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 Kenneth Harris  (1904 - 1983)

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Lived/Active: Virginia      Known for: marine, architectural, interior

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
the following is from the website
www.tc.cc.va.us/vabeach/humdiv/bwreview/1998-99/harris.htm

"A most fortunate existence" is how artist Kenneth Harris described his life. The lavender shadows between wintering trees; sunlight splashing from the pavement onto the underside of overarching lintels; the pure burnt sienna of a rusting tin roof; the scarlet in the shade of a sweltering summer day; the new leaves' violent green: these were to Harris evidence that "there is a heaven and we are in it, if we only take time to look and see that it's there." Believing that "art delivers what religion only promises," he would look day after day to the world around him and try to save a moment of this earth, a certain slant of its light.

In childhood, he drew pictures in his textbooks. Certainly, somewhere in Brevard High School in North Carolina, there is a pencil sketch of a Shea locomotive chugging across an engraving of a Roman aqueduct. Harris's father, a civil engineer, moved his family all over the mountains of the eastern states to build logging railroad. While living in Knoxville, Harris received drawing lessons from the town's lady artist. Later, during the summer he was twelve, he worked for an architect, printing blueprints in the old way, on the roof, in natural sunlight. The big event of the summer was designing and rendering an "elevation" for the local hardware store's new front.

Before beginning college, however, Harris had decided that art wouldn't make a respectable career. Leaving Georgia Tech for Davidson College, he found that neither the engineering nor the business side of building suited his ambition. In light of her son's interests, his mother sent samples of his work to someone who might know if he showed promise, and the result was another transfer. At the Cincinnati Art Academy, Harris was the first student in a decade to be moved to the life drawing class at the end of his first month there-Frank Brangwyn was his predecessor in that distinction-and before his 21st birthday, he had placed a painting in the Cincinnati museum. In those days, Frans Hals was "god," and the braggadocio slabs of paint that disappeared into visual truth at ten paces were the fashion. Harris's first hung painting was of a huge glass jug viewed through another; the highlight on the shoulder of the glass was an inch-square slab of pure white.

Soon, romance led to marriage, a growing family and the need for steady income, a situation made more troublesome by the coming of the Depression. Harris began working in advertising, first selling engravings for a printer, then handling advertising accounts. Eventually, he and some friends opened their own advertising agency in Atlanta-Liller, Battle and Harris, which became the largest agency in the South, handling the Humble Oil Company (later Exxon), Lily Thread, and Stover Chocolate, among others. The account executive who introduced nylon hosiery to the New York market, Harris attended the Atlanta opening of Gone With the Wind, seeking Clark Gable's autograph for a bed-spread by Cabin Craft, the company that had provided the spreads for the film.

At age 39, when his mother was dying and his marriage was on the rocks, Harris started to rethink his life. Leaving his assets with his wife, he traveled west and began painting. In Galveston, Texas, while painting in a boatyard, Harris was approached by the boatyard's owner, who was looking for someone to live on the premises, care for his dogs and discourage prowlers when he was away on other jobs. Harris moved in. He painted all week, and on Sunday tacked up his work on the walls of a roadside shed, along with a "For Sale" sign. One of every fifty cars would stop, and of every ten that stopped, someone would buy a small watercolor, priced in those days from two to ten dollars. It happened that one of Harris's customers was a young medical resident who was converting a rowboat into a sailboat in the adjoining boatyard. Over the course of the summer, the two guided the leaky, flat-bottomed scow with sails, which were really canvas, along Galveston's waterways. In the autumn, they decided to marry, just before Harris was drafted.

At the induction center in San Antonio, Harris's card-marked for officer's training-was immediately pulled from the distribution file when the commanding officer discovered that Harris was an artist: his assignment was to remain at the induction center and paint. While there, his orders often included painting portraits of officers' wives and children, but he also created a series depicting a young recruit's experiences before being shipped out. When the series was hung, the show received statewide coverage.

