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Art Sync: Seeing And Feeling

A conversation with Penelope Harris

by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain

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ART SYNC: SEEING AND FEELING

A conversation with Penelope Harris

by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain, 2022

Scavenger Hunt, 60" x 40", Pastel On Paper

Scavenger Hunt, 60" x 40", Pastel On Paper

Elizabeth Johnson: In Bill Scott’s essay about you on the Woodmere Art Museum website, he recalls that your parents, Audrey Buller and Lloyd Parsons, both studied at The Art Students League of New York with Kenneth Hayes Miller. Scott says that they “were among the most prominent of realist painters, exhibited at top galleries, and saw their paintings acquired by the Whitney Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Scott continues: “Early on, however, her parents never encouraged her to follow in their footsteps for, as artists themselves, they had experienced the many disappointments too often encountered by a life in the arts. They feared the instability of such a life might lead their daughter to a wildly sad existence. Perhaps worse [. . . ] they worried she might move to Greenwich Village and live a life of ‘sin and debauchery!’” Did your parents invite you to paint or draw with them when you were a kid?

Penelope Harris: My parents were older when they had children. They weren't like the Wyeths, they didn't take us under their wing and teach us. They were so busy with their own careers, and they did commercial work for money. My sister and I were only in the studio when we posed for them. I remember my nose was running from asthma and hay fever while they were puffing away on their Camels as they painted. Aside from that, they were wonderful parents, and because of my admiration for them, I too wanted to be a painter.

Still Hanging In There, 40" x 30", Pastel On Paper

Still Hanging In There, 40" x 30", Pastel On Paper

EJ: Looking back on your parents’ careers and considering your own: what insight do you have about balancing career and family?

PH: When my parents lived in New York, they were quite successful; Mother was written up in TIME magazine. But they moved out of the City to Little Compton, Rhode Island, during the war and never returned to New York. At that time, Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove were coming to the forefront. Mother was in a show with O’Keefe, and a reviewer who covered it got angry about Mother’s hyper-magic realism painting of Morning glories growing over a stump. He interpreted the painting as a castration story! He didn’t even mention O’Keefe. The Metropolitan Museum owns the painting now. But yes, the thing that was hard for them was suddenly becoming unfashionable and irrelevant in New York in the ’40s.

Their experience showed me how hard it is to make a career in painting. After we moved to Philadelphia, I took a painting class at Woodmere Art Museum. And then I decided I wanted to study at PAFA. At PAFA, I wanted to learn foremost how to draw and paint. This was during the ’70s, and in the beginning, everyone at PAFA encouraged me to be an abstract painter. But art trends changed again, and it became acceptable to work abstractly and realistically. Changing art fashions affected both me and my parents very much. Because my children were very young when I was in art school, I asked my mother to look at my work, to see if she felt I would be wasting my time studying art; I didn't want to disturb my family unnecessarily. She told me she thought I had potential, and from then on, she became my greatest supporter. By then, Father had died, and she was a widow. She’d visit my studio often. My artist friends, especially Bill Scott, loved her.

Fire Drill, 45" x 45", Oil On Canvas

Fire Drill, 45" x 45", Oil On Canvas

EJ: Bill Scott recalls her advice: "give as much weight and simplicity as possible to [the] main forms, using color and detailed ornament as an extension of the basic form." Did you get your sense of color from your mother or both parents?

PH: That quote of her’s does describe how I work. Even though my parents didn’t teach us, I think I absorbed how they work through osmosis. Growing up, my mother, father, and I often went to museums together, looking and analyzing the work we saw. I think that really trained my eye. I love detail, but the form under the detail is more important to me. I try to express the light and the energy of the composition, and color is crucial.

EJ: Do you own pieces of your parents’ work?

PH: Yes, I have some in the house. I gradually discovered that I’m not as different in style from my parents as I had thought. For instance, I've always tilted tables to show what is on top of them. I found a painting of mother’s after she died that did this too. It was such a revelation to know that I used this compositional format without connecting it to her. As a child I was very influenced by early Renaissance work, I loved the way everything was facing forward. Art history taught me that each object held its own special place. It's very hard for me to put one object in front of another object because I like each so much.

EJ: Like how you space out the gourds in the painting Board Gourds?

Board Gourds, 40" x 60", Pastel On Paper

Board Gourds, 40" x 60", Pastel On Paper

PH: Yes. That one is kind of a play on words. I decide my titles after the fact. I went to a farm and got a whole bunch of gourds and then I played around making a composition. Putting compositions together is intuitive. The board I placed the gourds on divides the space. I love the weight of the gourds against the wood, which almost seems like a pair of wings––it’s flying off, emphasizing the space underneath. I get a huge kick out of what I put together, but I don't rationalize it. I just walk around and put things together, and suddenly, wow, this is what I want to paint. I don't have a story to tell, it's just composition and play. I add textures and one thing to another, I collect things. Painting is about seeing and feeling.

