by Todd Wilkinson
Inspired by pastoral central California, Terry DeLapp's paintings are testaments to what once was.
From Cannery Row in coastal Monterey all the way to the hinters east of Eden, John Steinbeck loved to sketch narratives in which characters found relief from their troubles in quiet pastoral landscapes. Today, there are many who say Terry DeLapp paints this same region of Central Calfiornia as well as Steinbeck wrote about it. Like Steinbeck, DeLapp's vision is drawn from long, inspirational dries through the rural countryside. And akin to the famous author, he chronicles - rather dramatically - a part of America that is almost mythical in its symbolism yet fleetin g from our modern memory. Steinbeck, Delapp says reverently, was in many regards a naturalist and conservationalist who wielded his pencil with the same sensitivity to landscape that painters try ot exude with a brush.
Every day that DeLapp cruises out of Cambria, his home, into the San Joaquin Valley, he is determined to remind us that tranquil pieces of Steinbeckian farm county still remain. His tonalist landscapes frequently feature a single barn or farmhouse that divides horizontal planes between endless sky and a soothing blur of row crops. they possess a literary quality that defies literalness, says New York gallery owner, writer and art collector Warren Adelson. "You wouldn't describe Terry's landscapes as scenic, at least not in any general pictorial sense," says Adelson. "Rather what they convey is a strong sense of place."
"There are places that when you drive by you just want to get out and run through the grass," says DeLapp, a third-generation Californian. "They are real, but they are almost ideally real. I see those farms and think that I'd like to dwell there forever. The fact that I can't, and that some of these places might not be there the next time I come this way, is what wears on me. Painting is a way of remembering moments."
Telling though they may be, DeLapp's paintings do not reveal a hint of the fascinating life he has lived. Besides being a painter, he is a gifted writer who has befriended actor Steve Martin, one of several high-profile individuals, who now collect his work. At one point, DeLapp was as well known for dealing fine art as he was for creating it.
Born in Pasadena, CA, in 1934, he attended local public schools as well as a military academy until his family moved to Cambria when he was a teenager. Upon graduation from high school there, he attended junior college, then enroled in the liberal arts program at UCLA, which, in turn, led him to the Chouinard Art Institute. Many of Delapp's contemporaries were on a fat track to become motion-picture illustrators at Warner Bros. and Disney. Others were taught by their post-modernist insrtuctors to reject realism in favor of abstract expressionism.
DeLapp ended up adhering to realism, striving to capture on canvas the aesthetic emotion of the pastoral environment he experienced earlier. However, by now married and with kids to raise, he needed to support his family, so he began buying and selling works by 19th and 20th century masters. In particular, he became an expert in Hudson River School and landscape painters who headed west.
Dealing art was a vital part of his education, DeLapp says, and he acknowledges that it influenced mightily his ability to go sparer with his brush strokes. "The instruction offered at UCLA, at that time, was focused on students totally doing their own thing. You painted for the people, and if it didn't benefit the masses then you burned it up." DeLapp says. "Eyeballing the works of American masters as an art dealer my own way rather than succumbing to abstract expressionism."
If pressed for a definition of his own work, DeLapp describes himself as a "neo-tonalist," reinterpreting the approach of a tonalist who thrived a century ago. He mentions James Abbott McNeill Whistler, George Inness, Xavier Martinez, and Julian Alden Weir as compass points but notes that veers away from impressionism. "In my mental eye," he says, "all things are reduced to color planes which relate to one another, rather than portraying a juxtaposition of colors."
Early in his career, DeLapp worked primarily in oils, but an allergic reaction necessitated a change to acrylics. In his studio, he works from two easels, with his last finished painting setting the standard for the next work. Across a fesh canvas, he makes a pencil drawing that forms the foundation for the planes of paint to follow. A typical work will have between 10 and 15 coats of paint, the first ones thin and mixed down with turpentine, the latter three coats applied thick and full of texture. DeLapp rigidly adheres to nine colors, mixes them, and only resorts to pure color if he needs a distinctive highlight. As Adelson says, "DeLapp's tendencies have always been to exude the nuances of soft light and atmosphere rather than the bold and bright." Mark Zaplin, owner of Zaplin Lampert Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico which recently hosted a highly successful exhibition of DeLapp's larger works, adds that, with Delapp, less is definitely more. "Terry doesn't try to bombard the viewer," Zaplin says. "He speaks a subtle language."
DeLapp is really a devotee to two provinces that divide at the crest of the Coast Mountain Range. One realm tilts westward toward the sea across the emerald expanses of Los Padres National Forest; the other extends east into California's produce heartland. Although he is intrigued by the marine environment, it is the agrarian scene that keeps calling him back, something deep into the Central Valley, to linger in the landscape. "When you're living in the city, you don't talk about how rural landscapes are changing, and emotionally you don't see it," DeLapp says. "I was shocked when I returned to Cambria as an adult. I had no idea we were losing so much ground so fast."
As he winds along county roads, DeLapp searches for a reason to stop. Before he pulls out his sketch pad and camera, he likes to walk through the vistas that eventually become this foregrounds. He has been chased off of properties by farmers who wonder what he's up to, but also struck up thoughtful conversations with field laborers.
The actual farm owners, he says, often live in distant cities and tend to view their property simply as a venue for commerce. At a one-man show of paintings hosted by the Bakersfield Museum of Art, he tells how a few land owners approached him and inquired why he painted broccoli and rhubarb fields blue-green. "Until they thought about it awhile, and were told what farm I was painting, they didn't realize what they were looking at," Delapp says. "It was almost as if they were colorblind."
DeLapp recalls one interaction with a field worker that led to the title of a painting. He was painting rows of broccoli beyond Salinas when a man working a hoe approached him and chatted. In broken English, the man mentioned the cool of the morning and the advancing sun. "He tried to find the right words and said that soon there would be "hot work rising," meaning that as the day wore on, it was going to turn hot as hell," DeLapp says. "I liked his description and decided to use it for the painting." The work features tonal layers of green influenced by the presence of morning mist and the hint of mirage approaching with the heat of the day.
In some ways, DeLapp regards his pieces as testaments to what once was. he remembers long corridors of eucalyptus trees that used to flank Highway 101 and served as windbreaks; in recent years they've been cut down to clear path for crop dusting planes, spreading pesticides across the industrial farms that have replaced quaint mom-and-pop operations. "There is no shade," he says. "It's all gone, and so is a particular landscape feel that went along with it." Fortunately for us, DeLapp's paintings serve as a permanent visual reference. They are places where we, too, can dwell for longer than a moment.
- Southwest Art Magazine, April 2003 Edition