When Harris was mustered out because of age, he and his wife moved to Colorado; there, his paintings were shown at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. Later, medical opportunities at Duke University led the couple, who now had two children, to North Carolina's Piedmont region. Harris was the first to paint the rolling farmland, the tobacco fields and barns, the cotton and corn budding, the fertile and the fallow, stippled with snow. A one-man show of his paintings at the State Museum in Raleigh broke all records for attendance and sales; a farm journal even paid to have the museum stay open on Labor Day so that farmers could get to town and see the pictures of their land and lives.

The family moved once more for medical opportunities, this time to the coastal town of Wilmington. Again Harris found that no one had painted the life of the area: the live-oak trees festooned with Spanish moss; the shrimp boats returning at dawn; the marshes and eddying currents of the sound; the driftwood and wrack after storms; the delicate circles drawn in the dunes by the tips of wind-swung grass.

While in Carolina, Harris also became involved in politics. When Henry Wallace ran for President in 1948, the Progressive Party needed a full slate in order to be put on the ballot. Harris believed in Wallace's platform-a plan that decades later would be called détente-so Harris became the party's candidate for Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina. In response, people who had commissioned portraits immediately canceled, and there were threats; meanwhile, Dr. Harris wanted to move to a town where she would not be the only psychiatrist. The pair chose Norfolk for the variety of subject matter to paint and the relatively larger size of the community.

In Norfolk, no one had painted the cobbled streets of the old town, the tugboats at dock on an icy morning, the black locomotive pulling coal gondolas, shiny with rain; the freighter standing out to sea with a "bone in its teeth," a stiff wake rocking the nun buoys to a 30-degree angle; nor had anyone painted the warm-colored, handmade bricks of the dowager Georgian houses destined to be demolished for new roads and parking lots. Wherever Harris painted, people would stop and watch. And while he would chat affably, they would see the melded mud colors in his paint tray emerge on the paper in a surprise of clarity, the very image of a street they had walked down a thousand times and never really looked at until then.

In the early 1950's, the Norfolk Museum (now the Chrysler Museum) used a local newspaper grant to purchase from Harris a series of thirty watercolors for a permanent collection of the city at mid-century. The Portrait of a City exhibit toured the country for two years, and one of the paintings was sought by the Norton Gallery in Miami. (To public delight, the collection is re-presented every decade by the Chrysler.) A few years later, the Colonial Williamsburg Restoration selected Harris from a group of national candidates to be the only artist whose work would be sold in the Craftshop. Shortly thereafter, Harris spent a month at Winthrop Rockefeller's Tarytown estate, painting a series on commission. Vacation trips to Florida and Maine gave him a change of scene and a reason to paint.

Ever part of the area's mix of events, and always with an opinion on public issues, the Harris family was, in 1958, in the thick of the struggle to reopen Norfolk's public schools, closed by the state to avoid racial integration. When the Committee for Public Schools opened its office, Harris was pictured in the newspaper, painting the banner which hung over the office's door. When a rally was held at the Center Theater, Harris was there beforehand, painting picket signs and a poster of a schoolhouse door shackled with a "Yale" lock, accompanied by the words: "You'll never get into Yale or any other college without a high school education." As one of the speakers at the event, Harris was sought afterwards for appearances on the national news. In addition, many of the letters to the editor that were published in the local press had been written by Harris, though signed by other people.

Harris maintained a similar level of involvement during the movement to secure a new library for the city, and he would regularly speak up whenever something that seemed like a good idea wasn't getting the consideration he thought it warranted. Along with these activities, Harris was a scout leader for his son's troop, and he donated his time as a sketch artist at his children's school fairs. As the children got older, the Harris couple took to sailing the Chesapeake Bay on their 27-foot sloop, and Harris painted at anchor in the evenings.

Though a controversial member of Norfolk's first Fine Arts Commission, Harris was the only individual to be named a member of the Chamber of Commerce; as well, he was asked to paint all the sites on the Norfolk Tour. Upon completion, the original works were hung in City Council Chambers, and reproductions were sold, the proceeds going to the Chamber of Commerce. Harris continued to be active in both local and state activities: when Norfolk opened its new coliseum and theater complex, Harris undertook the publicity, the opening night book, the posters and the ads, free of charge, as a gift to the symphony; when the City of Chesapeake was founded, Harris designed its city seal; when State Senator Henry Howell ran for Lieutenant Governor, Harris painted the 10-foot tall portrait banner; and when Howell was elected, he announced that Harris was the only person he would let "hang him" in the Capitol, so Harris painted Howell's official portrait.

