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Artist rediscovers her creative voice after a series of life challenges

Artist Terri Long standing with her work at a gallery
Molly Angevine
Terri Long standing with her work at the “Cut Up and Put Together” exhibition at the Staunton Augusta Art Center

In late 2018, shortly after artist Terri Long was diagnosed with breast cancer, she experienced a devastating house fire. As a result, she lost her possessions, creative voice and muse. Five years later, she has rediscovered them through found objects, an art exhibition and what she credits as “genuine human connection and love.”

Long, who began exhibiting her art in 2005, describes her work as telling “lost stories with found objects.” This is an apt narrative based on her 38 contributions to "Cut Up and Put Together” — an exhibition at the Staunton Augusta Art Center featuring collage and assemblage creations by Long, Sarah Lawson, Peter Allen, Chris Siron and Matthew Phelan.

On her website, Long refers to herself as “part magpie” because, as she says, she repurposes and renews “scavenged bits and bobs.”

“I gather ephemera, detritus, pre-owned and earthbound artifacts,” her art statement reads. “Some objects have been salvaged from our house fire. Others, I’ve spied in thrift stores or recycling bins, sifted from the internet or foraged beyond the fencerow.”

Terri Long's closet studio
Barry Tristan Long
Terri Long's 2004 work table

As we walked together through the exhibition, Long described her pieces in the collection, each one somehow woven into the story of her journey from dealing with cancer, loss, grief and depression to finally finding her voice again.

Her Bones series in the exhibition, for example, is based on something the contractor told Long and her husband, Barry — who is also an artist — when he assessed the damage to their Scottsville, Virginia home after the fire. “Your house has good bones,” he said.

While a third of the structure burned to the ground, and they lost most of their possessions — including their clothing, books, family keepsakes and all of Long’s art, materials and supplies — the rest of the house could be cut down to sub flooring and studs, providing the foundation to begin building again.

Firefighters on the scene of Terri Long's house fire
Barry Tristan Long
Firefighters on the scene of the 2018 house fire

In the series, Bones 02 is made up of old hardwood flooring, nails and copper wiring Long salvaged from the dumpster in their yard after the fire, encircled by a smoke-stained necklace pulled from a jewelry box that was retrieved by the fire marshal.

“I cut out some of the old copper wiring because it was beautiful. Look at these tones. You've got the patina, the rust. You’ve got two different forms of pink. I saved these things. And when I was finally ready, I found a way to make some art with them.”

Terri Long's art assemblage
Barry Tristan Long
Bones 02 from the “Cut Up and Put Together” exhibition at the Staunton Augusta Art Center

Long’s road back to her art table began with baby steps in 2021 when she heard about Second Street Gallery’s Teeny Tiny Trifecta — a fundraising exhibition featuring works of art measuring 9 x 9 inches or smaller.

“I saw the Teeny Tiny Trifecta, and I felt small. And I was like, ‘I can make a six-inch work. I’m gonna make three of them. I'm gonna make a series.’ And I did.”

She purchased a new pair of scissors, glue and a brush. Then she bought a secondhand table, a lamp and a comfortable chair, and she started to rebuild her studio. She created three pieces for the exhibit, and she sold all three.

Long’s story is perhaps best represented in Bones 01 — a popular piece from the exhibition made up of a mix of old and new “found” items. Encased in a scorched box frame salvaged from the fire, burnt porcelain electrical insulators, a charred folding ruler and a key intertwine with two odd shaped wooden pieces, black and white metal brackets and a chess piece picked up from secondhand stores. Two nails recovered from the original structure rest above rusted nails pulled from the construction site. And, as a tribute to Long’s many knick-knacks lost in the fire, the work includes a “new” old button.

Rounding out the assemblage are four dried sprigs from a longleaf pine — a pine species that is highly resistant to, but also dependent on fire. The symbolism is not lost on Long, who realizes that, like the longleaf pine, she is still standing and growing despite and because of a fire.

Another example of Terri Long's art assemblage
Barry Tristan Long
Bones 01 from the ”Cut Up and Put Together” exhibition at the Staunton Augusta Art Center

A few weeks ago, as Long was working in her new studio, putting the final touches on her pieces for the exhibition, she was listening to an episode of the podcast, Good Life Project, featuring essayist and novelist, Pico Iyer. Iyer was talking about losing his childhood home and possessions to a wildfire. In that moment, it dawned on Long that she wasn’t negatively triggered by his words.

“I didn't just close down. I didn't cry,” she said. “I just was like, ‘I'm in a better place to think about my fire,’ listening to him.”

Iyer talked about the meaning of home saying, “Home isn’t where you live. It’s what lives inside you.” This line really resonated with Long.

“The symbolic nature of the fire, of losing it all, that's not what's important,” said Long. “What's important are human connections. Home is where I am. It's my husband. It's my stepdaughters. It’s my parents, still living. It's my community who helped me. They all came together.”

In the podcast, Iyer paraphrased a haiku by Japanese poet, Mizuta Masahide, saying, “My house burnt down. I can now see better the rising moon.”

Long — who is just shy of her five-year cancer-free mark — is already looking into additional venues for exhibiting her art. And she’s thinking about writing a memoir.

“It's taken me five years, but I have that sort of perspective now, to look back at what happened, and to talk about it,” said Long. “And now I see. I see my silver lining. I see my rising moon.”

Terri Long’s website includes images of and information about her current and past work.

The Staunton Augusta Art Center website includes information about its classes, community happenings and exhibitions, including Cut Up and Put Together, which runs through February 17, 2024.