By Sara Walters  

Duality. For Jennifer Williams Terpstra, this is the best way to describe her relationship with art. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor and winner of 2018 Best of La Crosse County “Best Art Instruction/Instructor” loves the layers that give depth to her favorite art form, painting.

“I love the duality of painting as both illusory as well as tactile, with a strong physical presence,” Terpstra explained. But the concept also applies to her relationship with teaching, which she has done at UW-L for the last 20 years. “The most difficult part [of teaching] for me might be grading. Fairness matters to me, a lot, and even though there are some aspects of visual art that can be viewed as objective, the subjective reality is always there. Another duality,” she said.

Terpstra tries to balance this in the classroom as she strives to help students discover their own artistic vision. This, for her, is the best part of being an instructor. “There is usually a moment when a sense of purpose and skill development coalesce for art students,” explained Terpstra. “That’s completely magical, and I can’t take credit for that. What I strive to do is to create the right kind of environment for that to happen for a young artist.”

The determination of her students and fellow faculty is something that keeps Terpstra inspired. “It’s meaningful to be around people who are both incredibly driven in their fields and compassionate, informed human beings,” she said. She also seeks inspiration in other artists’ paintings, like those found at the Art Institute of Chicago or in off-the-beaten-path Italian chapels with their exquisite frescoes and altarpieces. She added, “Beyond the art world, nature is a primary inspiration for me. Nature is solace, and that is what I want to convey in my art.”

As is the principle of duality, Terpstra must balance her roles as both instructor and artist, inspirer and inspiree. While studying for her bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Indiana University, she was exposed to drawing, painting and printmaking. Then, after a short stint at a home decor and design company, Terpstra sharpened her techniques and completed her master’s degree in painting and printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design. Throughout her evolution as an artist, painting has become her primary interest. “Painting became my favorite because it encompasses some of the spontaneity of drawing as well as the power of color,” Terpstra shared.

It’s also her favorite subject to teach, particularly to introductory level students. “I really like to see the path students take, from their initial discoveries to more decisive work at the end of the semester,” she said. With more advanced students, Terpstra enjoys watching the development of confidence and clearer visual communication. “Getting beyond the basics, art gets more interesting,” she said.

But a teacher’s, and artist’s, work is never done, so Terpstra is pushing the boundaries of her own skill set, and, in turn, those of her students. She’s spent the last six years working on encaustic painting, which is an old medium that is new to her. Encaustic, which is pigment, beeswax and resin, allows her to expand the texture of her pieces. “I love what I can do with it sculpturally as well as pictorially.”

It’s this dedication to growth and vision that’s helped her mold her work—and her students—into beautiful pieces of art.

For more information on Jennifer Williams Terpstra and her work, please visit