Interview With Rory

I have been anticipating this week for some time now. I am both honored and very happy to introduce to you, my special guest, artist Jeffrey Harris. This native New Yorker now living in Las Vegas, Nevada is not only a fantastic artist. But quite the intriguing personality as you will soon discover. While not in the studio putting his visions to the canvas, he teaches art to elementary and middle school students. He also keeps himself quite busy with the many activities that he enjoys which range from active exercise to watching TV, to just being a husband. With quite a bit more in between which he readily engages.

When you see his art, the influences are clearly evident and jump right out at you with distinction. Both his paintings and his illustrations have a sort of graffiti, comic book, and cartoon feel. Combined with a vivid imagination that ventures into the abstract and the surreal but maintains a sense realism and reflects his big city up bringing.

Starting tomorrow and for the remainder of this week you will gain even more insight into the personality behind the art as I will share with you the conversation that I had with him. Trust me when I say that I know you will find it most interesting and enjoyable. Please visit the photo gallery to see the pieces he shares with us today.

Rory

After looking through Jeffrey’s gallery and viewing the entire body of his work, seeing his imagination on display and knowing that he was a native New Yorker. I knew that I would have a most intriguing conversation with him. Indeed our conversation was just that as we discussed the influences that have culminated into his art. Here now I share that conversation with you:

