Artist Profile: Terri LoewenthalAuthor:Michelle Konstantinovsky
Oakland-based artist Terri Loewenthal isn’t just a nature lover — she’s something of an environmental spirit guide. The photographer and avid solo hiker has exhibited her work in a diverse array of venues including San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Berkeley Art Museum, but her latest series is something truly unique. In Psychscapes, Loewenthal showcases single-exposure, in-camera compositions of expansive California landscapes to explore the psychology of perception. We asked the creative adventurer to fill us in on her mission to represent “the still-potent mythology of Utopian California.”
Where are you originally from and does the Bay Area/California influence your work?
I grew up on the East Coast and went to college in Houston, Texas. I wasn’t aware of the beauty of the West until the end of college when I visited with a friend who grew up in the Bay Area. In the span of four days he showed me the most glorious sights I’d ever seen, from a sacred redwood grove at sunrise, to a picturesque view of San Francisco from water level on Treasure Island. Having spent my teenage years in South Florida, my early life had been about the beach. I enjoyed what nature Florida had to offer – the ocean — but I had never seen such majestic trees before, or fathomed that a neighborhood could be nestled into hills. The fact that we could walk out of my friend’s front door, drive for 30 minutes, and be in the middle of a silent forest was very novel for me.
Houston has a lot of things going for it, but the beauty of the landscape isn’t one of them. I distinctly remember one morning, walking out of my apartment near Westheimer and Montrose, to the bleak view that I’d seen countless times before – a flat street, devoid of landscaping, and a white-washed concrete wall directly across from my front door. I recall thinking, “I can live anywhere. From now on, I choose beautiful.” That’s when I set my mind to heading west. So undoubtedly yes, California has had a huge impact on my life and on my work, and the landscape is just the beginning. Here, I am surrounded by rule-breakers, in the best sense. In California, I feel encouraged to explore ideas that don’t spring from what I’ve been taught or shown, to trust myself. Californians start at “yes,” and this encourages the open-mindedness necessary to indulge impossible ideas.
Has art always been a part of your life? When did you decide to pursue it as a career and what has the journey been like?
I was a straight-A student athlete in high school, competing at a national level, and eventually going to college on a full volleyball scholarship. My formative years were focused on pursuing excellence, but at the expense of self-discovery. I graduated from Rice University not quite knowing what to do with myself, and landed in a corporate job. The suit and heels, the downtown high-rise, the cubicle and computer – it all felt wrong. Just months after starting that job, a freak spark from old wiring in my rental house burnt the place down. Luckily, I had been in the shower when the fire caught and managed to escape from the burning building with nothing but a towel and my car in the driveway. I took it as a sign to try something else entirely. I borrowed my mom’s old 35mm manual Canon camera and hit the road. I lived simply, stretching the nominal renter’s insurance settlement over a year, exploring the west, camping alone, aligning my schedule with the sun’s, and teaching myself to take pictures. That’s when I fell in love with photography and the California backcountry, and I’ve never looked back.
Where did the inspiration for Psychscapes come from and what are you aiming to convey through the series?
I’ve been a photographer for a long time. A few years back, with smartphones and social media in full swing, the overwhelming volume of imagery caused me to re-examine the role of the fine art photographer in world where everyone is an image-maker. Desensitized, I challenged myself to make photographs that I was genuinely excited to look at, which meant they needed to look different than anything else. I wound my practice back to what has always been at the core of photography for me: discovery. Nature was my refuge then, as always, so it only made sense to take my camera, go camping, and attempt to deepen my relationship with what I was seeing. Things started to turn around for me when I spent time outdoors. I felt peace and belonging by being in the mountains, a tangible sentiment that had been buried in my subconscious all along – there is so much more to discover out there than beauty.
Mountains are grandiose, and we are intrinsically drawn to them, but it’s easy to start and stop with the notion of their beauty, especially when glancing at them in our feeds. By using nature as raw material for composition instead of subject, I eschew the assumptions we all have when looking at landscape photography. Psychscapes allow the imagination to find what it will. With a government unwilling to confront ecological collapse and a president actively deaccessioning public land, I hope Psychscapes will help preserve the wildness of our open spaces by heightening and newly envisioning that wildness. My work reconnects us to the depth of importance wilderness plays in our lives. Nature isn’t just about beauty and resources, it’s about the fullness of being that can only happen when we spend time there — we need it to ground us, and help us be whole.
What’s next for you and where can people find your work?
Artwork is always better in person! I’m showing with Jackson Fine Art in Paris Photo this coming November. A few galleries nationwide have my work in their archives: CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions in San Francisco,Joshua Liner Gallery in New York, Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta. I have two permanent pieces in the new Hyatt wing of SFO so anyone flying through San Francisco can see them for free. I also offer an open invitation to anyone interested in visiting my Bay Area studio. And of course, there’s always my website and instagram.
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