There’s a certain symmetry in the lives of James S. Terrell and his wife Zsudayka Nzinga Terrell. They are a team and their two lives have dove-tailed into one, blending art, family, business and — perhaps most importantly — commitment to their art which is expressed in a mélange of ways.
The couple — gifted, talented artists — are fervent about their craft and dedicated to the upliftment and education of the African-American community. While the methods of creating their art and the raw material they use differs, both are painters who specialize in Black abstract portraiture.
The Terrells — both visual artists — have created a body of work that is as beautiful as it is functional and is infused and suffused with an African American aesthetic.
“My husband and I do African-American portraiture. He uses flatter colors and tones, and paints mostly men. I use mixed media — paint, paper, vinyl,” his wife said.
In a 2019 interview with WRC-TV (Channel 4) anchor Pat Lawson Muse, Terrell told her the crux of her art is the Black woman’s identity.
“It’s very important for me to be that person to tell what it means to be a Black woman. My most recent pieces have reflected and focused on motherhood,” she said. “I was very influenced by quilt work and fabric work although my paintings are acrylic, but made to look like traditional African-American quilts and fabrics.”
Zsudayka, an Aurora, Colorado, native and longtime activist, said she met her husband when he came to one of her art shows. The Ward 7 residents have made a name for themselves and garnered critical acclaim and awards for their surreal abstracts and Afro-futurist bent and stylish portrayals of Black life, abstract creations and portraits of the famous and less so.
James Terrell, a multi-disciplinary artist, produces paintings that are suffused and infused with his thoughts and vision about ancestry and identity as reflected in the colors he chooses and the composition of each piece. His paintings have been described as “often slightly flatter in appearance and more abstract with the use of large blocks of color, bold outlines and detailed patterns to create his figures.”
James, a graduate of Howard University and Parson’s School of Art and Design, said his focus is “on the use of color and how they bounce off each other.”
“My themes are the Black family and positive masculine images,” he explained. “I’m really into music as well, so I try to match the color to color tones on the keyboard. I’m not trying to compete with the camera. My color is used to make the eyeballs move and keep the eye on the canvas.”
Zsudayka Terrell’s works are characterized as “highlight(ing) the black woman’s experience in America using unique linear patterns reminiscent of fabric stitching and touches of realism. Her patterns also consume the background of most of her paintings, entrancing the viewer in a mash of color and lively, flowing brushwork.”
The Terrells, co-owners of the family business Terrell Arts DC have had an exhibit, “Emergence Sea,” the follow-up to their first show, “Born at the Bottom of a Ship,” at the Anacostia Arts Center. One review of the couple’s work described “Emergence Sea” as “a bold, vivid and thought-provoking showcase of paintings that explore[s] the identities of Black American descendants of slaves. The collection was a snapshot into the many colors and tones of black life in America and what it means to be building a young culture.”
This exhibit was the first time they did a show together. The Terrells have each been featured in galleries and museums across the United States. And in 2017, James Terrell received the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award.
Terrell, a native Washingtonian, art teacher for K-8 students at Friendship Woodridge Public Charter School and an ordained minister, said COVID-19 has upended what passed for regular life in the Terrell household and elsewhere, but he said the family is adapting as best they can.
“I used to work at school, but I am forced to work from home. My kids are by my side and on my head,” James Terrell said with a chuckle. “Now I have to keep my eyes open. This has allowed me to learn how to have them paint with me. I used to work at night and paint on the floor, but the kids drew over my paintings for the art show.”
Meanwhile, the social upheaval and racial unrest that is roiling the US around justice, equality and demands for accountability and transparency from police departments following the murder of George Floyd is influencing and informing the art the couple are producing now, Zsudayka Terrell said.
Amid everything that’s going on, she said she’s been wrestling with how best to leverage art and use it during times of social unrest, with the eye to initiating substantive and lasting change.
“When I see police, I go into protection mode but seeing what happened to Mr. Floyd, I didn’t have anything to say. I’m watching what young people are doing. It’s inspiring,” she said. “Being on the forefront of interpreting that is inspiring. I don’t want to create image hyper-focused on trauma, death and suffering. That’s a big line for my husband and I. I don’t want to use our art for that.
“To be honest, I was surprised not at all when I watched the murder of George Floyd. We saw the same murder with Eric Garner,” Zsudayka Terrell said soberly. “After Garner, I was pretty numb. I thought this is America we’ll be in. I thought the protests were and are fantastic. I remember watching footage of a man bringing protesters into his house [to escape teargas from D.C. police]. I’m letting my daughter know that we are in a civil rights movement. Something has shifted.”
Terrell said along with the perceived shift, the protests look different.
“I have young kids. I can’t get arrested. People are depending on me so I have to do this differently,” she said. “How else can I be supportive? Art has always been a powerful way to stand behind our people.”
Her husband reflected on the widespread street protests and Americans struggling to deal with the global pandemic.
“I’m watching the news all day, every day,” James Terrell said. “The kids have watched. They know what’s going on. They used to be out in their environment but all that changed in one day …”
COVID-19 and the necessity for social distancing has also affected various elements of their ability to showcase their art and draw eyes to their exhibit in the traditional fashion, the parents of four said.
“We’ve had to make adjustments. We’ve had a bunch of virtual shows,” said James Terrell. “People have come through and filmed. And we had an interview recently to talk about the work. Everything has changed everyone.”
Patrons visiting the gallery had to observe the prescribed six-foot distance and only small groups of visitors could be in the space at any one time but that didn’t significantly affected the stated goal of sharing the art with the wider community.
Surprisingly, Terrell said, the age of COVID-19 has proven to be a pleasant surprise in one regard:
“When everything is shut down, art has been very lucrative,” he said. “We put murals on a business, people are buying our work, plates, clothes and placing orders.
“Art has been very much in demand. I’m very surprised. I guess people are tired of seeing their walls. I had no idea that would happen,” he said with a laugh.
Terrell’s wife said in the News Channel 4 interview she’s always focused on how people can afford art, enjoy art and have it in their homes.
“Art is our business,” she said. “We have prints, throw pillows, earrings, T-shirt, fabrics and originals if someone wants something to put on their walls. We are full-time artists. We home school and we’re interested in building residual wealth.”
The couple and one of their daughters also create art and put their work on giclee prints, home furnishing, decorative items, clothing, jewelry and more.
“Art equals transition,” Zsudayka Terrell explained. “When I told people I was going to be artist, everyone thought I was crazy. They said it’s not a way to sustain myself. Everyone wants to hear the tragic artist story. People try to dissuade you. But there are business opportunities in art. I taught art, we do commercial art. There are lots of ways to make money from art.
“We’re committed to the community,” Terrell said. “We live in Ward 7 and we’re working to bring fine arts to the ward. We show that you can thrive and be artists, participate in the arts and make some money. It’s imperative for us as professional, successful African Americans to go back into the African American community and inspire the people we see — adults and young people. There are opportunities to build your own business and grow your community.”
The show ends on Sept 11. Patrons can visit the Anacostia Arts Center (1231 Good Hope Road SE) between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.