Shaping his way
Well-traveled sculptor Jerry Harris settles into local art scene with new show and lecture
As noteworthy as it may sound, even though Jerry Harris’ uncle was champion wrestler Shag Thomas and his cousin is Grammy-winning guitarist George Benson, having famous relatives is not Harris’ claim to fame.
An internationally known sculptor, Harris is celebrated in his own right, having exhibited his pieces in numerous places in Sweden, Denmark, Italy, England and the U.S., including in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Penn. His “Homage to Jean Arp,” a cast fiberglass piece honoring the late German-French Dadaist sculptor, stands in the Vaxjo Courthouse in Vaxjo, Sweden; Statenskonstrad, the Swedish National Public Art Council, bought it from him.
Harris is a slender, wiry man of undisclosed age ("His date of birth doesn’t interest him,” his Web site informs) whose build somewhat resembles his tall polished-wood and laminated-clay sculptures. The self-described “primarily constructivist sculptor” is pleased about his upcoming month-and-a-half show in the Chico Municipal Building.
Celebrating both the January birthday of African-American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month that follows, the show features six of his new sculptures, along with the paintings of the late African-American abstract artist Eugene Martin, on loan from Martin’s estate by his wife, who contacted Harris recently about promoting his work.
“Eugene Martin was a reclusive guy who left over 5,000 paintings,” Harris pointed out. “It’s nice to present some of his work to Chico. … The show is a good combination of my sculptures and Martin’s work. It’s a really unique show.”
Harris is also happy about his upcoming MLK Day lecture and slide show, which “traces the migration of African-American artists to Europe—especially Paris, France—as early as 1865” and “follows the great African-American painters through their whole European experience and back to the U.S.” Harris mentioned late painters Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, and late sculptor Edmonia Lewis—who traveled to Italy in 1865 to study sculpture, financed by a white abolitionist benefactor—as some of the artists he will discuss.
His lecture, at the 1078 Gallery, will also cover the Harlem Renaissance and look at leading African-American artists in the U.S. today, including artist Kara Walker, photographer Lorna Simpson, assemblage artist Betye Saar, artist and author Faith Ringgold, sculptor/printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, and sculptor Martin Puryear, whose 2 1/2-month show at New York’s MoMA ended Jan. 14, and whom Harris describes as “the leading sculptor in the world today.”
Harris actually hasn’t been a local for long. He moved to the area last June from Portland, Ore. because he wanted to be closer to San Francisco. Chico, Harris decided, “was the closest, the cheapest, the most open city north of San Francisco that I might be happy with.”
Harris spent two years in Portland, where he lectured at Portland State University and exhibited at various places. He summed up Portland as “a great city, but still a bit provincial, especially concerning artists of color.”
Before Oregon, Harris lived in Sweden on and off for 20 years until the death of his Swedish wife, Britt-Marie Olofsson-Harris, whom he had met in Berkeley shortly after graduating from San Francisco State with a degree in journalism. Harris worked in the advertising industry in the Bay Area for a while before moving to Sweden and becoming a sculptor. As he put it: “I gave up the commercial side of my life and got into the art side of my life.”
Harris is happy to be back in California, which he calls his “spiritual home” since his intellectual beginnings were in San Francisco. “As an East Coast person,” he admitted, “San Francisco set me on my road to spiritual development.”