By Steven Nalley
As guest juror for the Juried Arts Exhibition at the Cotton District Arts Festival, Terry Cherry said he would judge others’ art the same way he judges his own.
There are three criteria in his rubric, he said: craftsmanship, creativity, and concepts.
“I was pleased to find all of them in the exhibits entered,” Cherry said.
Cherry shared his history, inspirations, and creative process with guests at a luncheon in his honor at the Starkville Country Club Friday.
Born in Lubbock, Texas, Cherry earned a degree in graphic design at MSU and a masters in painting from Mississippi College. Now a teacher at East Mississippi Community College, he has paintings in collections across the South, and he has served as president of the Mississippi Watercolor Society twice.
Some artists might remember a specific moment in their lives where they realized their calling, but Cherry said he remembered three.
First, Cherry said, he happened upon a puddle of oil on white pavement in a parking lot when he was in first grade. He said he found himself entranced by the way light reflected off the oil and its stark contrast with the pavement. Now, he tries to capture the wet texture of that oil in his own watercolor paintings, he said.
Then, when Cherry was between 8 and 10 years old, he said, he and the rest of his family lived in Okinawa, Japan, where his father, a U.S. Marine, was stationed. There, he discovered beautiful oriental artwork, he said.
“Even as a kid, I knew I’d like that stuff,” Cherry said. “That kind of art has inspired me all the way through my career.”
Finally, Cherry said, in the fifth grade, he moved to Idaho near the Rocky Mountains.
“The Rockies smell so fresh; nowhere else smells that fresh to me,” Cherry said. “That’s where I fell in love with nature and things of beauty.”
Cherry said he wasn’t so sure he could make a living as an artist when he went to college, however. He said several great teachers inspired him, including Jon Whittington at EMCC and Jan Webber, H.T. DeKay and Deana Douglas at Mississippi State University.
Eventually, Cherry got a job at EMCC himself, where he said he started as a public information officer teaching just one class. He has now been teaching there 26 years, and after about nine years, he said, teaching wasn’t enough anymore.
“When I wasn’t teaching, I was making art all day long,” Cherry said.
Cherry said he began going outdoors to paint natural scenery and, taking inspiration from Claude Monet, painted at whatever hours he had to in order to get the scenery he wanted.
“I’d get out in the dark and set up,” Cherry said. “I would just start sketching in what I could see, and the sun would come up, and it would be like everything was on fire, and I’d try to capture that.”
There was a point, he said, where he made a 60-day pledge to paint something every day. He ended up with about 65 paintings, he said.
“I didn’t make it every day,” Cherry said. “But you know, I made up for it. My best day, I did five or six paintings.”
Nelle Elam, co-chair of the Juried Arts Exhibition, said one of the reasons Cherry was brought in as juror was his ability to judge impartially.
“Mr. Cherry has extensive experience and openness to many approaches to art,” Elam said. “I think that’s important for a judge to be able to judge not just from his point of view, but from other points of view.”
Cherry corroborated Elam’s assessment with a consolation to artists who didn’t make it into the exhibition.
“I’m not the end-all be-all; I’m just one guy,” Cherry said. “In the end, determination is more important than talent.”
Cherry said it was important for aspiring artists to paint without worrying too much about how their work will turn out. “Masterpiece syndrome,” he said, tends to slow a lot of his students down, and he tells them a quote from G.K. Chesterton:
“Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere,” Cherry said. Then he added: “I’m just naturally a lazy person, but if I draw the first line, I’m gone. You won’t see me again for the next few days.”