Sometimes artists start young, sometimes they start creating out of necessity. Both are true for painter Jennifer Maria Harris. “Rather than go to this horrible daycare, my mom made this deal with me that, if I quietly entertained myself in the back room at her work, I could avoid the terrors of the preschool. And, thus, I started drawing.”
Harris grew up in suburban Maryland and northern Virginia, “at some point almost everywhere outside of Washington D.C.” she explains with a laugh. “I didn’t think I wanted to be an artist until I was desperate to go to college and wound up going to art school. But I definitely for long before that had enjoyed drawing. I always loved those books from when I was really little that were those stories about some type of child who would draw their world and then go live in it. I just thought that was the best thing.”
After attending Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA (“I accidentally wound up in an excellent program,” she remembers), Harris planned to move to New Mexico to work in a gallery after graduation and set up some interviews to get things rolling. But on the way out west, Harris got a bit sidetracked. “I set out on the road with an old friend, driving around the United States for maybe a month and on the way I was going to stop by New Mexico and check it out before doing the full move. Instead, I wound up really falling in love with San Francisco. So I changed my mind, changed my plans, went back and sold all my stuff. I’ve been here ever since.”
‘Here’ for Harris is the Hayes Valley neighborhood, which has been greatly gentrified ever since the dot com explosion that changed many SF neighborhoods. Luckily she has been in her rent-controlled apartment for ten years, and it’s large enough that she can have a separate studio in the same space. Still, like most painters, Harris needs a day job to make ends meet. In her case, it’s running a medical transcription business, which, although time-consuming as any business, is fairly flexible and doesn’t sap her creative juices. “It’s very much the other side of the brain.”
While Harris doesn’t particularly see herself as part of any stylistic movement, she does feel a kinship with a generation of artists who are more proactive about their careers. “A lot of the structure of the art world is changing. A lot of people are doing a lot more themselves, rather than becoming dependent on a gallery or an agent to run their career. People are creating their own shows, even curating their own shows . . . You can really run your own career.” Among the benefits Harris sees are that art is no longer just made for a narrow, wealthy, museum-going section of society, and a younger population is regularly exposed to art. “Also, you get a lot of really high-end, professional art work in restaurants, even in clubs.”
Harris herself is no stranger to working outside traditional venues: over the space of a few years, she turned her own neighborhood and an adjacent stretch of Market Street into a gallery. Working with text, sometimes quotes she had gathered from her own life and conversations, Harris used chalk to turn the urban sidewalks into places where people might stop and think twice—about their surroundings, what they were reading, things they had heard before. “I’m very interested in combining text and narratives with time-related pieces that are installations. So I give people segments of stories, maybe one a week, that are on the sidewalk, and maybe the story walks down the sidewalk.” One installation occurred once a week for seven months, another for 180 days, and while working on the pieces Harris often met people, both neighbors and people passing through the area. But not everyone was fond of public spaces being used for art: “One of my neighbors got sick of seeing it, so she would go out and water her plants and then wash it off the sidewalk!” Harris ruefully recalls.
Such work is by nature demanding and time-consuming, and Harris has been focusing recently on her painting. The work has an immediate impact that is at once visceral but dreamlike—houses are clearly more than just houses. Bold figures with stolid faces engage the viewer, evoking myth archetypes or children’s stories with their basic but loaded presence. Colors glow—greens luminesce, reds burn quietly—and shapes repeat like the structure of a fairy tale narrative, their simplicity belying compositions that are carefully planned and frequently refined.
On Harris’s web site, www.tallpainter.com, visitors can even see the evolution of a few pieces. Working with oils on canvas (“I’m not particular in terms of brand, but I am particular in that I’ll find a certain red and get it over and over”), Harris may head in one direction before changing course abruptly or refine an image in a series of steps. The idea for sharing these works in progress came from her own desire to know how other artists worked. “One of the artists I really like is Anselm Kiefer, who does these huge pieces. Is any of it spontaneous, does he lay it down to get at it? How do you get around a canvas that is ten feet tall?” Making a decision to share her artistic process due to her own questions seems apropos for an artist whose work invites viewers into a dialogue, to create a narrative that might surround her earthy characters.
When Harris was working on her sidewalk pieces, one of the quotes she used came from her great-grandmother via her father: “If you want to know how important you are, stick your finger in a bucket of water and see how big a hole it leaves.” It’s a pithy, but slyly demeaning saying, typical for a member of one generation who might think youngsters are a bit uppity. But in Harris’s work, she flips it on its head: “It had always kinda bothered me, and I replied to [my father] when he told me the story for the hundredth time, ’Yeah, okay, see how big of a hole it leaves, but also watch the ripples, everything you touch, you affect.’” For a firsthand experience of the waves Jennifer Maria Harris is making, her work will be shown this fall during San Francisco’s Open Studios and at the Mill Valley Art Commission.
- Peter Nicholson