Teri McCans: Artist, Veteran, Deputy Sheriff

Teri McCans

Teri McCans


Teri McCans first approached us about becoming a colleague back in 2011. We admit we were a little skeptical. At the time she had already served two tours with the Army in Iraq, was working as a firefighter in New Jersey and she was focused on her growth as an artist. It seemed like she was too young to be that accomplished. Yet, not only was everything she said about her background true, but her paintings were amazing. Then we saw her installations and sculptures and it dawned on us how extraordinarily talented and hard-working Teri is.

She now serves as a Deputy Sheriff for Jefferson County, Colorado, is married to a fellow Army veteran and continues to paint and create art. The fact that she’s able to balance all these elements of her life makes her a truly inspiring example of a veteran and artist dedicated to giving back to the community and continuing their service in new ways. We are truly proud to feature her as USVAA Colleague of the Month for September 2017.

Interview Questions: USVAA Colleague of the Month Teri McCans.

USVAA: What made you want to become an artist?

From a very early age I recognized I had a natural talent in art. It was a constant, through my education, that has always given me confidence and never made me doubt my abilities. I don’t remember making a conscious decision, it always just seemed the way it was supposed to be.

USVAA: What do you think is important about being an artist?

Staying true to my vision, passion, and doing what is right for me. Our society has a very strong misunderstanding of art and artists and I challenge myself daily to not let the few comments, criticisms, and unrealistic societal pressures affect my choice to create.
In my heart and mind, I know I can create my most compelling work when I create from my own heart and not what has becomes someone else’s vision. Granted, I highly respect those who work in in fields where they are required to execute other’s creative visions or offer their expertise in the creation process: but for me, it stunts my ability to create anything and adds a pressure to the process that deters me from creation all together.
I believe that my hard work, dedication, and commitment to my artistic vision will always lead me to a sense of fulfillment, without regrets, with or without recognition or monetary value.

USVAA: What are the most important elements of your work? What are the things people might not see that you try to convey with your work?

My work is almost always derived of tragedy, sadness, or a conflict: whether it has been experienced by me, or someone close to me. I strive in executing my heavy content with a beautiful, soft, aesthetic, because it brings that topic to a place of peace and healing for me, instead of a burden on my heart, mind, or soul. My work is medicinal for me, it brings be joy and contentment, allows me to express the unique experiences that I’ve had, and allows me to represent a very small group of artists that offer a very specific and unusual perspective –
based off our uncommon experiences and environments. My narrative is very specific in my pieces, although the viewer might not be aware. This could be due to my own vague use of imagery or environment, but it is also because I believe beauty supersedes all negativity, so, in a way, I mask the heaviness of the subject matter. This isn’t to confuse the viewer, but is simply my creation process. I am always happy and and open to discussing my paintings and sculptures but also love to hear, from viewers, how they interpret their own narrative or connection to a piece. If my message is lost to a viewer, but they gain contentment in their viewing process, I always see it as a success and compliment.

USVAA: Who inspires you?

Any and all of the people I’ve met who have faced intense situations, upbringings, scenarios, and have overcome and conquered the negative aspects that have come with those experiences. I love surrounding myself with complex individuals: they have the deepest souls, carry the most burdens, and are also some of the most beautiful and outstanding people I’ve ever experienced. My circle is small, but the most inspiring, and I cherish the connections — even if they are brief — to the fullest.

USVAA: Why did you enlist in the military?

I knew art was what I was intended to pursue from a very young age, but I was deeply affected by the events of 9/11 and I wanted to be a part of the process my country was about to follow. I felt a drive and commitment to serve my community, county, and family in a way that not everyone can.
I do need to say that enlisting in the military is truly a calling for very few, and it’s what I felt I needed to do to ensure the country that I loved would never experience that level of fear ever again.

USVAA: Would you serve in the military again?

