It isn’t often that the path of a teacher and a student wind through each other’s careers for more than four decades. Yet, that is precisely how two Tulsa artists – Jim Terrell and Steven Rosser – now happen to be sharing studio space at La Maison. The building at 11th and Utica is as well-known for its crystal chandeliers on the ground floor as it is for the artists who call the upstairs studios their creative home.
The childhoods of these two artists were marked by early brushes with art, each different in its own way.
Terrell grew up in Tulsa and Muskogee, the son of a printing technician for the Muskogee Daily Phoenix and the Tulsa World. Rosser was raised on a cattle ranch near Weatherford.
“Art was always part of my growing-up years,” Terrell recalls. “I used to go with my dad to Howard Collins’ studio inside the Ritz Theater in Muskogee to see his work. Collins, also known as Ducie Blue Buzzard, was the art designer for the Bully Good Saddle Store. I was fascinated watching him draw and paint.”
Terrell’s interest in art was piqued even more by his Tulsa McLain High School art teacher Gerald Graham.
“When I was a senior, Mr. Graham indulged my interest in art,” says Terrell. “He was the art teacher and yearbook sponsor, and I worked as a lab assistant for him one class period each day.”
As a child, Rosser recalls being given a box of Crayolas in an empty Dutch Masters cigar box as a toy.
“All I knew about painting was what they did to a fence and watching my grandmother draw horses’ heads,” Rosser says. “But I knew that Rembrandt painting on the cigar box lid wasn’t a photograph. Didn’t Picasso say all children are artists? I knew by age 3 I wanted to follow that path.”
Fast forward to 1973: Terrell was hired as the art instructor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. Among Terrell’s students was 19-year-old Rosser, who was determined to be an artist.
While a senior at SWOSU, Rosser decided to attend graduate school. Terrell endorsed the idea by taking Rosser to The University of Tulsa, where Terrell had received his master’s degree in art. They toured the art department, and Terrell introduced Rosser to Brad Place, then TU’s art faculty chairman.
Rosser graduated from TU and returned to Weatherford to work in his family’s ranching business and continue painting. During that time, Terrell provided exhibition space in Southwestern’s gallery for Rosser’s art.
My art is like a gift I give to the viewer to unwrap and find a meaning. The drama in a painting is what motivates me.”
“In 1985, I began exhibiting my work in galleries around the country,” Rosser recalls. “I stayed in touch with Mr. Terrell as I navigated my way through the art world. Several times, he made the trip to Santa Fe to attend openings for exhibitions of my work.”
Santa Fe was an incredible setting for Rosser’s highly visual, colorful art. As his art influence and collectors grew, his work appeared in books and magazines, on posters and album covers, greeting cards and apparel.
Terrell continued to focus on teaching art, adding to his portfolio exhibitions and art-related experiences in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. During that time, teaching logically took precedence over creating his own art.
The two lost touch, but they never forgot each other. And Rosser never lost his desire to teach in a creative university environment.
In 1990, Terrell invited Rosser to join Southwestern’s teaching faculty. It was a pivotal, life-changing phone call. Rosser was on faculty for three years, maintaining his studio work, gallery commissions and relationships with prestigious national galleries.
For several years, Rosser was one of Absolut Vodka’s national artists, as was the contemporary and controversial art icon Andy Warhol. Eventually, Rosser returned to TU for another degree, a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking.
Terrell and Rosser lost contact again in 2002 when Terrell became chairman of the art, music and theater department at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. He retired in 2013, and he and his wife, Jo Ann, moved to Tulsa. He and Rosser might never have reconnected, had Terrell not been looking for studio space at La Maison, where Rosser had been painting since 2008.
“It’s rare that La Maison would have an opening,” Terrell notes. “But being here in this space, I’ve done more painting in the past two years than I ever have. I’m enjoying the luxury of time to just paint for myself.”
Their studios are just a few steps away from each other. But their painting styles and techniques are vastly different.
“My art is intuitive, controlled, contrived,” Terrell says. “I read a lot and draw from life and politics for inspiration. I look for odd things – nothing grand – crows on a fence post, an old Cheyenne shaman or owls, a recurring motif. My art is less thematic than Steve’s.”
Rosser calls his art “staged.”
“My art is complex and has a strong narrative drive, like a Tolstoy novel. My art is like a gift I give to the viewer to unwrap and find a meaning. The drama in a painting is what motivates me,” he says.
He is best known for his painting series featuring brilliant colors, tinged with gold leaf, beautiful women and subtle touches of humor or irony. Viewers looking closely will find whimsy and a bit of neo-surrealism.
Rosser and Terrell both agree being a professional artist is challenging and requires intense dedication, the will to follow your own path and not be influenced by fleeting trends or changing values in the national art market.
“For the first time, I’m working from a studio not in my home and producing more art than I have in years,” says Terrell.
Forty-plus years after their first meeting, “I think I speak for both of us when I say it’s been really good for us to be at La Maison,” adds Rosser. “Throughout my life, Mr. Terrell has been a teacher, mentor, colleague, friend and now studio neighbor. It is so wonderful to have a person who has had such a significant role in my life be just down the hall.”