In addition, for a local bank, Harris created a 70' x 7' mural intaglio carved into battleship linoleum, depicting the history and present livelihood of the Tidewater region. For years, the mural was listed on Esso road maps as one of the sights to see in Norfolk. In his later years, Harris made multiple trips to Europe, several by freighter, to paint. Upon arrival abroad, he and his wife would drive, allowing Harris to paint areas from Spain to Yugoslavia, though England remained his favorite. During these trips, Harris wrote articles for the Norfolk newspaper, and upon returning home, he would hold an exhibition and sale.

Harris had always been convinced that people who went to the symphony and bought good novels would also buy original art if it were within their reach, of a size they could fit into their lives, at prices they could afford, and presented in some location not intended to intimidate them. An independent bookseller owned the kind of shop Harris had envisioned, and for several years, a book-seller was his agent. Later, a frame shop handled his work. Often asked to give public talks, Harris would champion the value of art. On behalf of a special interest group in Virginia Beach, he addressed City Council, advocating an outdoor art show on the boardwalk. Prizes for that first year of the Boardwalk Art Show were copies of Harris's book, How to Make a Living as a Painter, a text that remained in print for over thirty years. At present, the Virginia Beach Boardwalk Art Show, one of the nation's first large, outdoor shows, continues to grow in size and reputation.

Though Harris's paintings were always for sale, autumn was an especially busy time. In those months when people traditionally think about potential Christmas presents, Harris would gather thirty to forty paintings and rent a storefront for a few weeks to hold an exhibit and sale. Typically, to purchase a picture, the buyer would tear the affixed name tag from the corner of the matted watercolor and take the slip to the bookkeeper. There were instances of two people grabbing for the same tag at the same time and tearing it between them, and bystanders were often called as witnesses to help settle such disputes. Indeed, those who wandered and paused to consider might lose their chance. For these reasons, people lined up outside, sometimes hours ahead of time, so they could get to the pictures first. At Harris's last show, housed on the mezzanine of a bank, the line was four deep and snaked the length of the block, rounding out of sight. The bank took pictures.

When suddenly taken ill at 79, Harris lamented that he had not painted as many pictures as he would have liked. It had always been his desire, in Van Gogh's words, "to paint pictures to soothe people as music does." To Kenneth Harris, art, like music, should be elemental, not effete, for everyone and available to anyone. When customers bought his work on installment plans, he was honored. Once, an emergency room nurse confided that every evening when she came home from work, she sat before his beach scene to recover from what she had dealt with that day. Such comments made Harris believe, as he put into a speech written in mid-life, "What the world needs now is an art that grows under the sky, an art that grows like goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace along all the dusty roads that men travel, and that lifts the heart of every man."

This biography from the Archives of AskART:

The following information was submitted in July of 2006 by his daughter Marilyn:

I am his daughter and have about 14 of his works.  He studied at the Cincinnati Art Acadamy worked as a commercial artist in Charlotte, NC and Atlanta, GA.  He and my mother divorced when I was ten and he left the commercial art field and began his life as a painter as he had always dreamed of doing. He remarried and settled in Norfolk, VA where he became known for his series of paintings of "Old Norfolk" prior to the redevelopment stages.  His paintings became some of the only records of those sites.

He was commissioned to do a series of paintings for Historic Williamsburg including a set of Christmas cards one year.  He was commissioned to do many portraits and some murals for at least two Norfolk banks -- one which depicted the history of Norfolk was carved on marine linoleum and painted in soft pastels.  The other was a painted "Portrait of Norfolk".  He eventually traveled throughout Europe and painted everywhere he went, returned and wrote articles for the newspaper about his experiences.  He supported many civic causes, loved classical music and poetry. He was a talented writer and wrote an essay, "The Necessity of Nonconformity", which was originally written as a speech given to school principals.  It was reprinted in educational journals and was included in two anthologies of educational source materials.  It was also reprinted in a book bearing its title which contains selected works by Kenneth Harris in 1976.


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