My military experiences were truly a mixture of ups and downs, negatives and positives. I can only say that if my country were in a state similar to what it was on 9/11 again, my bags would be packed and I’d serve in a heartbeat. After I left the military, I knew I needed to continue to serve in some fashion. I became a volunteer firefighter for 6 years, which was one of the most fulfilling and amazing experiences I’ve ever had and which I loved dearly. I left firefighting to move to Colorado and become law enforcement, and yes, it’s a very different level of service from both the other above occupations. Each has fulfilled and burdened a different area of my soul, but I feel it’s my purpose and place to participate in my community and country on these levels because someone needs to, and I am one of those few. I know that I have the ability, strength, and talents that can make a positive impact in these lines of work. It’s very important for me to keep people safe, secure, and unburdened, and all three of these professions have served some aspect of that.

USVAA: Did your military service influence your work as an artist?

It had an incredible impact on my work and has been the most fulfilling of all the work I’ve ever had the honor to display. It also has served as some of the most necessary work I’ve created. I say this in regards to healing from some of my experiences, realigning myself after multiple tours in Iraq and then returning to the States. Although the subject matter is significantly less marketable, I’ve found it to have the most impact on my viewers. I take a lot of pride in being able to represent my service as one of few military artists and genuinely
don’t try to make my work political. I’ve always set my military focused work in a sense of neutrality, when possible. Although I’ve had some negative experiences, I’ve never regretted my service, and even the negative experiences I have had have shaped the person I’ve become, for which I’m forever grateful.

USVAA: Is there a particular incident or experience in the military you would like our readers to know about?

I’ve always had an affinity to work in male-based work environments. I’ve grown up as the only girl in my family and my personality and common interests have typically blended best with the attitudes and work ethics of such environments, naturally. With that being said, there have always been negative challenges associated with being a female in a male based work environment. I’ve always found there to be three different male attitudes towards females who serve in the military: the supportive ones, the neutral ones, and the ones that despise our existence. I’ve experienced the ups and downs of the extremes, have been the subject of rumor, lies, stereotypes, and certainly been underestimated in many situations where I made it a point to prove my abilities, loyalties, and genuineness. Despite those challenges, I’m grateful for my service, although I know I would have loved to have had a 20 year plus career in the Army. Organizational negatives certainly started to outweigh the positives and I chose to take my drives and ambitions into other career fields.

USVAA: What can you tell us about the experience of becoming an artist?

There is nothing in my world that brings me more fulfillment than my art. It’s where I feel the most comfortable, accomplished, confident, and it impacts my mood more significantly than anything else in my universe. I would love for art to be my full time focus and source of income but I’m very much a realist and know art markets fluctuate, are highly competitive, and unpredictable. Regardless, until the day I cease to be on this earth, my art will always be something I do, because I do it for me. I will always continue to create, even without recognition, monetary gain, or acknowledgement – and I believe I will always create to the best of my ability because of this.

USVAA: Does living in Colorado influence your work?

Moving from NJ to Colorado certainly influenced my work. I’ve gained a larger in-home studio space (thanks to the love and support of my husband), although it’s been incredibly difficult to reestablish myself in a new geographic market and to establish the many connections and community I had developed in New Jersey. I continue to explore the opportunities both locally and regionally and connect with as many art social groups as I can. The opportunities I’ve found here are encouraging and beautiful, and I’m happy to call myself a now Colorado artist and be actively contributing to this amazing state.

USVAA: Are there other influences on your work people should know about?

No, I really internalize a lot of experiences and use that as my primary influence. I grew up on a farm and also traveled quite a bit, and I’m sure both impacted my work in different ways, but most my work is experience based.

USVAA: What is your process? How do you begin a particular painting?

My artwork has never been an “at a whim” experience. I carefully plan each piece, thinking deeply into the conceptive nature, colors, layout, use of imagery and negative and positive space. Most work begins as a sketch or computer document and I systematically make decisions from there. I like to think of work in series as opposed to singular pieces – but there are always exceptions. If I think of a series, I will write about it in paragraph form, almost as if I am writing my own press release (for work that hasn’t even been conceived) and then brainstorm my compositions to fit my criteria.
The physical creation of my paintings has always been a sketch first on canvas, and then paint. I don’t think I’ve ever created a single painting without sketching it onto the canvas first. Just the thought of that lack of planning gives me anxiety.

USVAA: Is there a particular series of painting that you’re especially proud of or that stands out in your mind?