Beauty And The Beast, 40" x 60", Gouache

Beauty And The Beast, 40" x 60", Gouache

EJ: You studied Interior Design as a career. The background of Blue Beads features ornate, unevenly lit wallpaper. Did you depict the wallpaper’s design like a place, like a field of flowers, or as a complicated flat surface? I feel both approaches and love the ambiguity. Does your interior design training influence your painting?

PH: With Blue Beads I was attracted to painting pattern. It was a challenge of having an all-over pattern under the painting. I wanted the vitality of the foreground and its subject matter to hold its own against the busy background.

EJ: I sense your hand and mind consciously and harmoniously deciding the placement of things. Would you have loved to design beautifully appointed rooms as much as being a painter? Why did painting win out?

Melon High, 55.5" x 39.5", Oil On Paper Mounted On Board

Melon High, 55.5" x 39.5", Oil On Paper Mounted On Board

PH: Before I was married, I worked in New York with a decorating firm. I enjoyed it, but it was a small part of my life: deep down I always wanted to paint.

EJ: Did interior design influence your sense of color?

PH: I've always been acutely aware of color. My mother said that when I was a child, I went to a birthday party with other little girls, then came back and described so precisely the colors they were wearing. I said, “Her dress wasn’t really orange, it was orange mixed with white with a slight dash of pink.”

EJ: Your paintings have origin stories. For instance, in Melon High I wonder, “How did that melon get there? And why?” This amuses me, it’s a weird situation: the melon is still and it is floating.

PH: I bought the huge glass jug at a flea market, and I thought, “I’ll use it in a painting someday.” At first, I filled it with water, thinking that would cause it to magnify things that I put behind it. But that didn’t work, so I emptied it and put the melon on a box behind it to create the subtle distortions I was after.

Party Of Gourds, 29.5" x 41", Gouache On Paper

Party Of Gourds, 29.5" x 41", Gouache On Paper

EJ: I love the sense of the air inside Melon High, the suggestion of distance, the light reflections on top and the warm and cool, or pink and blue shadows from the “T-square” behind. So again, you start with something that catches your eye, and then you build a world around that, and let the painting unfold.

PH: Yes. It becomes a world to me; I get absolutely obsessed. I have such respect for each object. Painting trains you to really look. And when you can see, everything becomes miraculous.

EJ: Observing and paying attention to things and looking at shadows and depth is hard to do all the time.

PH: It is. Perhaps that’s why I make irreverent titles––to disguise how much work I put into it. One reason I love to paint is because it is so challenging. It doesn't come easily. Every time I begin a new painting, I feel it’s impossible and I can’t remember how to paint. So, I force myself to start and I’m always surprised by the result.

Study From The Studio Window, 40" x 60", Charcoal And Pastel On Paper

Study From The Studio Window, 40" x 60", Charcoal And Pastel On Paper

EJ: Don't you think it's a good thing your rational mind doesn't kick in until after you paint something?

PH: Yes, that is so true. I try to communicate the essence of the reality. I don’t use photographs. I want to express my reaction to what is there.

EJ: The piece in Study From The Studio Window catches my eye. It seems especially risk-taking.

PH: That’s a wintertime scene, mostly drawing in charcoal and pastel. For a long time, I thought it would be fun to do a black and white piece with jolt of color. It was November, I was on the floor looking up out the window, and I thought the black winter branches against the sky were exciting. I placed the three vibrant glass bowls in the foreground for contrast.

EJ: You let yourself do something different. How does changing material effect you?

PH: I stay fresh by rotating between rich buttery oils, the velvet-like texture of gouache, and the physicality of pastels.

EJ: Study from Studio Window seems to cross a dream world with reality. I think of jump cuts between color and black-and-white cinema. You’re lucky you got your parents’ skills––but not their voices in your head. You are truly free. Perhaps by not imposing their aesthetic on you at a young age, your parents gave you the gift of an independent creative orbit.

PH: Being a painter is magical. You asked me if I have changed over the years. I think I have. My work seems emptier: I've simplified a lot. I’m not trying to be like anyone. I learned that you have to do what's right for you.

––Elizabeth Johnson

(elizabethjohnsonart.com)

edited by Matthew Crain 

(instagram.com/sarcastapics)

April 2022