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Above, Tula Telfair, professor of art, sits near her students' work inside her office in Art Studio South. At right, Telfair's oil on canvas, "Obscured to the Eye Apparent on the Map," measures 79 by 100 inches.
 
Posted 05.02.05

Telfair Paints from Memory Via Her Heart

Many people who see Tula Telfair’s landscape painting titled “To Make Space Distant,” are confident the artist painted a place familiar to them. However, before she painted it, the grassy field, split by a pond highlighted in fire brush existed nowhere but in Telfair’s mind. It’s part of a world that the professor of art at Wesleyan creates from her life experiences.

“The paintings trigger a connection in people,” says Telfair. “Two people, one from Florida and one from Maine will swear they grew up near there, and they know these places.”

Telfair’s work is nationally recognized. Her large-scale paintings have been shown in dozens of solo and group exhibitions in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and other large city galleries. They are also held in numerous public collections including MasterCard Corporation, General Electric Corporation and The New Orleans Museum of Art.

The scenes she creates are expressions of metaphoric visual short stories. She invents landscapes with skies blazing with white, golden, gray or saffron clouds. In her square format paintings, skies often make up most of the image. Others include water, which leads viewers through the picture to an indefinite end. The water reflects the light in the sky, as it cuts through the shifting land surface, contributing to the mood of the scene.

“I work from my own memories and feelings,” she says. “I don’t paint on location. I paint in my studio where I can determine the colors. Colors are so meaningful to the expression.”

Telfair recently exhibited work at the Forum Gallery in Los Angeles. Many of those multi-paneled pieces are set off with wide bands of color, which lead views around the painting. Telfair says these self-invented bands – which wrap around or cut through an image – are painted with colors found within the landscapes contained in the painting itself.

The bars also add depth. “The Relationship is Symmetrical,” is actually painted on five canvases, each at a different elevation.

“The bands have their own intensity that yields a sensual roadmap to the scenes they contain,” says Robert Fishko, director of the Forum Gallery. “They magnify our approach and deepen our desire to penetrate the suggested story of the landscape.”

Telfair is currently Wesleyan’s only painting instructor, and describes her lessons as “challenging and demanding.”

“See these paintings? These are all done by students who have never painted before,” she says, pointing at finished work on display in Art Studio South. “I teach each student real technical skills and help them foster unique expression. I am thankful for that privilege.”

David Schorr, professor of art, says his colleague is known for her toughness and “extremely high” standards.

“Tula demands and gets the most from everyone: her students, her colleagues, and above all herself,” he says. “Sometimes she scares people or puts them off but she never worries about that, because her standards matter and because they always like her in the end for making them perform to their utmost.”

Telfair never intended on becoming a painter. In fact, she entered into a required art course in high school and felt overwhelmed. Frustrated by her ignorance, Telfair decided to teach herself how to draw and began copying the drawings of Michelangelo and DiVinci. Two years later, she went to college with aspirations of becoming a medical illustrator.

Six years later, she ended up a painter, with a bachelor’s degree from Moore College of Art and a master’s of fine arts degree from Syracuse University. In 1989 she was hired by Wesleyan University as an assistant professor of art. She soon became the chair of the Department of Art and Art History and then served as acting academic dean for the Arts and Humanities.

Telfair currently teaches all levels of painting, introductory drawing and senior thesis, while she continues to work from her studio in New York. Teaching and painting go hand in hand, she says. She’d never want to do one and not the other.

“Teaching to me is essential,” she says. “I am stimulated by the challenge to teach students how to paint.”

By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection editor