When I first began painting I used color, because every professor I ever had warned against the use of “black” and said it was “too harsh.” They always advised me to “use a dark brown or blue instead, for the same effect.” After awhile I found myself uninspired. I really missed black and white: it’s what started me in art, my love for pencil and charcoal. When I started my portraiture series, “Mirage: An Ulterior Motive” it brought me so much fulfillment. I didn’t know if I could execute black and white successfully in paint, the way I knew I could in pencil or charcoal, but once I found it worked I kept expanding on it. It created a discourse, however, in my existing portfolio: so now I am focusing on color paintings that begin to incorporate more black and white.

USVAA: Was there a breakthrough moment in your work that allowed you to call yourself an artist?

I’ve never hesitated to call myself an artist. I was always that kid in elementary school that the other kids asked to draw stuff for them during projects or class: I recognized my love for it from before I can even remember. It’s only recently that I’ve felt comfortable calling myself a “painter.” That’s a heavy title for me. I have little formal training and I am not, by any means, a traditional painter. “Artist,” however, felt the most “real” the first time I had my work shown in a museum – that felt like a huge shift in my artistic energy. I remember them telling me they would cover the shipping to get the artwork out to California and I said out loud, “You know you’re finally making it when they cover your shipping.”

USVAA: What advice, if any, would you give to an artist who is just starting out?

Just stick with it. Don’t let our society try and dictate what’s a realistic career or if you’ll make the cut. If you’re like me, and can’t produce work because you are “told” to, just create what makes you happy — the difference in the quality of work will be evident. But be realistic: this business is multi-faceted. You need to be a business person. You need to be organized. You cannot just think your art sales will keep you afloat. You don’t need to be linked to one gallery: you have to fight for many. And you will probably need a second, or even first, job for income survival. That’s okay. You’re not an artist because of whatever you do that pays your bills. Just ask yourself: if I never, ever, see one dollar from the sale of my artwork: would I keep doing it? For me, it’s yes. It is me. It would ruin me to think of my life without art. I keep pushing, and growing, and expanding: and I can’t promise it will pay off, but no one will ever be able to devalue my efforts, either.

USVAA: You recently married a fellow military veteran. Can you provide us with some of the background about your relationship?

Yes, we both had incredibly different military experiences. He experienced a camaraderie and brotherhood that I never did, and at the same time: I experienced the military as a female and he also could never understand those experiences. We both are, however, very familiar with what was required of each other’s military professions and we both highly respect what each other did.
We both work in the same profession now, as well, and it has continued to be an area of mutual respect. We have incredible similarities in our personalities and vast differences as well, our strengths and weakness’ are polar opposite, and one of the greatest gifts we have between us is a complete lack of competition: we support each other’s goals and aspirations without hesitation. And even in art: he’s so proud and supportive, I’m incredibly fortunate. He too, has a creative mind: but, just as we are opposite in demeanor and career goals, his strengths are more geared towards mechanics and engineering – I’m pretty sure neither of us can do what the other one can, it’s a perfect pairing lol.

USVAA: You have worked as a firefighter and currently serve on the Sheriff’s Department of Jefferson County, Colorado. Both professions are hard work. How do you do your job and maintain balance in your marriage and an artist?

I miss firefighting every day since moving to Colorado, it is forever a part of me and I love that I still interact with local firefighters and paramedics almost every day. I try to never forget where I came from. The balance is really found in my time management, which is always a challenge and a curse. But art brings me such happiness and peace, and is an outlet for so much of my life experience and thus becomes a saving grace. Sometimes work takes priority, sometimes art: I need to turn off one to do the other. As for my husband, he knows we’re woven from the same thread, and he knows that my art is an outlet. It has never caused a conflict. Our conversations about it usually begin with, “I’m going to be in the studio.” He responds, “I’ll be in the garage,” lol, no questions asked. But we both work different shifts, so that also allows us that differential to get our own things done and then prioritize the shared time off, together.

To see some of Teri’s art and learn more about her work, please visit her website at www.terimccans.com 

To visit our Featured Colleague for the previous month, please click HERE.