up to my studio and don my priestly robes.


Unknown said...

Kim, are you sure you're not interviewing some other "Bill Ternay" in this post?
I am so honored to be a guest on your wonderful expressive blog, and I hope you know you are the reason my blog is once again up and out there.
Thank you, my Canadian friend.

Ray said...

Bill Ternay, what a guy! His take on live as seen/heard through his art has inspired me to 'get off my . . .' and start writing again. Thank you Kim for introducing & publishing your friend and High Priest to the masses.

Patti Vincent said...

Wonderful post/interview Kim. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the entire post. Thanks for the inspiration to draw, draw, draw.

Taryn Day said...

Great interview, Kim. As a kid I used to see lots of courtroom art on the tv news, and it always fascinated me that the artists could summarize people so adeptly- and I believe in pen (?) I just love these drawings of Bill's. They show his great ability to read people, and his sense of humor. I like the way he fills the whole space with textured details.
You ask great questions and Bill gives fascinating answers.