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New High Art

Transforming Life through Art

By Tori Phelps | Photography courtesy of Teil Duncan

Good art transforms a space; great art transforms its viewers. Teil Duncan is an artist with the rare ability to immerse people into a scene so thoroughly that they can almost feel the sun’s rays reflecting off the sand or the wind whipping around bare legs. Through color, texture, and light, she invites you to experience the world the way she does.

Duncan’s world began in Columbus, Georgia, where she developed an early interest in visual art. It wasn’t unheard of in the family; her great-grandmother, also named Teil, was a painter who took up a brush at age eighty. The younger Teil, who counts herself lucky to have a mother who nurtured that enthusiasm, eventually earned an art degree from Auburn University.

What to do with that degree was the question.

The answer seemed to be in Charleston, though Duncan insists she had no real intention of pursuing a full-time career in art there. She was simply drawn to the same things everyone else is: the architecture, the food, the people, and the coastal pace.

Though she took on painting commissions, the majority of her income came from waiting tables and working at a preschool. It wasn’t until she stumbled upon Redux Contemporary Art Center—a studio work space filled with young, successful artists—that it occurred to Duncan to consider art as a viable career option. She immediately quit both of her jobs, took out a loan, rented a studio, and began to paint full-time.

Her approach remained the same with each subject: interesting color palettes, bold brushstrokes, multiple layers, a definitive light source, and intricate patterns combined with loose abstractions.

As excited as she was about this new adventure, she was also realistic. “I was absolutely worried about failing as an artist,” she admits. “It was already a very bold statement to claim that I was good enough at art to pursue it as a job.”

She lived with that doubt for about two years, during which she experimented with a variety of styles and mediums. One day, she took photos of a figure model during a drawing class and decided to paint her. Duncan switched from oils to acrylics, minimized her color palette, and started painting the same five poses over and over on a very small scale.

Voilà—a signature style was born.

She launched an online shop and e-mailed every influential blogger she could think of, asking for exposure. Creatively, she concentrated on figures for about six months and then switched to beach scenes. Her approach remained the same with each subject: interesting color palettes, bold brushstrokes, multiple layers, a definitive light source, and intricate patterns combined with loose abstractions.

Affirmation of her work came quickly, and the self-doubt dissipated just as quickly. Her series were officially a hit, and she was emboldened to tackle new subjects. One of her first series, however, continues to be most in demand. “People seem to be most excited about beach scenes,” Duncan says. “I frequently receive comments about how happy they make people.”

“Teil is not who you would think she’d be as a successful artist,” she confides. “She’s superhumble and always looking for a way to use her platform to help other people.”

Duncan’s studio manager, Laura Lea Vernon, explains that Duncan typically creates a sixteen-painting series on a single subject—all similar in style—and then takes a break between subjects. Social media allows admirers to stay up to date not only on her work but also on when paintings will be available for purchase. “They all go within minutes,” Vernon says of newly released series.

While her distinctive style is instantly recognizable—and lucrative—Duncan’s goal is growth and evolution as an artist. She frequently travels with her husband, and those experiences often find expression in her paintings. Still, she can’t help but be most inspired by Charleston and its visionary residents. “Even though it’s a laid-back, beachy town, people are hard at work in the creative field, gaining national recognition,” she says, adding that her fellow artists are great motivation to keep toiling away in her studio. “I owe a lot of my success to the city of Charleston.”

“Success” may be an understatement. With famous buyers on speed dial and a demand that far exceeds her supply, Duncan has earned some swagger in her step and even the occasional artistic temper tantrum. But it’s just not in her nature, according to Vernon, who also happens to be her sister. “Teil is not who you would think she’d be as a successful artist,” she confides. “She’s superhumble and always looking for a way to use her platform to help other people.”

Which makes it even easier to root for her. Duncan doesn’t know where the future will lead—geographically or artistically—but she’s excited to find out. “I’m not satisfied pursuing only one subject,” she says. “I’m consistently releasing new series of artwork and, thankfully, my audience seems to receive them well.”

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