Alumnus Terry Lyon reflects on life as an artist and an engineer
In downtown Roanoke, behind a door sandwiched between two long-standing restaurants, is an antique wooden staircase that faces a vibrant public square and farmers market. Up this staircase resides the collaborative artist enclave known as Gallery 202.
At the rear of the main gallery, down a long brick hallway lined with paintings and artist spaces, is a well-used studio with wood-framed, plate glass windows. Sitting at an easel that looks out the window, surrounded by dozens of his landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, is one of Roanoke’s most prolific painters, Virgnia Tech alumnus Terry Lyon.
A Southwest Virginia native, Terry Lyon grew up in Vinton near his mother’s extended family and his father’s job as a foreman for the Norfolk and Western Railway. A lifelong artist, his first published work was a drawing in Highlights for Children Magazine when he was just 5 years old. His interest in the arts continued throughout his youth, and he was named an outstanding senior in art at William Byrd High School in 1962. He also studied at the Roanoke Fine Arts Center before enrolling in college to pursue engineering.
Lyon, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1967 with a degree in building construction, has been painting full-time since his retirement in 1998. He saw a career in engineering as a way to fully fund his artistic interests and, inspired by his father’s time as a pilot in World War II, applied to Virginia Tech. He was accepted into the Air Force ROTC and aeronautical engineering programs, but a year in, he changed tracks and switched to building construction.
“The reason I switched is simple — I didn’t like chemistry. Ironic that I went on to work for a big chemical company,” he said.
After graduating, he joined Hercules, a government contractor overseeing operations at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, where he remained until his retirement.
He remembers his time spent at Virginia Tech vividly, especially his three years in the Corps of Cadets. He contributed his freshman brass belt buckle to be melted down to help create Skipper, the cannon that the corps fires off during football games and other events. He also was chosen to draw the saber design for his class in 1966, an early chance to put his artistic skills to a broader use.
He took electives that allowed him to explore different forms of art, including painting and sculpting, though in retrospect he regrets not spending more of his time doing so. For students with a similar interest in the arts, he recommends taking full advantage of the wide variety of electives available at Virginia Tech.
Lyon largely works with oil on canvas in the representational impressionist style, creating bright, evocative landscapes and snapshots of everyday life through quick, bold brushwork and stark color contrast. His son, Jimmy Lyon, currently a director of finance analysis at Virginia Tech, has watched his father’s style evolve over his lifetime, from the classic impressionist inspirations to his interactions with contemporary regional artists.
“He’s gotten much looser, with his strokes and in the amount of paint he puts on the actual canvas, creating some very impressive visual effects,” Jimmy Lyon said. “My personal favorite artist is Van Gogh, and I can very clearly see the influence that he pulled from his work.”
The younger Lyon has received many paintings from his father, often to commemorate milestones, and his favorite piece was a graduation gift.
“Our last name is Lyon, so of course he made me a large painting of a lion,” Jimmy Lyon said. “It’s been in every living room I’ve had since I graduated college.”
Terry Lyon’s work, which has sold nationwide, is often on exhibit at art shows in North Carolina and Virginia. In addition to regular exhibitions at Gallery 202 and Art Pannonia in Blacksburg, Lyon has shown work at Festival in the Park in Roanoke, Art in the Park in Richmond, and the Boardwalk Art Show in Virginia Beach. His passion for the local community has led him to participate in a wide variety of quirky and unusual venues, which he feels has contributed to his development as an artist.
One of Terry Lyon’s recent exhibits featured a series of day in the life paintings of the workers at the Norfolk and Western roundhouse in Crewe, Virginia, where his father was a foreman. Based on slides that his father photographed in 1958, Terry Lyon brought the day-to-day duties of his father’s railroad crew to life in dazzling strokes of a very focused color palette. The paintings are currently on display in the entrance hall to Gallery 202.
Another recent series included several paintings of his father, Capt. W.S. Lyon, with his plane in World War II. While Terry Lyon changed his career path at Virginia Tech from aeronautical engineering to building construction early on, he never lost his fascination with combat planes, and they often appear his work. In addition to constructing model airplanes from balsa wood, he also likes to paint reimaginings of famous aircraft in action.
Lyon has always seen art as encompassing more than the “left brain” versus “right brain” dichotomy. As he worked on designs and blueprints during his time at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, his mind would simultaneously plan the next steps on his paintings that evening.
For Lyon, “art” is much more than just brushstrokes on canvas. This came together for him as he was building his own home by hand over a five year period in the 1970s and '80s. Once the house was built, he spent his evenings immersed in his painting, including studying figure drawing weekly at Virginia Western Community College.
“I got to thinking, everybody is into some form of art. There’s journalism, the art of writing. Multiplying higher order numbers. There’s waiting on tables at the restaurant. If there’s something you can make, you can say there’s an art to it.” As an engineer by trade, constructing his home still rates to him as one of his finest works.
In 2006, American Electric Power commissioned Lyon to create a painting commemorating the opening of a power line between Wyoming County, West Virginia, and Wythe County, Virginia. He painted a classic Wythe County farmhouse, situated among lush fields and rolling, wooded hills, with the newly built power line running in the background across clear-cut hills. He views the work as a cautionary tale, depicting a timeless, rustic landscape that was changed indelibly by modern technology. Many local dignitaries such as Sens. Joe Manchin and Tim Kaine received a framed print of the painting for their work on the project.
He has also found ways to use his art to make a difference in the community.
Jimmy Lyon recalled a series of portraits his father painted of homeless people in downtown Roanoke. “He would pay them a commission on each one, in addition to the five or 10 bucks he gave them regularly,” Jimmy Lyon said. When one of the men had a medical emergency, Terry Lyon stepped up to ensure he received proper treatment, providing transportation to and from a clinic in West Virginia. Later, Terry Lyon would be invited to attend the man’s wedding ceremony in Elmwood Park.
Now a father himself, Jimmy Lyon has made a home in Roanoke to be near his parents and to help his children have a strong relationship with them as well. “He’s phenomenal with the grandkids,” said Jimmy Lyon, “A great granddad. I hope I can be that for my kids someday.”
Terry Lyon resides with his wife, Linda, in that house he built 40 years ago. In addition to his son, Lyon has a daughter and two grandchildren. A selection of his work can be found online at https://www.instagram.com/terry.lyon.7/.
Terry Lyon is also a member of the Cornerstone Alumni, the group of Hokies who graduated 50 or more years ago. Learn more about these passionate Hokies who represent the foundation of Virginia Tech.