Cambrian: Arts & Events

Cambria artist picking up brush again after 25 years, and the results are impressive

“Nightwatch” by Terry Dunn.
“Nightwatch” by Terry Dunn.

I am an artist and I’ve been working...

Art is a visual language. Artists have communicated story lines from epic battles, romance and created political statements using their chosen medium since the beginning of time.

Modern abstract art tends toward images with interpretive meanings, but it is no less perspicuous. We the viewer find strength in lines and poetry in the seemingly arbitrary compositions that rouse our response.

Several months ago, I happened upon a painting by an artist whose works I had never seen before. The painter seemed to have the soul of a storyteller. The bold lines and choices used in this abstract composition provoked my mind until eventually I had to do some research if I wanted to see more.

Meet Terry Dunn, a Cambria resident since 2012. When I visited with Terry at his home, I understood much more about how and why he has acquired this specific form of visual communication. He quietly explained his background and showed me new works in progress.

He explained his process and choices. I was impressed by what I saw and learned that this voracious reader truly does have the attributes of a talented writer whose chosen form is visual composition.

I found that there was an alarming gap of nearly 25 years since Terry picked up a paintbrush, so I took note of his first forays, the genesis of his art education and the path his life has taken, glad that he can now pick up where he left off artistically.

During his bachelor of arts program at UC Santa Barbara in studio arts in 1975, he had had his first exhibit on campus, excited to launch his career. After graduating, he went to the Pratt Institute for a graduate degree but didn’t finish.

Although adept at academia, he felt it was just too expensive to inevitably wind up with a teaching job. So, he took his portfolio to New York in 1976 and started making the rounds of galleries.

The response he received was encouraging but not enough to secure an exhibition. Being pragmatic, he returned to Riverside to work for the family printing business, doing graphic arts. He took night courses to use a ceramic studio because there was no space to create at home.

He also performed with a rock band called “Bone Cabal,” doing contemporary music, playing Los Angeles clubs and leaving little time for art other than graphics. Terry continued to work off and on for his family for 15 years. During this time, he secured a CETA grant (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) to be Artist in Residence at Riverside Art Museum.

He taught classes in painting and ceramics. He enjoyed it so much that he got the teaching bug and went back to school (Chapman, Orange County) to attain his teaching degree, subsequently teaching for 15 years in Riverside. (Terry still teaches as a substitute at San Luis Obispo County high schools.)

In 1996, Terry married Linda, who became the Riverside Deputy District Attorney. They took trips to Cambria for 10 years, always looking for a place to retire. Eventually, they found a unique home filled with eclectic tile and woodwork and unexpected elevation. But it needed renovating, so they split their time commuting from work (Terry from Riverside, Linda now from Madera) to complete the project.

In 2012, Linda transferred to San Luis Obispo, Terry finished the 2012-13 school year, and they became permanent Cambria residents. Conveniently, the house has an ideal layout for an art studio, but it required Terry getting reacquainted with his tools and techniques for painting.

Now settled, Terry began to render his story in art.

“To get into a state to paint — it’s a zone. I don’t want to be distracted by anything,” he said.

Fortunately, he now has space to paint and stand back, allowing him to work in large-scale format. But still, his method and approach is akin to that of a writer, and as disciplined. As a voracious reader, he retains certain concepts and observations that petition a translation into the visual.

This partly explains the appearance of a repetitive use of symbols. “They are part of my story — they come and go and have different relationships.”

Terry’s two most recent works are both titled “Chapters.”

Old Red Untitled 36x36 DUNN.jpg
“Untitled 36X36” by Terry Dunn. Courtesy

He contemplates decisions first — the color palette, structure, what “characters” he’ll use. His marks or symbols become more defined as a composition is developed. One noticeable image is a modified cross. While Terry admires religious history, he uses the image in an unexpected juxtaposition.

There is an unmistakable structural geometry in his paintings. When asked about this choice, he says, “I used to consider the architecture to dictate the piece. Now I take an opposite approach. I want to encourage a more contemplative view. The 1960s had an obvious influence on the grid-work and geometry I use. I grew up loving comic book cells and the progression of one frame to the next. Some characters set themselves apart and choose to be isolated. It’s how I approach the story of each painting.”

Although I had only planned to discover who this talented artist is today, I found out much more of how he came to be and why his works represent his story in a relatable way using abstract components. I saw only 12 complete paintings. The color field paintings are strongest (“Untitled”), with rich textured layers and a subtle nod to abstract expressionism of the 1950s but more introspective.

In “Nightwatch,” the chiaroscuro is effective, the density informing the symbols in a complex format. Terry’s newest work, aptly named “Chapter Two — Distant Relatives,” chronicles his journey to date, combining his characters with an architectural grid reminiscent of animation cells.

It’s as if the viewer is asked to follow a narrative chronology, mixing disparate imagery and intentional separation united by a symbolic circle. The choices are bold and personal. Like a great writer introducing the reader to their created world, the painting has immediacy.

It’s unsurprising that Terry uses acrylic paint because it’s quicker, cleaner and allows him instant results much as a writer who urgently needs to get the words in print. This may be “Chapter Two” for Terry Dunn, but it’s a good read.

Chapter2 Distant Relatives 30x40 DUNN.jpg
“Chapter Two – Distant Relatives” by Terry Dunn. Courtesy

Upcoming events

Through Aug. 25

“Just Add Water” — Frank Walker and Jim Karjala are the featured artists. Frank focuses on his fascination with clouds and how they punctuate the landscape. Jim loves that watercolors have an attitude and a mind of their own.

Cambria Center for the Arts

1350 Main St., Cambria


Through Sept. 29

“The Third Dimension” — an annual juried exhibition for members of the Central Coast Sculptors Group.

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

1010 Broad Street, San Luis Obispo


Through Sept. 15

“Through the Lens” — a juried exhibition of fine art photography with a local focus.

Morro Bay Art Center

835 Main Street, Morro Bay, CA 93442


Patrick Dennis is an artist living in Cambria. He owns Working Artist Studio/Patrick Gallery in the West Village and a very large dog named Bella. For more information, visit
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