Tracey Sylvester Harris
Artist Interview with Skidmore Contemporary Art
Skidmore Contemporary Art: If you could choose a different medium to work in, what would it be and why?
Tracey Sylvester Harris: I would go into sculpture, because I think I would really enjoy working with clay to create figurative work like I do with painting. It would be fun to get into clay and maybe chiseling, marbling—whatever type of form in 3-dimensional work.
SCA: How would you describe your creative process?
TSH: I’m always looking for inspirational imagery, which can come from anywhere. It can be from a book, old movies, the internet, old magazines—my mom gave me a stack of her old fashion magazines from the 50’s. I’m always researching and once I find imagery that I like I usually borrow something from it as a starting point for a painting. I work on the composition and then I often have models come in to help out. Once I have the composition figured out, I start on the actual painting, which has multiple layers and has its own process as well.
SCA: Has social media impacted your work in any way? If yes, how? If not, why do you think that is?
TSH: Yes, in a sense I enjoy social media and I think it’s helped. I love Instagram. I used to enjoy Facebook, but now it’s more Instagram. I enjoy it because it’s a visual medium. People are able to look at my work and start following me. Often these followers are collectors who have already purchased my work, but I do find new collectors, too. They can reach out to me through Instagram and ask questions like “where can I find your work” or “when is your next show?” or “are you ever going to be in my city?”—so that's been really rewarding. Most of the time I’m on my own, and I enjoy that. I'm an introvert and I love creating in the studio, but it's a solitary type of work and social media is a really great way to get feedback. I try to post once a week—I know some people post non-stop, but I’m not that type of social media person. I love to look at other artists’ work and see what they do. I like to see what museum shows are out and I follow some art critics—overall it has been a very useful tool.
SCA: What is your most memorable museum experience? Can you briefly describe it?
TSH: This might be different than what you expect, but it’s what came to mind. My most memorable museum experience had to do with my artwork being in a museum, not me going to a museum. It was at the Laguna Art Museum’s art auction “California Cool” last year (February 2021) and it was so memorable because I was the featured artwork for the whole exhibition. It was really amazing because it was during Covid and they didn’t have an in-person exhibit like they normally would, and they didn’t have an in-person auction like they normally would, so it was online and it was absolutely insane. The painting I had up for auction would normally go for around $5,000, but it ended up bidding up and up and up and it sold for $42,000! It was so mind blowing! I had been watching it online, and there was half an hour to go, and it just kept getting higher and higher, so I couldn’t watch it anymore. My husband sat next to me, my head was in my hands, and he kept calling out the new bids and it was just the coolest experience. Like, “it's up to $34,000, oh no it’s $36,000” and it just kept getting higher until the last minute when it hit $42,000. That was unbelievable. It was a real treat.
SCA: What is something unexpected that has impacted/influenced your artistic style?
TSH: I was in the art section of Barnes and Noble, just looking through art books and I ran across a book by Richard Diebenkorn. When I got that book it just blew my socks off. It shifted my style dramatically because I had an epiphany looking at his work. It resonated so much with me. I felt like it gave me permission to let go of a lot of things that I thought were important in a painting and instead I just went “Oh, it’s not necessary.” There were so many things that I had been doing that are not necessary in a painting, so it shifted my style and validated how I wanted to start working, which is much more expressive.
SCA: If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing?
TSH: I think I would be a writer, which is strange because I haven’t done a lot of writing, but there’s something about the lifestyle that’s similar to an artist. Like the woman who wrote Gone with the Wind, she ended up writing that novel when she had broken her leg and she was stuck in bed. I’ve often thought, if I couldn’t paint, I would write a mystery story with my sister. Story writing has to do with narrative and people and that actually is very similar to my work. It's figurative work—it borders on narrative where you kind of wonder “what's going on here?” I love telling stories in person, to my family and friends, so I think that would be a natural vocation for me. Plus, you get to work on your own, in a studio, which is what I do now.
SCA: What city/town/geographical location has provided the most inspiration for you?
TSH: I’d have to say California in general, including Los Angeles. There’s something about the beauty of California, the sunlight of California, the breathtaking beauty of California. But then there’s also the movie industry in Los Angeles, which I think we all just take for granted—it’s there, it’s part of our culture, and it really does have a huge impact. Film is an artistic medium that is fascinating to me. It's a culturally artistic medium that we collectively get to view and I think it’s had a huge impact on my work. My work often touches back on some old Hollywood glamour and past styles from classic films.
SCA: Were you professionally trained as an artist? Tell us about that experience.
