Although Professor of Art Tula Telfair’s hyper-realistic landscape paintings are vividly detailed, the scenes she depicts are not found in nature; they are conjured from memory and imagination. Informed by her experiences growing up on four continents, Telfair produces fantastical visions with delicate brushstrokes and a mastery of color and light. Suggestive of waterfalls in Africa, deserts of the American Southwest, and ice floes in Antarctica, Telfair’s art draws attention to the power and fragility of nature.
Telfair’s art, which has been featured in public collections around the world, will be showcased in a new book, Invented Landscapes, released on Oct. 18 by Abrams Books. The book can be pre-ordered online.
Included in the book are more than 120 images of her paintings, works in progress and personal photos. The images are accompanied by essays written by Michael Roth ’78, president of Wesleyan University; J. Michael Fay, biologist, ecologist, conservationist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence; and Henry Adams, the Menakka and Essel Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment and a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University. Read more about the essay authors online.
“In the art of Tula Telfair we find … ourselves at once entranced by the beauty of the painted canvas and invited to examine the mystery of the world within it,” Roth says in his essay. “As we probe deeper, we find ourselves returning to the surface as if out of breath. The mysteriousness of the inner world, rendered with such precision, remains intact.”
Telfair was raised in Gabon, located on the west coast of Africa, surrounded by Fang, Pygmy and Bakuta tribes. Her father, Peter Telfair, worked as a geological mining engineer for Bethlehem Steel, the Gabonese government and a French mining company.
“We lived in the jungle and raised orphaned baby lowland gorillas,” she recalls. “Nature was the most powerful force there. I always felt small in the face of such a constant and unpredictable presence.”
Although Telfair’s work looks realistic, she works intuitively and only plans the size and format of each canvas.
“I mix up colors associated with my memory of a certain type of weather, and location on the planet, and then start painting. I invent the images I create and they change frequently from start to finish — a desert scene could become a mountain covered in snow,” she says.
Telfair is interested in triggering recognition and longing with her work.
“I hope to inspire viewers to contemplate their past and future, recall meaningful moments they experienced in nature, and to satisfy their desire to witness something that is both familiar and new in order to have an experience that makes them aware of being alive,” she says.
In celebration of the book’s release, President Roth will interview Henry Adams, the author of 14 books or book-length exhibition catalogues, about Invented Landscapes at 6 p.m. Wednesday Oct. 19 in the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall. Together, the essayists will explore the technical aspects of Telfair’s work, her dramatic personal journey from the jungles of Gabon in Africa to the art world of New York, and above all the interplay in her work between concealment and revelation. The event, which includes a book signing, is co-sponsored by the Center for the Arts and the Department of Art and Art History’s Art Studio Program.
In his essay, Adams says Telfair takes her viewers on a type of psychological journey. “She invites us to explore the external world and, more deeply, to meditate on our most intimate and unspoken intuitions and emotions. At the same time, we are witnessing a confessional disclosure of inner feelings from the artist herself. The experience is in some ways more like encountering a poem or a novel than standing before a painting. And yet, what’s being put forward is not fully communicable in language—it is almost shocking, sensual, and intimate in a way that words cannot express,” he says.
Telfair’s solo exhibition, Tula Telfair: Invented Landscapes opens at Forum Gallery in New York, N.Y. at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10. The gallery is located at 730 Fifth Avenue on the second floor.
View samples of her paintings below: