An interview with Brent Harris

A View From The Heartland
A View From The Heartland

Brent Harris, whose home and studio are in Pacifica, California, hails from Indiana. He moved with his family to New England before he started first grade, where he lived until he graduated from high school in 1970. The following summer he hitch-hiked to California. He met the woman who became his wife and they have lived happily in the San Francisco Bay Area since.
Grounded by his upbringing in the values of Middle America, Harris’ view of the world and his art draws its main influenced from the diversity found in coastal cities. Always an imaginative and creative child, his family’s moves sometimes left him to entertain himself until he made new friends. His first official foray into art came in a junior high school art class. Unfortunately, his early creative ambitions far surpassed his talent and his teacher advised him not to consider art in his future plans. Young and sensitive, Harris believed her. He still doodled and dabbled, but he never thought of this as art.
In California he gained knowledge and hopefully some wisdom through a number of usual and less usual jobs and volunteer opportunities. After his prosaic start on the east coast as a paper boy, then a super market bag boy, a theater usher and fast food worker, Harris became the youngest driving instructor in California, at that time, followed by fast-food and restaurant management. He next worked as a letter-press and offset printer, which led to a career in graphic arts. As a production manager for a printing and lithography firm, his job included printing World Series, Playoff and Rose Bowl tickets as well as other major events. Later, while working full-time for a color separator who produced film for magazine advertisements, he completed his B.A. in cinema, twenty years post high school. His emphasis on film writing put him in touch with other filmmakers in the area and gave him the opportunity to serve as a film-festival juror at both the San Francisco International Film Festival and the United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) at Stanford University.
After his rejection by a misguided art instructor, Harris focused on writing, another early interest. Still, his creative drive manifested not only in the written word, but also in other areas. He has written screenplays, a novel (unproduced and unpublished) newsletters, crafted, created polymer clay figures, sewn art quilts, clothing and three-dimensional fiber art. He found a way back into the kind of art he pursued in Junior High School in a three-weekend class studying color pencil art. He found that he had some skill and took semi-private lessons for two years. His background in color and design from his career, his sense of story and flow from his writing and international travel informed his sensibilities and execution. Yet, he had still not discovered his métier.
During the first decade of the 21st century, the company Harris thought he would retire from closed, followed by unemployment and various jobs over the following ten years as well as health problems and surgeries. The most recent economic downturn at one point left him unemployed for two and a half years. Ultimately, for his art career, this proved fortunate. Trying to improve his chances for employment, he took internet-focused classes, at his local community college, which included art and design classes. Here, Harris had his first experience using oil paint and an epiphany. Literally from the first time he put paint to canvas, he said, “I felt I’d found what I’d been looking for. I’d come home.” That was in the winter, 2008. During the next three years, he painted more than forty pieces. Although he doesn’t discount his fiber pieces, this felt like the beginning of his life as an artist. There have been delays, bumps and bruises along the way, but Harris is more driven and creative than ever.
An otherwise trying decade, starting in 2001, was trumped by 2012. At the end of January, 2012, he took a serious fall that resulted in seven stitches in his forehead and a sideways Harry Potter scar. After delayed physical therapy, he and his wife went on a long-dreamed-of trip to Kenya. They stayed with one of their two Kenyan sisters, women who lived with his wife’s family as exchange students while they attended college in America. They got to see the day-to-day life of their friends as wells as the beauty and grandeur of East Africa. This truly amazing experience was underscored by roads which ranged from adequate to uneven corrugated, the presence of armed guards and searches everywhere they went, including the local supermarket. Although not focused on it, they felt the underlying tension from seeing compounds, walls, barbed wire and automatic weapons everywhere, counterpointed by slums, roadside shanty businesses and animals they had seen only in zoos, now backed by forests, savannahs and city-scapes.
Two days before Harris and his wife were to return home, they were car-jacked at gunpoint losing most of their money and belongings (Beauty and Terror for two Pacificans in Nairobi – San Jose Mercury – archived). Yet they walked away alive and mostly physically unharmed. Harris managed to save the memory card from one of his cameras and this, combined with two shoulder surgeries (one each side) led him to where he is today. While his output slowed, his focus on painting never wavered and he has begun painting again with zeal since the beginning of 2014. Encouragement from a friend convinced him to begin showing his photography as well. Physical limitations helped him find the wonders and beauty of digital art and he’s still growing, finding new modes of expression. If that wasn’t enough, feeling a need he didn’t quite understand, he began writing again. The floodgates opened. He found his form and, more importantly, as a friend said he found his creative passion again. “I knew something felt missing, but I never knew what it was until it returned.” So, he is a fine artist, a digital artist, photographer, a satirist, essayist, and poet, each under a different name. There are reasons for this, but they’re not germane to this story.
Harris came to painting, to art, late in life by some standards, but like Athena leaping full grown from Zeus’s forehead: He has come armed for the fray and applies himself with a will. As a Wikipedia entry has it, “Athena is goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill. Athena is also a shrewd companion of heroes and is the goddess of heroic endeavors.” Harris thinks “this, as a description of a creative life in our modern world is well suited to our reality. Honest creation, creation from the heart, spirit and mind, no matter what our age or the age of man, requires courage, inspiration, strength, strategy, art, craft and skill. In this time where callous greed, corrupt self-interest and unmitigated contempt for humanity and our home, Earth, appear rampant, pursuing art is a hero’s journey. It is a just battle and we who have undertaken this quest need to cultivate bravery, humility, strength, and whatever help, support, or inspiration the universe presents or provides.”
Harris believes that every experience we have, every living being we interact with, and everything we experience in life makes us who we are. All that we have and all that we are infuses us and is expressed in the way we live and the dreams we cherish. He explores his dream, his vision, through landscape, portraiture juxtapositions, social comment and humor. In search of a more encompassing description of his art, Harris would choose expressionism, aiming to capture not just objective reality, but also the subjective emotions and feelings a person might encounter as a response to certain objects, events and art, as the closest movement he might be associated with. He examines how we see the world through color and image, combining ideas and images until they coalesce into a cohesive whole. Our current social concerns, perceived injustice and anything that speaks to Harris may serve as his inspiration. He believes that one person can change the world, even if it’s only one person at a time.