RJ
Hello Jeffrey, How are you?
JH
Hey Rory, I’m doing great, thank you…in fact, if I weren’t recovering from a fractured ankle and some torn meniscus in my knee, I’d be perfect! But, who wants to be perfect? Perfection is the antithesis to an artistic lifestyle, dontchaknow?
RJ
Jeffrey what happened? What did you do to your ankle?
JH
Well, Rory…it’s a funny story – funnier, now, than it was a few months ago, though, I’ll tell ya: I was playing basketball, at school, with some of my 5th-grade art students. They were boxing me out, under the basket (and, since Mr. Harris has a little weight to him, there were about FIVE of them boxing me out under the basket…), and, unfortunately, they were pushing me in the direction of one of their fallen comrades. Well, to keep from falling on the student, I tried to catapult myself over him….but, since the fallen kid had rolled ONTO MY FOOT, jumping over him was out of the question. But, my big ol’, 6’4″ body had to fall SOMEWHERE: so it fell sideways (picture how your ankle bends, North to South….now, picture it bending East to West, instead…nope….not pretty, at all).
RJ
That sounds like it hurts Jeffrey!
JH
I twisted me knee, too, and found out, later, that I tore my medial meniscus and my lateral meniscus. One accident, two surgeries: three times the fun! Oh well…at least I didn’t break my painting hand!
RJ
Ouch! Well I sure hope you heal well. Ok Jeffrey, you grew up in the Bronx. What was that like?
JH
Ah, the Bronx….growing up in the Bronx was..interesting. Summertime swimming at Haffen Park, the movies on Allerton Avenue, the 26 and 30 buses to Co Op City, larger-than-life graffiti on all of the subway trains, basketball games any- and everywhere…it was all so surreal, at the time. But, it wasn’t surreal enough for me to forget the burned out buildings, the crime, the filth, the poverty…they were all around you.
RJ
Now what part of the Bronx was this?
JH
I grew up in the Northeast Bronx…not great, not terrible…somewhere in the middle…certainly not as notorious as the South Bronx or as high brow as Riverdale (which still doesn’t consider itself part of the Bronx….go figure…). But, living in the Bronx definitely made me desire for an “escape”. I wasn’t into smoking or drinking or drugging, though…I saw the ills of all three, of those pasttimes, just by watching my parents. No, my escape was in making art. The colors in my drawings seemed to push out the drabness of my surroundings. The imaginary worlds which I created, on paper, began to nudge out the less-than-ideal spots I grew up in.
RJ
Sounds like a difficult situation for any kid.
JH
For me growing up in the Bronx meant that if you were Black and did well in school, you were a brainiac freak to your friends…and an weird anomaly to your teachers and parents. So, I learned how to play the game: I did things that nobody expected of me (I drew and painted Snoopy and Speed Racer and the Star Ship Enterprise and racecars and sports pictures and portraits for my friends, family and teachers) and I did things that everybody expected of me (I got into fights, talked back to teachers, doodled in my notebook when I was bored in class).
RJ
Difficult but interesting that you had the wherewithall to begin shaping this environment to your benefit.
JH
I knew that there was only so much that I could do to escape the stereotypes placed upon me…so, I fooled people…sort of like a magician does: ‘Look here, not over there, where the real magic is taking place!’ I got into petty shenanigans…but, not enough to get me suspended or expelled. I knew where the line was and I didn’t cross it! If I got into enough “trouble”, though, people simply forgot that I read one or two books per week, studied Renaissance art on my own, played computer chess, watched the television show “Jeopardy” (which I still watch, to this day).
RJ
So from there when did your shenanigans end, and your art (and the realization thereof) become the avenue you wanted to pursue with certainty?
JH
Ironically, Rory, my shenanigans came to an end as a result of an inadvertent dare: my own mother did not believe that I could “keep my nose clean” after we found out that I was accepted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, in New York. For those who don’t know, The Bronx High school of Science is a test admissions school, for “brainiacs”, as I was so often called, by my friends, in the projects in New York City. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, when I was 14 but I always had a knack with the books. I took the admissions test and, who would have thought it? I got in! I guess I wanted to make my parents proud.
RJ
Naturally they were, correct?
JH
Well instead, my mother laughed, when I gave her the news. She said that I wouldn’t make it, five minutes, in that school – “not with YOUR attitude!” she said. So, what else could I do – I had to prove her WRONG, right? So, I did the whole Bronx-Science thing; studied hard, got good grades, played a few sports, wrote and was editor for the school newspaper “The Science Survey”, and thought about a career in journalism or law. But it was while I was in high school that my true love for making art crystallized into the overwhelming passion that it is today.
RJ
So while obviously you were a bright kid. It was your art helping you to navigate through so to speak.
JH
I did graffiti on trains, caricatures of teachers, cartoons and article illustrations for the school paper, portrait requests for friends. I was always making a mark SOMEWHERE! I drew on napkins, paper bags, paper plates, computer paper, the columns of my notebook, anything that I could get my hands on! Art became that “thing” that defined me, you know what I mean! Art helped to get me into the “in crowd”. Art became my moniker. I drew and later painted when I was happy, when I was sad, when I was angry, and when I was depressed and it was art that helped me get through some of the worst times of my life!
RJ
Jeffrey lets focus on your art for a bit. Many of your pieces DO indeed have the graffiti, cartoon illustration feel to them as you have mentioned. Was there ever a departure from that style for you.
JH
Actually yes, there WAS a stylistic departure from the style that you see, today. For a very long time – maybe, from the time I was 20 until I was, about, 30 or so – I worked diligently to create photo-realistic paintings. The more skill I obtained, the more I wanted the picture to look like a photograph. There were only two problems with that approach, though: the first problem was that I was spending a ridiculously long time making a work of art! I gradually went from making a piece in 2 or 3 days, into making a painting for 2 or 3 months! The second problem was the BIGGER problem: I wasn’t having any fun making art, anymore. I thought that once my art DID resemble a photograph, then, what? Where was “me” in the work?
RJ
After you came to that realization, what steps did you take?
JH
I went completely abstract, for a few months. I knew that I wouldn’t create art like that forever but I thought of my abstract period as a “cleansing of my palette”.
RJ
You cleansed and then….?
JH
Then I dove into my faceless painting style. At first I wanted to make faceless work because I wanted to get away from portraiture’s details. Less is more, after all. But the desire to create faceless art was more about putting my own stamp on a subject. I was interested in were three things: contour, color, and shadow. The more stark the shadows the more I liked it. I wanted to created portraits, but of bodies, not faces. Sort of “bodyscapes”, if you will. I still like to draw, semi-realistically, in order to prove to myself that I CAN still create art that way, it’s just that the majority of the time I choose not to.
RJ
Interesting Jeffrey! In looking through your gallery, I have seen your bodyscapes. Now many of them, if I am correct are the result of working with a ‘live’ model. Given your vivid imagination, explain the choice of using models in those instances rather than solely your visual without one.
JH
Hmmm….that’s an interesting question Rory. I think that because I expend a great deal of imagination in my thumb-nail sketches and in the execution of the final piece, I need a real “prop” in order to get from Point A to Point Z. Ironically, though, I almost NEVER use a model, as-is. I usually take about 20 to 50 pictures of a model, in a variety of poses that are based on my sketches. I may have an idea of what sketch I want to work from, but, sometimes, the personality of the model makes me change my mind. Or, there are those times when the model has a different idea and, when we go her way, I see something that I never considered in my thumb-nail sketches, something more vibrant and exciting, and, then, I simply go with the model’s idea, instead! But without that visual prop, I might not be able to best convey the best bodyscape.
RJ
So in these instances, you’re saying there is sort of a collaborative effort involved with the project?
JH
Well, I’ve had some models get upset at me when they see how I’ve “transformed” their bodies also. Even though the women I use are exquisite in their own way, there’s still that “something” that I see and want to convey and that almost always means adding something here or taking away something there, or realigning something or making something more or less muscular. In fact, some of my favorite pieces have come when I have used one model for a two or three-model painting, but because I have changed the figures so much, you cannot tell that both or all three women are the same model! Ya just gotta love the creative process!

