Rebecca Harris has a masters with distinction in painting from Ilam School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University, and an Art and Design degree from Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT). She has exhibited throughout New Zealand, selected for the Wallace Art Awards and various other awards and has work in major art collections. In 2014 she went to New York on the The Ethel Susan Jones scholarship from Ilam School of Fine Arts.
Frankie McMillan is the mother of Rebecca Harris. Frankie’s latest book, My Mother and the Hungarians and Other Small Fictions (Canterbury University Press, 2016) was long-listed for the New Zealand Ockham book awards, 2017. She has been granted various awards and residencies and this year held the University of Auckland Michael King Residency.
The both live in Christchurch.
Frankie McMillan: Your work often celebrates the natural world with its flamboyant organic forms. Has your background ie. growing up in the Parapara bush without electricity for much of your childhood been a formative influence on your art?
Rebecca Harris: Definitely. There were no distractions like TV or after school classes. In the summer holidays I’d go out into the bush … be immersed for hours looking at details of seed pods and twisting tree trunks. And there was my pet chook, Olga Lack-lack, that I carried around for company. I think I was quite an anxious and shy kid so I found solace in the calm green and could spend hours by myself fossicking about.
FM: I’m reminded of the quote, ‘ My imagination functions much better if I don’t have to speak to people.’
RH: True. I think drawing became a form of entertainment for me.
FM: Those seed pods you mentioned – they often feature along with clusters and fruiting bodies … your paintings seem to be bursting with fecundity. Was Georgia O’Keefe ever an influence? There’s a lot of erotic looking flora, particularly in Pink Sugar Bush and your recent show, Paradox.
RH: Hmm …I can’t seem to ditch the erotic imagery, its been around the corner of most paintings since I started painting . In terms of influences I’d list Shawn Hall, Allison Schulnik, James Ensor, Odilon Redon, Phillip Guston and Joan Mitchell.
FM: In earlier work portraiture features in the shows, Putting on a Face requires time and Duet, (Milford Galleries). In the latter you take yourself as the focus of investigation and appear in various guises including a bearded policewoman. Have your artistic concerns about the public/private life shifted to a greater focus on environmental issues etc?
RH: Well, I worry a lot about climate change and species extinction but it’s not my intent to convey an environmental message. Rather, those concerns sort of seep into my work… With the portraiture I became quite focused on trying to get a degree of realism in the works. I’d often trace onto the support the outlines of works that I’d photoshopped. It was very controlled with the narrative of the works already planned. But I think I felt something was lacking, so I went to Ilam Fine Arts to do my Masters… to try rearranging my brain.
FM: That was brave! So did the rearranging work?
RH: It did. And after floundering around for the best part of the year I went on a trip to Europe and spent a month looking around art galleries. When I came back to finish my Masters I had a much clearer idea of the direction I wanted to go in. Doing Masters sort of helped me to find my real self as a painter. (Which was a relief as I’d heard tales of people coming out beaten down and disillusioned.)
And getting back to portraiture – I had a show in Auckland gallery a couple of years back that featured scary looking melting vivid coloured people, half human half landscape.
FM: But amongst the ‘scariness’ I also see humour. In fact your work is characterised by humour, symbolism and realism in a point of view that is both humanistic and slightly gothic. Do you think your art reflects who you are?
RH: Yes …I know the imagery I employ has resonance for me. I’m quite taken with the shaggy ink cap toadstool and shapes like it appear in some of my works. Shapes slowly evolve or disappear with consecutive works. For some reason flowers have stuck and are a permanent groove… maybe it is because without trying my hand wants to draw and paint circular imagery. I have to be careful not to overdo it. I think my work is often one step up from doodling.
FM: Okay, but does your art reflect who you are?
RH: I feel like my works are introverted but also wanting attention… a bit like me, and I worry a lot and daydream so I suppose my work is sort of an extension of this.
FM: You live in a dodgy part of town. I’ve heard drunken strangers sometimes appear in your back yard. Does your immediate environment influence or leak into your work?
RH: Uh.. my neighbourhood is very poor …down trodden. There’s always a filthy old mattress or two on the footpath. I think living here may add to the dark elements in my work, but I have always been drawn to beauty and dystopia in one setting. That and faded glamour. I like this quote from Charles Baudelaire – We can call beautiful only that which suggests the ideal order; supra terrestrial, harmonious and logical that bears within itself, like the brand of an original sin, the drop of poison, the rogue element of incoherence, the grain of sand that will foul up the entire system.
FM: Wonderful! Recently we both visited the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. I noticed you were particularly interested in the work of the old masters. What was it that you were noting?
RH: The compositional qualities, the colours and contrast of lights and darks.
Recently I’ve been decorating the Dark Room, ( the bar I help run with my partner) with secondhand prints of famous landscapes. I got fired up to do a painting of water and trees and it sort of came out looking a bit like one of these faded old prints. It was a complete departure from the rest of the group of works that I was working on, but then it was painted in the same time frame as the other works, so I felt it had something in common.