What is creativity to you?
In thinking about what creativity means to me, I discovered that I have a different view than seems to be generally accepted. I encountered words such as cleverness, genius, imagination, ingenuity, inspiration, inventiveness, originality, talent and vision. As an antonym, I found only reality. While I’m sure the qualities cited play into a certain form of creative endeavor, I believe reality is the closest to the mark, not the opposite.
Creativity is intrinsic to being alive and not the exclusive domain of Homo sapiens. That some of it may be instinctive makes it no less creative. Every life which is engendered, every burrow painstakingly excavated, every nest assembled piece by piece is a unique creation. In many ways this form of creation has more innate value than the greatest book, symphony, dance, architecture, sculpture or painting.
Still, I am an artist and a writer. I, in no way, devalue or invalidate my work or that of any other artist in whatever field. Even early cave paintings said we had evolved past simply the need to survive and also highlight our need to express ourselves. Here, imagination and originality may apply.
Creativity is how all life expresses it desire to survive, thrive and grow. Each creation, no matter at what level, is designed to feed us, keep us safe and help our species and our world to grow.
What was your first love of the arts?

I didn’t grow up with much of an art influence at home. Despite taking an art class in junior high school, with disastrous results, I didn’t have major exposure to art until my first year attending community college in California. I remember being blown away the first time I saw a Caravaggio.
I’m drawn to the Dutch Masters and Renaissance painters, but I also like Magritte, Dali, and Klimt and others. Abstract art is certainly my least favorite. I had been interested in writing when I was fairly young.