When one looks at the paintings that Jeffrey is sharing with us, and also looks at the other works in his gallery. You find several layers of thought and imagination. An individual fully tuned in and readily expressing his observations to the world. This facet of him, these layers of thought, we are finding in the conversation that I am sharing with you as well. Here now is the conclusion of our conversation with Jeffrey:
RJ
For a model to pose nude implies to me that they are quite comfortable with their sexuality. Is that usually the case? Secondly, with your nudes, you appear to be including but going beyond sexuality and expressing more about what you see in women as a whole. Correct?
JH
My nude models are definitely people who are comfortable in their own skin and with their sexuality, without a doubt. Because there aren’t too many folks who ARE actually “free to be me”, in their birthday suits, though, I usually use the same models, of different body types, again and again. I just change aspects of the physiques to fit my vision or my commission. Don’t get me wrong, I AM trying to convey some sort of sexuality, in my subjects, it’s what supposed to draw you in to the work initially. But, you’re right, my bodyscapes ABSOLUTELY endeavor to go beyond mere sexuality.
RJ
What more do you try to convey?
JH
A great deal of my work deals with vulnerability. After all, how can a person be more vulnerable than when they are nude? All of their flaws, real and imagined, are lying out there for all of the world to see. The best models are, often, not the possessors of the most beautiful bodies, but they possess some sort of innate quality that makes you realize that they are “all right”, the way that they are. The ultimate goal in my work is to show women’s strength. However, I also want my viewer to see is the beauty of women of all sizes and shapes and colors.
RJ
So in essence, you show what it is they have in common versus what their differnces may be.
JH
Race is a construct that we’ve created to separate ourselves from each other. This last fact is the main reason why my figures can be red or purple or blue, as well as pink or brown or yellow. Sometimes, I purposely “Africanize” the details on my white models, or I deliberately “Anglocize” the specifics of my Black models. In the end the color of the model doesn’t matter, strength, through vulnerability is.
RJ
Now let me ask this, you just mentioned Africanizing and Anglocizing as particular factors in some of your work. You feel strongly about race relations as well as issues that are primary concerns of women in general. Explain if you would please, the development of these beliefs or yours.
JH
Some African-Americans have difficulty pinpointing the exact moment that they were involuntarily ushered into the world of racial prejudice. Unfortunately, I remember mine, as if it were yesterday. In the summer of my fifth year, my father and I were coming home, after playing basketball, together. As we were walking past a row of houses, guarded by gates and bushes, a little girl, pretty close to my age, actually – pointed to my father and me and said, “Look Daddy, “NIGGERS”! This exclamatory comment triggered questions from me. It also brought about a keen awareness of my difference in this world, one of which I would not soon let go. For a while I hated my skin color, hated being Black. I wanted to look like all of the images that I saw on television and when I was growing up, since there were very few Black images. Especially positive Black images on television, I wanted to look white. But then I experienced a 180-degree backlash. I became oppressively pro-Black. I always narrow-mindedly thought that there were two basic types of Black revolters, the calmer, MLK-types, and the angrier, Malcom X-types. I became the latter.
RJ
I certainly can identify with this inner balancing act you experienced during that period. Explain the transition.
JH
Well, I didn’t like the person I was becoming. So I had to change my inaccurate and absolute world view. Around the same time that I was coming to grips with Black and White, I was also being given a crash-course in misandry or male bashing. Because my mother was physically assaulted by her father, she developed a “unique” view of men. Seldom did a day go by that I did not hear a comment regarding how stupid men were, how lazy men were, how manipulative men were and I developed an exceeding sensitivity to those types of remarks.
RJ
Even more waters for you to navigate through and ultimately put your stamp on.
JH
The same way that I stopped my potential development, into a anti-white person, I ceased my progression towards becoming an inadvertent misogynist. Simultaneously, while I developed compassion and sympathy for those who would persecute me because of my race or my gender. I started crafting my idea of how to convey my feelings, on those subjects, in my art. Got a “color-crazy” world? Make art that takes color ,in regards to race, out of the question. Black models are given white characteristics, and vice versa, so that people are forced to change their outdated notions of what those two races encompass. Got an “anti-female” society? Create paintings and drawings that show women’s inner and outer beauty, as well as their overt and covert strength.
RJ
Jeffrey this interview could go on and on and you have been very gracious and forthcoming with your responses. So let me conclude by asking you whats on the artistic horizon for you. Which direction(s) will you take your visions?
JH
Well, Rory, in general, I would like to take more risks with my art. I think that I have reached a point, in my life, where I am less concerned with pleasing critics and more concerned with having something meaningful, to say. I need to delve deeper in regards to civil rights and women’s issues, and create images that are so visually arresting that people are forced to ask, “Hey! What the heck is going on, THERE?!” I feel as if I have only scratched the surface and, hopefully, talking with you will help to remind me that I must stay on track there’s so much to say and so little time to say it! I’ve probably got enough art ideas for TWO lifetimes. I’d better make the best of this one!
RJ
Jeffrey I thank you for sharing your thoughts with me and best wishes on your future artistic endeavors.
JH
Thanks for talking with me, Rory!


