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Artist Spotlight on Willie Harris

Willie-Harris-Untitled-Pink-and-Purple

Layer after layer of paint accumulates on canvas like geologic strata. The coats are countless and applied in every hue you can imagine. Globs of it get pushed over increasingly encrusted edges. When completed, the paintings are so thick they become sculpture. This is the current work of longtime NIAD artist Willie Harris.

Harris has been a mainstay in our studio since 1988, but in all honesty we know very little about him since he’s hearing impaired and cannot speak. Despite these disabilities we’ve gotten to know him through his habits, artwork and engaging personality.

For many of our artists the creative process is a daily ritual filled with procedures, utensils and materials that they rarely deviate from. Harris fits this description and each day begins like the one before it.

After stepping down from the bus in our parking lot he quickly deposits his lunch box, puts on his helmet, painting smock and starts uncapping paint jars. Unlike most of our artists Harris has his own workspace, a table that’s a piece of art in it’s own right.

Years of paint drips and splotches cover the six-foot folding table where he works. Even old plexiglass palates are buried underneath the mounds. It basically looks like a Jackson Pollock painting that’s two inches thick and probably weighs 100 pounds.

After sitting down to work Harris arranges his paint jars in a row and puts a brush inside each container. One to five paintings lay flat on the table with their edges butted up against one another in front of the paint. Once everything’s in place, Harris will then select a jar of paint, grab the brush and quickly apply the paint in short slashing strokes for several seconds. Then he’ll swap paint jars and repeat the same process throughout the day, while moving across the canvases.

This process can go on for days on one single piece or a group of paintings. The surface slowly builds and paint often binds the canvasses together. Occasionally Harris will rearrange the paintings by plopping one on top of another.

According to studio manager Andres Cisneros, the paintings are considered done when Harris starts to show disinterest in the work. He’ll typically slow down or stop working altogether and then appear distracted by everything around him. When that happens Cisneros swaps in a new canvas and he’ll start painting again.

The resulting work, created over the last three years, is far more minimal in comparison to the rest of his portfolio. It’s still highly expressive, but has more in common with color field painting then the wild abstract expressionism of his older work.

Prior to this current series, Harris mainly created works consisting of circles, houses and a solitary figure that would consistently pop up in his drawings. They were created just as feverishly as the new paintings, with many layers of watercolor paint and ink, but the new work contains far less overt symbolism. Even when he draws today, the figure, house or circles may emerge, but it’s far less detailed and usually contains a large amount of slashing marks, which is similar to his painting process.

We can only speculate why Harris has chosen this way of making art. He may simply enjoy the creative process, the physicality of covering a surface with paint. Many artists share this motivation or drive.

Regardless of why he’s chosen to make the current body of work, the response to it has been tremendous. Harris’ work has always been popular among NIAD fans and collectors, but the new pieces are garnering wider recognition.

Lawrence Rinder, director of the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, recently included Harris in his 2011 exhibit, Create. Several galleries have expressed an interest in displaying his work, including the Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco, who will be featuring Harris alongside fellow NIAD artist Marlon Mullen, in early 2013. We’ll also be displaying his paintings at the upcoming artMRKT fair in May.

The future is bright for Harris. He’s achieved a certain level of success through all his hard work to date, but he may reach another level in the coming years. We’re excited to see his paintings evolve and get the recognition they deserve for being so uniquely wonderful.

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  • Jan Moore

    These are wonderful! The aerial photo of Willie at work is amazing! How did you do that? I have my doubts about whether or not Willie can hear, as I have seen him respond suddenly by looking over at me when I was talking about him to someone in the studio. But then again, he may just be highly intuitive! (is that an understatement?)
    Jan Moore

  • Larrystefl

    Willie’s paintings are a testament to the visceral power of color and texture in these rich surfaces. Fabulous artist…

  • http://www.starlightstudio.org/ Carrie Marcotte

    These are gorgeous. They look like they feel good to make.