TSH: Yes, I was, because both of my parents are artists in different ways. My mom is a landscape painter, so I was raised watching her always painting something and my dad is a graphic artist. They were always working and art was always in the house. My sister and I were always working on art projects ourselves, so we were trained in the family. Then in school I took any classes I could. I went to the local college and took the best classes. However, I left school before getting a professional art degree and I just started working. I did take a lot of classes that trained me in a wide range of subjects from painting technique, composition—all of those things. But no, I didn’t get a degree.
SCA: If you could sit at a dinner table with 3 famous artists, who would they be? Why?
TSH: Richard Diebenkorn, because he was so influential on my style. Also Roseland Drexler—she’s just so cool—she’s amazing. The third one I struggle with, just because there are so many cool people. I’d have Joan Mitchell. She was a badass female artist, who had to make her own way, and I love that. I love anyone that paints with a big voice.
SCA: What challenges do you face as an artist that people might not expect?
TSH: I find it fascinating what people think an artist’s life is and what it really is. It’s enjoyable work but I put in the hours. I work five or six days a week and I think that surprises people. Just because I can meet a friend for lunch, they think I can just goof off all the time. So, the challenges would be—meeting deadlines, getting work completed, the finish work on a painting. It’s so fun to start and work on a painting, but to get it to a point where you really feel like it’s finished and ready to be shown in a gallery—that's the step up. So that’s always the challenge, to get the artwork fresh, keep it fresh and also finished.
SCA: What advice would you give to your younger self?
TSH: Take the risk. Do it. You’ll be just fine. There are people out there that enjoy your work. There is a place for you. That’s what I would tell myself. There is a place for you. You can do it.
Tracey Sylvester Harris merges past and present in her exhibition Diving Boards and Floating Girls. While Harris' distinctive, nostalgic figures are most notably associated with a previous time, she manages to ground the figures as relevant with her painting style. Harris says on her work, "to avoid sentimentality, I keep the composition bold and cropped, the paintwork loose, drippy and rough. Even pushing some areas into abstraction." In Poolside Swimmer, certain nostalgic elements are apparent: a vintage-looking swimmers cap, classic red lips, and a retro, perhaps 1930s bathing suit. However, while these nostalgic qualities play a significant role in the work, Harris defies any notions of time. She challenges viewers to fuse past and present with her use of color, shape, and shadow. Harris utilizes vibrant, opaque colors such as her rich, deep blues of the ocean. Distinctive shapes act as shadows, defying realism. This way, the poolside swimmer is not necessarily a figure from the past, instead she is an omnipresent figure of all times. There is a universal quality to Harris's subjects; viewers may feel that they know these women, or perhaps, see themselves in her paintings.
However, while Harris's paintings are universal, they are also simultaneously enigmatic. In particular Surfing Lessons exudes mystery since three-quarters of the subject's face is cropped. This technique demonstrates Harris's ability to defy any notions of absolute time or meaning. Therefore, the woman in Surfing Lessons could be nearly anyone, a demonstration of Harris's ability to promote universality for her viewers. Other works which do not feature a person as the subject somehow manage to provide the same amount of omnipresence. The Swimming Pool uses sharp, distinct shapes but gives no clear indication of an exact time or place. Vivid blues and greens dominate the canvas, inviting viewers to dive in as if we were one of Harris's subjects.
Harris's ability to blend past with present encourages viewers to relate to her works. Without a definite time, place, or person, audiences can visualize their own stories within a Harris painting, and perhaps relax in the sun or in a pool alongside her figures.
Tracey Sylvester Harris mixes the contemporary and the timeless in her large-scale paintings of female sunbathers, citing the bold, sunny light of Edward Hopper and dazzling flat colors of Richard Diebenkorn in a way that not only draws the viewer in closer, but also challenges the viewer to negotiate their gaze in the context of these female subjects. Tempering a sense of nostalgia with a modern approach to composition, Harris aims to remind the viewer that “our own lives are fleeting” and “[to relish] our time in the sun.” Close enough to entice without titillation yet distant enough to create pause, Harris's women have a distinctly magnetic quality that is both predicated on the physical and the psychological.
Harris knew she was bound for an artistic career from an early age, saying, “I actually can't remember a time when I didn't know I was an artist.” Raised by successful working artists, Harris observed that pursuing her passion for art and making a living were not mutually exclusive. Exposure to art galleries and museums further facilitated her interest and inspiration, as did poring over glossy art books at home and creating works of art for her school as a elementary student. After taking art classes through high school, she found a mentor in California painter and teacher Marian Stevens, who passed on her wisdom on “the figure, composition, and art in general.” Growing up in Las Vegas cemented her attraction to the bodies of water that feature in her paintings, attuning her to the personalities she finds and recreates in each pool, lake, and ocean.