FM: So is it important for you to have a commonality or theme for a show?
RH: Not always. With Paradox I‘ve used different frames, different sizes and different styles of painting. I know it is pretty dangerous doing this as it could end up looking like a patchy buffet. But to me there’s some underlining connection between them all. The next body of works might be totally different. For now I just pick up the ball and run with it.
FM: Yes, it’s always exciting to see your style and paint strokes alter from show to show.
RH: It’s probably more evident if there’s been a gap between shows…
FM: Most artists work on a painting bit by bit building on composition and detail. Is that your working method or do you try and paint the whole picture all the time?
RH: I usually do a quick sketch with paint on the board then fill in most of painting in one sitting.I tend to roughly work out a whole body of works and then come back and do all the finishing touches later. So at one time I can be working on 15 paintings at once.
FM: This is a different sort of question –what is integral to the work of an artist?
RH: Something that you want to explore / investigate is important..ha..obviously. Sometimes I catch a whiff of something interesting and I try to follow it, and there will be a period of time where I can smell it but not see it, and then it will come into view suddenly and then I will realise it’s that which I want to paint. I gather up lots of resources that relate to it. But I often have my ‘fall backs,’ my shapes and imagery that I’m not quite ready to discard … it all gets mixed up in the process. So it’s all about mixing up old stuff with new stuff, and over time the new stuff becomes the old stuff and sometimes it vanishes and then reappears a couple of years later. Eyes and flowers are subjects I can’t seem to shake. They seem to always be lurking somewhere in my paintings.
FM: That answer brings me onto obsessions. Many artists drive themselves hard. Who or what is the demon on your back?
RH: If I have a demon then working on a painting is an extremely good way to forget about it …when I’m working I’m just in the moment. And because of the way I lay down the paint I have to do most of the work in one sitting. It’s an impromptu process so I must be very focused to get it right first off, unless I want to spend time rubbing it back and starting again …which I invariably do. I suppose I’m driven to keep making work in the hope I will make my masterpiece.A bit like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow…
FM: Do you ever congratulate yourself on a successful show?
RH: I usually torture myself over the outcome of a show. One moment I think it’s a success, I’ve nailed it, the next that it’s just one of a string of flops. Sometimes I’m influenced by comments about my work … and like the grit in an oyster shell it can irritate and plague me. It doesn’t necessarily mean a pearl will come out of it though. (laughs)
FM: I’m curious about these comments…
RH: Once a friend said my latest works were well painted but ugly. I carried that comment about with me like a sack of potatoes. The next show everything was soft and pretty …and they sold better. They were less brutal but I’m not sure they were any better artistically, just easier to have on your wall above your couch. I think this is one of the reasons why the look of my work changes quite a bit from show to show. I can be influenced by what’s s around me, what people say. I wish I was more one eyed and blinkered and could stick with a particular look and hone over time to perfection. It’s quite strange but I think often it’s the style that evolves faster than the subject matter. (I kind of wish it was around the other way.)
FM: When you’d rather stay in bed, what gets you working again?
RH: It’s easier to spend time in my cold, dark solitary shed/studio if I have a deadline especially as I’m always juggling a number of things. I’m a mother, help run the Dark Room bar, organise group shows at my gallery space NEXT etc…
FM: Why did you start NEXT Gallery?
RH: I liked the idea of showing emerging artists that were not yet represented. I also felt there was a need for a gallery where established artists were more involved…they could pick a group of artists that felt good to work with and come up with some interesting shows.
FM: So has being a gallery owner influenced your work in any way?
RH: Maybe… appraising other people’s work; where it fits in the gallery and to whom it communicates has helped me look more critically at my own work. I find I’m using the cold eye of the gallerist more often with my own work.
FM: I want to talk about another possible ‘hat’ you wear. In the tradition of Samuel Pepys the diarist you are a wonderful chronicler of daily life in your face book posts. Many comment on your humour and writing abilities. What made you focus on art rather than writing?
RH: Maybe because as a kid I had early success. Once I entered a drawing competition in the Nelson Evening Mail without telling anyone. I forgot about it until one night my father was reading the newspaper and he let out a little exclamation when he saw a print of my drawing there. I’d won first prize.
FM: I remember that. Was more of a holler than a little exclamation. Didn’t the judge write back to you?
RH: Yes. She was the art teacher from Nelson Girls college and after that we entered a long correspondence including sending pictures to each other. I also remember a family friend who’d come and take me out painting in the hills. As for writing … it feels good to write but it doesn’t excite me the same way painting does.
FM: Last question. It’s been said that the whole culture is telling us to hurry, while the art tells us to take our time. How important is it to always listen to the art?
RH: When I go into an art gallery I’m always aware of a period of about half an hour where I need to slow down and adjust my time to art gazing time. Only then am I transported into another dimension of looking. I also think the same is true for making art. It requires time, listening … shutting out the noise of the world.
FM: Ha. I’m all for shutting out the noise of the world. Let’s end there. Thanks Rebecca.