Tribute to Terry St. John in the San Francisco Chronicle

Terry St. John, landscape painter and museum curator, dies at 86

March 2021

Datebook, the San Francisco Chronicle
by Sam Whiting

Terry St. John was always driving around the East Bay in his paint-encrusted pickup truck looking for an interesting view. Maybe it would be an old barn on a hillside with good light and shadows, or a pile of lumber. When he found what he was looking for, he’d pull over, get his easel and oils out of the back and there he’d be — six days a week for a year and a half — painting through all the seasons and in all weather.

Terry St. John works in the sunshine of Santa Cruz, circa 1983. Photo: William Steiger
Terry St. John works in the sunshine of Santa Cruz, circa 1983. Photo: William Steiger

St. John — who was prone to peeling the paint off a canvas and starting over, eliminating months of work if he did not like what he saw — was a legendary plein air painter with work featured among the permanent collections of the de Young Museum, the San Jose Museum of Art and the Oakland Museum of California, for which he served as associate curator of modern painting for 20 years.

A longtime resident of the Berkeley hills, where he grew up, St. John died March 13 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he had been living for the past five years. The cause of death was complications following heart surgery, said his son, Noel St. John. He was 86.

Terry St. John was at home in the studio. Photo: Dolby Chadwick Gallery
Terry St. John was at home in the studio. Photo: Dolby Chadwick Gallery

In addition to his impact as a painter, St. John was deeply influential as an instructor, having taught outdoor painting at UC Santa Cruz and having served as chair of the art department at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont (San Mateo County).

He was the rare artist and art scholar who held the three most important art jobs at the same time: painter, educator and museum curator.

“Terry brought his relationships to the landscape and to paint itself to his students, inspiring them to work directly from nature and from human nature,” said Jan Wurm, a Berkeley painter who used to drive out to Mount Diablo on winter mornings to meet St. John, decked in a parka, Elmer Fudd-style hat, with the earflaps down, and gloves.

St. John never sat on a stool. He painted while standing, so to work alongside him, Wurm had to be prepared to stand there and freeze all day. In the summer they would be out in the heat, without shade. St. John was willing to endure discomfort to get his work done, slow going as it was.

“Terry had a spectacular palette of paint that manifests not only the geography but the light and atmosphere of the landscape,” said Wurm. “He was constantly analyzing his work and pushing it to greater depth.”

“Berkeley Marina,” 2011, by Terry St. John.
“Berkeley Marina,” 2011, by Terry St. John.

Terry Noel St. John was born on Christmas Eve, 1934, in Sacramento. His family moved to Hawaii before statehood, but returned to the Berkeley hills by the time he was in elementary school.

A dictatorial art instructor at Berkeley High School turned him off, son Noel said, but he later enrolled in an art class as an elective while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. This changed his entire outlook and he followed his undergraduate degree at Cal with an MFA from the California College of the Arts.

While still a graduate student in 1966, he placed a piece in a show at the Legion of Honor.

“Berkeley Marina, Stormy Day” 2011, by Terry St. John
“Berkeley Marina, Stormy Day” 2011, by Terry St. John

A few years later he was hired at the Oakland Museum of California where his lasting contribution was to organize an influential show in 1972, about the first modern landscape painters in California, called “The Society of Six.” St. John’s viewpoint was that Selden Gile, Louis Siegriest and other California landscape painters of the 1910s and ’20s were directly linked to the Bay Area figurative school of Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Joan Brown and Elmer Bischoff.

Siegriest was the only one of the six still alive at the time of the show, and he showed favored spots to St. John, which he later explored and passed along to his students.

In 1977, St. John launched a course called “The Outdoor Painters Project” at UC Santa Cruz. The class was oversubscribed with undergraduates, plus another dozen or so non-students who showed up with their easels and followed along at a respectful distance, just to be near St. John.

Among his UCSC students who went on to careers as painters are William Steiger, Claire Thorsen and Lynda Covello.

“Terry instilled a devotion to the practice of painting from nature in his students, through example,” said Robert Poplack, his original teaching assistant, who later served on the art faculty at Notre Dame de Namur. “He never told anyone how to paint, but if you did something he liked, he might say, ‘That looks pretty good.’ ”

In 1990, St. John taught art at Stanford University, before joining the permanent art faculty chairing the art department at Notre Dame de Namur. He also spent two years as artist-in-residence at Yosemite National Park.

Everywhere he went he taught, even at the Breakfast Group, a loose gathering of local painters who met every Friday morning in Berkeley starting in the late 1960s.

“You had to get there early to sit next to Terry to get into a deep conversation about painting, which is surprisingly hard to find,” recalled Wurm, who was part of the group.

“Thai Woman with White Cup,” 2019 by Terry St. John.
“Thai Woman with White Cup,” 2019 by Terry St. John.

Later in his career, St. John started putting figures back into his landscapes — because “I missed them,” he told The Chronicle in a 1998 interview. He debuted the new form in a solo show at St. Mary’s College in Moraga.

“Terry was an incredibly brilliant painter,” said Lisa Chadwick, his gallery representative. “In the last decade of his life, he was so alive and on fire. His colors got brighter and there was a fearlessness to his work.”

The fearlessness was partially derived from a near-fatal blood infection. While in rehab, he promised a nurse that if he made it out, he would make a painting for her and he stuck to his word.

Terry St. John in his painting studio in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2018.
Terry St. John in his painting studio in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2018.

In 1989, St. John and his wife Erika were divorced after raising two sons, Noel and Walter, and St. John moved to Rockridge.

He later fell in love with Thailand while on vacation, and ended up moving there. He began working with a studio model named Aunyarat, and they married in 2016.

St. John made his last Bay Area appearance in March 2020, to introduce a body of new paintings in a solo show at Dolby Chadwick Gallery near San Francisco’s Union Square. He arrived one week before the shelter-in-place order, said Chadwick. His mobility was gone and he needed assistance with walking, but once he got to the podium to discuss his work before an invited audience, he came to life.

“Terry was rare as an artist. That kind of development of their work, late in life, you don’t see very often,” said Poplack, who moderated a discussion with St. John at the opening. “His paintings got more challenging and more interesting.”

St. John is survived by his wife, Aunyarat, of Chiang Mai, Thailand; ex-wife Erika St. John of Berkeley; sons Noel of San Jose and Walter of New York City; and grandson Liam St. John.

Donations in his name may be made to California College of the Arts Student Scholarships, 1111 Eighth St., San Francisco, CA 94107

A memorial will be planned for summer.

White Haired Model, 2019, is oil on canvas by Terry St. John.
White Haired Model, 2019, is oil on canvas by Terry St. John.