Where does your inspiration come from?
Violence proliferates, the climate degenerates, and our hopes appear to evaporate. Artists, the creative among us in all fields, not just what is by tradition referred to as art, challenge us to examine our follies and admit our imperfections through their continual striving to express the best of themselves. But they also challenge us by direct confrontation, holding mirrors to our perfidy, sometimes simply by presenting something so honest, so striking, beautiful and true that we must acknowledge our weaknesses and seek our higher selves. We may smile or nod, laugh or cry, or show no indication we have been changed, but we remember love, hope and laughter and we understand that every living being shares these same emotions. We see something so incredible in itself, so obviously art, that we are struck to our core with its blinding beauty and transformative power, even if the surface appears hideous or causes pain, fear and sadness. After we have seen it, experienced it in whatever form it takes, we will be forever changed, unable to live as we did previously.
This is what I strive to create. And, however short I may fall of my goal, I will always try to bring the best of myself to my art. I create not because I’m inspired, but because I’m driven.

Do you have any set themes within your work?

Our world and the mess we have made of it and continue to make is the predominate theme within my work. This is most obvious, I believe, in my writing, but also is the underpinning for my art. I often pick unusual subject matter or render typical settings in unusual ways. Like a modernist filmmaker, I want to take the viewer out of a comfortable space and make them think about why I’m doing what I’m doing. In doing so, I hope this would lead them to think where does this lead and to examine their own preconceptions and biases. All that being said, I also paint more traditional landscapes and portraits.

Memento Mori
Memento Mori

What art movements best fits you as an artist?

If I were forced to chose, I suppose expressionism would be closest to the mark. I don’t feel I fit traditional categories well, preferring what I call WISIGNISM, what you get is what you see, need I say more.

Do you plan to incorporate poetry with art?

I am looking for opportunities that poetry would be appropriate within the context of a particular painting. I have used words as part of my art, when appropriate, and currently create a haiku for each piece.

Not Here, Not Anywhere The Only Right Way        Led away in cuffs                           Not here, not anywhere is                                      The only right way
Not Here, Not Anywhere The Only Right Way
Led away in cuffs
Not here, not anywhere is The only right way

Were you self taught or academically taught?

I am predominantly self taught, but have trained more formally at Skyline Community College with Paul Bridenbaugh, Noah Buchanan and Eileen David, having previously studied with Julie A. Andrews. My usual pattern is to start doing something and then study it to find out how it should be done, or at least how others think it should be done.
I have consistently been chosen to exhibit in juried shows, both in galleries and online. I won the July 2013 show, “Summer,” having received two awards of special recognition in their prior show, “Self Discovery.” I received a third-place finish from in their “Joy to the World” show. I have often been a finalist and have received honorable mentions in several gallery shows. I view this, as well as my employment and life experiences as preparation to where I am today.
How important is reading in your craft?
Reading is central to my life and I consider it important in everything I do, including in my craft.
What people inspire you in your art work?
The human population inspires me, but I am not one to look to people for inspiration.
Where can people find you on the internet?

Brent Harris Fine Art
Philip Brent Digital Art and Photography
The Pen’s Might ~ Philip Brent Harris
The Extra Mile

Do you have any upcoming shows or publications?
I am currently showing at:
10th Contest
May/June 2014 (finalist)
Artistic License Art Guild of Pacifica
May/June 2014 ~ Opening May 30th at 7:00 pm
Like a Tom Waits Song (juried) Arc Gallery
San Francisco, CA ~ May/June 2014
Full Circle Art Guild of Pacifica
June/July 2014
I have also started a post on my blog for two serialized novels which will alternate on Tuesdays.

Orange is the New Black 7
Orange is the New Black 7
Along the Volga
Along the Volga
Ghost Cheetah
Ghost Cheetah
Loss of Wonder
Loss of Wonder

Author: Helen Ingram

Self Published author, artist, interviewer and owner of New Art United