by Matt Geiger
Rick Harris’ father was a falconer, a big game hunter, a writer and a war veteran. His mother was a writer, a painter and a willing accomplice when her young son conveniently got a “sore throat” or other phantom ailment that provided an excuse to stay home from school. “I’d say I was sick and she’s just say: ‘Okay, you can stay home and we’ll make puppets together,’” Harris, now 65, recalls. When his mother got out her brushes and canvas, a young Harris found he was quickly “hooked on the smell of oil paint.”
In those early days, Harris learned to appreciate art and music. He trapped mink and muskrat with his father in the Wisconsin wilderness – their success determining the size of that year’s Christmas.
“My mother and I would stay up until the wee hours,” he recalls. “She would paint, drink coffee and chain smoke, all while telling me old stories about our ‘eccentric’ family.” She would dance around the room to her newfound passion, bossa nova music. Harris affectionately describes the setting of his youth as a “carnival atmosphere.”
It was at the tender age of 11 that Harris started working as a professional musician. At 15, he quit school for good. He wanted to be around interesting people and larger-than-life characters – people like his mother and father. A classroom, he quickly realized, was not the place for that.“It was just so boring,” he reflects. “They never talked about the things I cared about.”
So he set out into the world, playing drums with rock bands on the Midwestern bar circuit. With no teachers to guide his formal education, he decided he would have to educate himself.
One of the formative experiences of Harris’ early life was the Vietnam War. His father, a Roosevelt Democrat and a staunch patriot, pulled a young Harris aside one day. “Rick,” he said. “There’s something wrong with this war. I don’t know what it is, but don’t go.” With that, he handed his son $100 – a monumental sum for a struggling family at the time.
Harris left for Canada the next day. Hitching rides in Canada, the United States and Mexico, the carnival continued. “I remember watching a man on a train in Mexico drink a Coca-Cola bottle full of tequila, then use a handkerchief to pull out one of his own teeth,” Harris says. Years later, that vivid memory made its way into one of his first paintings: “Mexican Train.”
During his travels, Harris developed a complex relationship with America. Today, after years of seeing all the horrific and inspiring things the country has to offer, Harris, whose demeanor can best be described as jolly erudition, speaks of the nation with something bordering on glee. America can take his breath away as he rounds a bend and sees her potential anew. But America is also a place full of injustice and brutality. Increasingly, he says, America is a place where people choose to create a false idol – an entire aesthetic culture - out of death and despair.
Today, Harris has emerged as a vibrant visual artist, working in oil on birch panels.
His painting and carving are naïve art created by a man who – after fleeing the Vietnam draft, battling for workers’ rights, living life on the road and raising a family – is anything but naïve. His images – full of babies, bees, picket fences, robots, flying saucers and singular figures such as “Buffalo” Bill Cody and Nikola Tesla – are a lush rejection of glum and morose pop culture and commercial art. They are full of surreal irony and palpable optimism. They are simple, pleasant and bright, but they are not fantasy or idealism. They are illustrations, carved and painted, of the beauty that is always present in a corrupt world, he explains.
Several of his pieces incorporate or depict lyrics from his songs. They are, in every way, an antidote to social media and hollow online vitriol.
He describes himself as a “bona fide manic depressive.” A man who, when not living his creative life, spent his time in therapy, which he loved, and a factory in Milwaukee, which he did not.
The redeeming value of folk art, according to Harris, is its ability to speak to people. Sometimes its very simplicity is its most vital message. “Like the stained glass windows in those old European cathedrals,” Harris says. “It started out as a way to educate people who couldn’t read. People read now, but artists still do the same thing. Artists still educate people.” His message is that life in America is dirty, conflicted and transcendently beautiful.
Harris eventually settled down back in Wisconsin, marrying and raising two daughters whose very mention makes his eyes brim with tears of joy. He was a factory worker, a horse rancher, a gandy dancer, a janitor, a union warrior and more. “I was the worst welder you ever saw,” he chuckles. “In fact, outside of being a musician I was terrible at everything I did. Every day I went to that factory,” he continues with steely sincerity, “It was like dying. It was like dying every day.”
But always he sought out and listened to creative people who lived somewhere outside the claustrophobic confines of normality and conventional society and art.
He spent much of the past 15 years reading about art history. He was influenced by Josephus Farmer, the Pentecostal minister and street preacher renowned for his woodcarvings and paintings, as well as the iconic Elijah Pierce and Grandma Moses. He also reflected on those youthful nights spent watching his mother paint and dance.
When Harris read about an online gallery specializing in folk art, he submitted images of some of his early work. They replied by asking him to send everything he had. “To my amazement they sold every single painting I’d done,” he says. “I’ve been painting ever since.”
He is hesitant to call himself as a “folk” artist, preferring the term “self-taught” instead.
For Harris, inspiration can strike in the least likely of places – like in “a shitty hotel in Cornwall, England” where Harris looked out his window and saw “the biggest-ass snails you’ve ever seen climbing up a palm frond. . . .I got more from that than I’ve ever gotten from any politician,” he says, a mirthful smirk briefly elevating his white mustache. He named the piece depicting those snails, “Slow Down.”
Today, Harris makes his home in Mineral Point, Wis. It is an enclave populated by farmers, artists and artisans. “It’s a wacky place and a beautiful place,” he observes. “I even like the people there I don’t like.” He has been playing music since he was a child, and he has been painting for 15 years. Now, he has taught himself to carve in a somewhat unconventional manner.
With Harris’ decision to leave school came an admitted pressure to learn and educate himself. “I did try to educate myself, but when you do that there are always holes because you tend to only go where you are interested,” he says.
Harris is a large, jovial man. His long white hair juts out from beneath a straw hat. His hands are large and powerful from a lifetime crafting music and art. “I’m looking for the mystery,” Harris explains. “I think that’s what Dylan does. I don’t think he’s looking for answers; he’s embracing the mystery and his country is awash in mystery. It’s magical. It’s an incredible experiment. I spent a lot of my life living in my head,” he states. “I’ve stopped chasing answers. I’m trying to see the mystery of things.”
For a man grappling with heady questions of life, death and meaning, Harris is surprisingly happy. He’s also a proud luddite, showing off his ancient flip phone, on which he had to tape his own phone number printed on a piece of paper.
Harris had been painting for more than a decade when he began carving. His work was selling well, but he found himself “working too fast” and creating images whose impact was blunted by their complexity. “I didn’t set out to become a carver,” he says. “But my paintings were growing more and more complicated. I felt I was losing something, and I realized I needed to slow down.” He needed, he now realizes, to take a hint from the giant snails outside his hotel window.
“As it turns out, there is actually an African American tradition of painted relief carvings,” he says. “I thought maybe if I carved them first, then painted them, I’d be forced to simplify. A friend gave me some tools and I began to carve.”
Today, Harris uses an ear trained through a lifetime of music to listen to the wood moving, cracking or ripping – “hopefully not ripping,” he adds with a chuckle – as he carves. It’s impossible to see what the blade is doing beneath the surface of the wood. “But often I’ve found that I can tell how the cut is progressing through the wood by the sound it makes,” he explains. It’s a lot like music that way, Harris believes.
“All I know is art is one of the ways we talk to each other,” Harris says. “I’m trying to create – for myself and hopefully communicate through my art – a new, more intuitive way of seeing the world. I want my work to tell a story, maybe with a touch of humor. If I can do that, then I’ll be satisfied.”