After Conquering Heroin, Moving To Asheville, George Terry Found New Voice For His Art, Music

Mar 3, 2020


If you’re not a fan of the current U.S. president and are looking for a little cathartic relief, you might want to stop by George Terry’s studio in Asheville’s Ramp building.

There, hanging or leaning against walls or stacked against one another are large, bright, cartoonish paintings of President Trump pictured in one humiliating scene after another. Here he is getting rebuffed by an elegant Meryl Streep. And there he is getting sandwich-tackled by a couple of NFL players. In one series, Uncle Sam grasps Trump by an ankle and dangles him over a waterfall.

“It’s very important that I’m in these paintings,” Terry said. “Rather than just take potshots at negative things, I need to have my personal convictions be involved.”

George Terry in his Asheville studio.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Look more closely and you’ll see the artist more directly in these narratives. The person in the Uncle Sam getup? It’s a devilish George Terry. In one surreal painting, that same figure, leaning into a bemused woman wearing little in the way of clothing, has a syringe of heroin sticking out of his forearm.

As if a soundtrack to that painting, this is “Chasing the Dragon,” a song on the latest album from Terry’s band, The Zealots. That painting with the syringe in Terry’s arm? There’s a dragon in that painting too, for anyone who might miss the reference.

Opening reception for Terry’s exhibition at Revolve is this Friday, and the exhibition is on view through March.

“When I came back to North Carolina, I would always clean up and stay clean here,” Terry said, “until I had to leave Asheville to go get another public school teaching job.”

Terry grew up in Charlotte, played basketball at Appalachian State in the late ‘70s and studied fine art at UNC-Chapel Hill. But it was as much the draw of the indie music scene as the gallery scene that drew Terry in the early ‘80s to New York City. Terry found himself in vibrant circles of artists and musicians.

“Revolutionary politics became part of what I was interested in and certainly the music of people that were protesting,” Terry recalled. “That period made me start writing songs, so I felt like getting better at guitar, which is still a lifelong pursuit.”

Terry got a job at a dropout prevention center in a Harlem school, where he also taught art. He said most of his students were black and Latino youth and that he coached basketball to some of the boys later wrapped up in the Central Park Five episode. By then, Terry had put together the first version of his band, The Zealots.

“There was a thing in country called cow punk. It’s kind of like Texas punk,” he said. “I did a lot of reading. I read a lot of philosophy and I wrote a lot of songs.”

Terry said it was during this time, about 1987, that he first fell into heroin. He relates a story about losing a job in one school where he was caught shooting up. Terry never let go of heroin for long over the next dozen years. He moved back to North Carolina in part to get clean, and becoming a parent in 2002 compelled him to enter a 12-step program.

“The shame was really intense but, also, going through the process of recovery and going to meetings and talking to other addicts, particularly those who are creative individuals,” he said. “(It) helped me to develop into a better artist and a better person. It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the fact I had my child to focus on, as well.”

In Asheville, Terry has largely earned a living grading tests online. Creatively, he’s been prolific. He’s produced three albums of music and dozens of paintings over the past couple years, both riddled with social and self-reflective commentary.

“When I am dealing with my own issues, songs come out,” he said. “When I spend time meditating or being present in the world, songs come out.”

Terry’s bright, sardonic, narrative paintings are getting their largest exhibition to date, in a show just a few feet away from Terry’s studio, at Revolve. He said every opening reception he attends there rekindles some of the communal nature he felt in New York.

“I am very aware nostalgia kills and that’s not what I’m trying to do,” he said. “But the energy of that time and the kind of intensity that came out of those relationships is important for me to discover.”