Roberta Harris. “Flight Time” (detail)
Amongst the many artistically talented and conceptually strong artists in our city, one particular artist is about to show forth her lasting and lyrical work through a special exhibition downtown through Arts Brookfield, Wing It! Effervescent and elegant, thoughtful in both application and meaning, Roberta Harris will showcase a variety of work dating from 1995 to the present. She has created work in the times of dramatic artistic changes during the 1970s, when famous artists walk amongst her studio and other creatives such as Phillip Glass invited Harris and other artists to his rehearsals. Over the years, Harris has cultivated a visual voice all her own, ethereal and joyful in nature while paying close attention to magical details. The work on display at Two Allen Center, curated by Sally Reynolds, lends itself to winged creatures in a kaleidoscope of colors. Harris was kind enough to answer a few questions for Free Press Houston to reflect on her career and her recent show.
Free Press Houston: Within the workings of your aesthetic, when did you begin to become attracted to such subjects as vines, birds, particular colors, etc?
Roberta Harris: When I was a young girl, I lived next to a forest. This was the first place where I journeyed alone. There, in that wilderness, I discovered great mystery: above me, below me, to my right and to my left — a 360-degree cacophony of life.
Before a banquet set for senses, amid…
the sounds of insects and birds
the smells of bark, leaves, moss and wildflowers
the sensation of wind, rain, and humidity,
the visions of color, texture, light through dense trees, and life
teeming in swampy puddles, I became sensuous.
Although I have thought of that experience often, I am just now paying attention to how this “nest” shaped my soul and my work.
FPH: What were some of the moments that made you ponder and turn towards art?
Harris: As a young child, I remember having a blackboard on an easel. I mostly drew ballerina’s standing on point. Those ballerina’s managed to find their way into many of the collages and paintings I did in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
In regards to a connection to the “arts,” the only art we had in our home was a pair of framed prints of standing females. They were probably copies of 19th Century American Portraiture & Genre Painting. Placed over our upright piano, I looked at them all the time as I practiced my piano lessons.
In elementary school we took a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts. I remember being most impressed with a very detailed portrait of a queen which we were told was painted with only a few hairs of a paintbrush! Her garment was truly lavish and bejeweled. Only now as I write this, am I realizing that was probably the first moment I related the idea of “time” to making art.
When I was 8 years old, we took a trip to my uncle’s home in New Jersey. He was a landscape muralist. His living room depicted a beautiful floor to ceiling landscape that covered two long walls. In his kitchen he had hand-painted apples everywhere….walls, cabinets, doors and ceiling. I was astonished to totally surrounded by hand-painted apples! At that time I told him that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. His words to me were to be a commercial artist because then I could make a living.
My father was a master craftsman who worked with glass. For many years he worked for one of the major glass companies that installed windows, mirrors and intricate installations in private and commercial spaces. He and his team installed the huge windows of the control tower at the Hobby Airport in the ’50s. As a young adult, I would go out to his studio (our one-car garage) and help him with some projects. From this experience with him, I learned one of my greatest art and life lessons: “Necessity is the mother of invention”.
My mother taught herself to be an architect and designed a number of homes, which she and my father built. She also loved ceramics and mosaics. So, between the two of them, geometric forms and the idea of construction was very much implanted in my being.
When I was in the 8th grade, I won a scholarship to the MFA. Other than my wonderful 7th grade art teacher, this was really my first experience with art and being in the museum on a regular basis.
Another huge artful influence in my teen years, was my infatuation with the Neiman Marcus ads in the Houston Post and Chronicle. Every Sunday there would be a full page of an avant garde drawing of a figure, showing the fashions of the moment. I was enthralled with the line quality and freedom of expression in creating an image. I decided that I wanted to go to New York to study and learn how to do that! It’s a long story, but eventually I did go to New York after a year of studying in Texas, and was accepted at Parsons School of Design and Hunter College.
