Sculptor and Art Defy Classification

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

Sculptor and Art Defy Classification


Byline: Paul Denison The Register-Guard

Here's what Jerry Harris will tell you about his solo show at the Jacobs Gallery, opening Friday.

It will include 15 new sculptures in various materials, ranging from 3 feet to 5 feet 8 inches in height, and 11 new collages.

His work is "abstract, often surreal," "figurative in essence," "a bit avant-garde," "traditional but abstract in my own way."

This will be the gallery's first show featuring an African-American artist - which doesn't surprise him, considering how small the black community is here.

Being a man of color among pale people is nothing new to Harris, who married a Swedish woman and lived in her country for 20 years, returning to the United States with his son several years ago, after his wife died of cancer.

"When we came back," he says, "my son said he wanted to see some black people. I said I wanted to see some trees."

So Harris' son Andreas enrolled at Clayton State College in Atlanta, and Harris moved to Oregon. He has a studio in Portland and lives in Eugene.

This is not Harris' first time in Oregon. After graduating from high school in Pittsburgh, he spent a year in Portland with his uncle, professional wrestler and referee Shag Thomas. He attended community college in Portland and then transferred to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he found "a little too rigid and too conservative" for a restless young man in the turbulent '60s. So he headed west again, this time to San Francisco State.

In San Francisco, he met Britt-Marie Olofsson, who was traveling through on her way to Mexico, on the last leg of what Harris describes, with a chuckle, as a "finishing school" for Swedish girls who wanted to "get their English just right."

They fell in love, got married, had a son and shortly afterward moved to Stockholm. Before they left the states, Harris says, he asked his wife how her family would react to their marriage.

"She said she didn't know what I was talking about," he recalls. `I practically had to shout, `But I'm black!' She just didn't understand the question. And to her family, the strangest thing was that I was an American! It was amazing.'

Harris says his entire European experience was the same. He was accepted just as an American, and his skin color wasn't an issue.

"When you're treated that way, you just feel whole," he says.

Like most Swedes her age, Harris' wife spoke several languages by the time she left high school. But her parents spoke little English, so Harris studied Swedish at the University of Stockholm and became fluent in the language.

With the support of her family, who turned out to be wealthy, Harris also studied in the International Sculptors Program at St. Martins College of Art and Design in London, where the teachers included Sir Anthony Caro, Philip King and Frank Martin. While in London, he also took informal lessons in bronze casting from Henry Abercrombie at Central College of Art and Design.

He also returned to the states in 1976 to study bronze casting with James Lee Hansen, a leading Pacific Northwest sculptor.

Although classically trained in bronze, Harris has had to give it up because of osteoarthritis. His materials now include wood, fiberglass, clay and found objects. He's still in rehabilitation after recent hip-replacement surgery, and two studio assistants in Portland help him avoid heavy lifting. …

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