After I concluded my interview with Jeffrey, I wanted to have a little fun with him. Unknown to him, I had this planned all along. Just to see what sort of spontaneous answers I would get from him. I contacted him, apologized for the short notice and told him that I needed his responses right away. So here is me putting Jeffrey on the spot:
RJ
OK Jeffrey, I’m in Las Vegas for a few hours and you and I agree to meet for lunch (yes I’m buying). Its been several years since I’ve been to Las Vegas so where ya taking me to eat.
JH
I’m so sorry, Rory. I am assuming that I missed you today. I wish that I would have known that you were coming. I would have rearranged my day.
(*I guess I don’t get no lunch today, LOL! Actually he really thought I was in town because he went on to explain what this particular day actually consisted of for him. However it’s nice to know that he would have made time had he known….or would he have?)
RJ
You have an all expense paid trip waiting for you, your wife and son. Your choices are New York City or Seattle. Where are you going?
JH
Are you SERIOUS?! We have to talk, but my preliminary choice would have to be NYC since that is my hometown.
(*Now the brother knows he has never been to Seattle. Typical New Yorker, always got to go back to the crib, LOL!)
RJ
I love thrill rides but I might balk at going on the Stratosphere. Have you been on it and if so is it as scary as it looks?
JH
Since I’m a bit of a wimp, regarding roller coasters or any ride that is significantly off the ground, yes, the Stratosphere was THAT scary for me.
(*I feel him on that one!)
RJ
Black Jack or Craps?
JH
Black Jack! There are plenty of ways to win at craps, but not too much control – which did you choose?
(*I seem to always get cleaned out when I play Black Jack and actually have better luck when playing craps.)
RJ
Rams or Rebels?
JH
Definitely, Rams!
(*Having played basketball Jeffrey knows that the Rebels (UNLV) have a significantly better hoopin’ history. BUT, I can’t get mad at him for loyalty to his Alma Mater (Fordham) LOL!)

Jeffrey Harris ladies and gentlemen. A good sport, gracious guest and fantastic artist. Visit the photo gallery to view the pieces he shares with us today. I also encourage you to visit his gallery often for the light shines brightly on him.

Rory