I majored in Fashion Illustration and Fine Art. This was in the mid ’60s when the art world in New York was on fire and American art history was being made. I was so privileged to see the beginning of Pop Art (Andy Warhol and the soup cans), the art of the action painters such as DeKooning (who all my classmates emulated in life painting class) as well as new art of Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Lee Bontecou, Louise Nevelson, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Lewis, Marisol, James Rosenquist, and Phillip Pearlstein. This was an education up close.
Returning to Houston, I got a job at Dillard’s when they opened the new store in the Galleria. My job, a full page in both papers, was to create an avant garde figure showing the fashions of the moment (After a couple of years, the management decided they wanted to show more salable, recognizable imagery and my job there was over). After my daughter was born, I returned to the University of Houston and majored in Fine Art.
FPH: Over the course of your career, what were some of the breakthroughs and/or milestones that still run through your current work today?
Harris: Being accepted into the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972 was a very important milestone in my life.
Again, this was a time of history-making art in America. My equipment at that time was a compressor, an air gun, glass, natural pigments, Rhoplex, chalk and canvas. My assigned studio was on the edge of Chinatown, in a large room plus the vault, in the basement of a bank, which was now being used as an off-track betting company (I was told to not fool around with the enormous vault door because no one knew where the key was). After making a heroic size painting that was about 16 feet wide, I decided to stop everything I was doing and just absorb, learn and grow as an artist while I was there. Just few of the artists who came to the studio were Lucas Samaras, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Smithson, and Chuck Close. One of the comments that stands out from Lucas Samaras was “Making art is like making a salad. It’s not enough to have the ingredients….everything depends on what you do with them.” Another great memory is being in Chuck Close’s studio and seeing him work, with all his accoutrement neatly around him at the end wall of a large loft. Phillip Glass, the musician, was another memorable person who talked with our group. We got invited to his private practice sessions with his ensemble. They met on an empty floor of a gutted out loft building. Beautiful rugs were spread out in the middle of the room and we sat on the floor and listened to these extraordinary musicians, making sounds we had never heard before.
I think that the thread that runs through my work is about an experiential experience. This goes back to the forest where I grew up and the sensation of experiencing everything around me all at once. I have, for most of my life, believed that just as everything exists in the world simultaneously, so can it all exist in what I do. It’s my salad. The vocabulary I’ve used has included numerous iconic forms such as birds, sticks, hearts, figures, plants as well as geometric forms. I am mostly interested in the experience of seeing and feeling and being left with an uplifted spirit.
FPH: Tell me about how you came up with the title of your recent show and how it reflects in your work?
Harris: Sally Reynolds curated this show and decided to use some of my available bird images…or works that relate to birds and nests and other winged forms. As I understand, choosing the name of the exhibition was a spontaneous idea that occurred to Sally and the Brookfield Arts group when they knew birds were the theme. I thought it was a perfect title. I love what Sally said in the essay she wrote for the show. Just a few lines:
“What do we do when we wing it? Well, sometimes we trust ourselves to fate, we let go, probably unprepared, and we do the best we can. We improvise as if we were an understudy in the the wings of the theatre who didn’t quite learn all the lines, we push on. We try to fly! We join our feathered friends and at times get a new perspective an elevated look at a broader landscape. And the birds, sitting, hovering, flying, beckon each of us to courageously take wing as they do.”
FPH: What has it been like to work with Sally Reynolds and Arts Brookfield?
Harris: Working with Sally Reynolds and Brookfield Arts has been totally pure pleasure. Sally is a magnificent person and a real art professional who has a brilliant eye, a big heart and a beautiful soul.
FPH: What are some thoughts or concepts you hope appear in between the lines of the exhibition?
Harris: Throughout my career, through a variety of media, my mission as an artist has been to inspire hope and its corollaries - dialogue, joy, encouragement, strategy, peace, kindness and imagination. The feeling of “UP” is what I hope to convey. Given the challenges that we face, hope demands courage, commitment, endurance and renewal. If I can contribute to that, then I’m doing the job I was sent here to do.
Roberta Harris’ exhibition “Wing It!,” curated by Sally Reynolds and presented by Arts Brookfield, runs through September 7, 2024 at Two Allen Center located at 1200 Smith Street, 2nd Floor.