Taking the beaches and water of her San Luis Obispo home as her setting, Harris paints women lying out on towels or swimming, capturing them in moments of repose and relaxation, using vintage photographs and snapshots as references. She adds a further element of mystery and intrigue by denying the viewer direct views of their faces, using creative cropping of the composition to encourage the gaze in unexpected directions, saying, “just think about it: we all love to stare at people, but if they look back at us, manners dictate that we turn away. With my paintings, we have permission to stare and wonder about them indefinitely.” Harris imbues her paintings with an intentional sense of timelessness, choosing to clothe her subjects in retro-inspired bathing suits that surround the figures with an atmosphere of stillness and permanence, as they will never be confined to just one moment in time, but will consistently register and resonate with the viewer. For Harris, the viewer is meant to both identify with the universal, unspecified female figures and stand outside of them as spectator, creating a dynamic dialogue between subject and object.
On what she hopes to impart upon her viewers with her paintings, Harris says: “I hope to evoke thoughtfulness in the viewer. I like my work to have an initial attraction, but then for the viewer to see or feel that there is more, to start asking questions about the central issues of human existence: desire and loss, impermanence, and beauty, and the many dimensions of our connections with other.”
Anonymous snapshots found at flea markets, yard sales, and on the internet provide the diving board for Tracey Sylvester Harris's transformation of black and white memories into alluring light and color. The paintings are colorful but bittersweet in their depiction of fleeting moments of summer—one of stylish red swimsuits, flowered white caps, and scarlet lipstick—captured almost a lifetime ago. Merging the past with the present, Harris states, "The exciting challenge is to keep the paintings relevant and current, even though the subjects come from another era. To avoid sentimentality, I keep the compositions bold and cropped, and the paintwork loose, drippy, and rough, even pushing some areas into abstraction…"
The Face of Love
The Face of Love stars Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Robin Williams and a surprising costar -15 paintings by Tracey Sylvester Harris (no relation to the actor). Director Arie Posin uses the paintings to illustrate the transformative power of love after devastating loss. After divorce, artist turned art teacher Tom Young (Ed Harris) meets and falls for a widow (Annette Bening) while teaching a class. The relationship inspires him pick up his brushes again and paint amazing, large format figure paintings, created in real life by California artist Tracey Sylvester Harris.
After receiving the call that her work was chosen for the movie and recovering from the initial shock, T. S. Harris says it made perfect sense to her. “I always pictured my alter ego in the studio as a serious bad ass. Ed Harris is brilliant casting in my mind!” she replied. Tom Denolf, the co-producer whose daunting task it was to find the artwork to match the character of Tom Young (Ed Harris), scoured hundreds of LA galleries in search of work that would meet the script criteria, namely that the paintings be figurative, large, painterly, reminiscent of Eric Fischl, but with a Southern California vibe. The artwork of T.S. Harris, found at Skidmore Contemporary Art in Bergamot Station, fit the bill. Hundreds of galleries, dozens of meetings, and three weeks later, T. S. Harris got the voice mail she still has on her machine, “You're it! We're looking forward to working with you!”
In her paintings, T.S. Harris presents a dazzling vision of California that merges the past with the present. In an ironic twist, two recurring themes are her love of water and her love of Hollywood. The series of paintings entitled Lost Holiday are inspired by found, black and white photos from the forties and fifties. The paintings transform long forgotten memories into vibrant light and color. Although bright, the paintings are bittersweet in their depictions of fleeting moments of summer captured almost a lifetime ago. In the Noir series, she experiments with imagery from films made in that same time period. These paintings depict women mostly as torsos, or cropped stills. Suspended in time, they have been captured smoking, waking, sleeping, and sitting in contemplation. With the context of their actions removed, the women become mysterious. Dressed in swimsuits or lingerie, they are alluring not for their bodies, but the secrets they hold. Looking closely at the paintings however, reveals her true theme- how precious and fleeting our moments in the sun are.
Lost Holiday Series
In Tracey Sylvester Harris's Lost Holiday series, her subjects are suspended in time at a beach, by a lake, or on their way to a summer destination. The paintings are colorful but bittersweet in their depictions of fleeting moments of leisure captured almost a lifetime ago.
In Harris's words, "One day I was scanning the internet for reference photos of the beach. I happened upon an old black and white photo from the 30's or 40's of a lovely woman lounging in the sand as her young daughter plays close by. It was candid - a split second of her life. It was a beautiful too, with deep shadows and a great composition. Of course, I instantly wanted to paint it. But also, I was struck by my immediate identification with the woman, even though her afternoon at the beach was almost seventy years ago."
"That was the first of the Lost Holiday paintings and the beginning of my obsession with bridging the past and present. The exciting challenge is to keep the paintings relevant and current even thought the subjects come from another era. To avoid sentimentality, I keep the compositions bold and cropped, the paintwork loose, drippy and rough, even pushing some areas into abstraction."