Jan Harrison’s thoroughly modern surrealism

Balance, by Jan Harrison, 2015. 22.5 x 30.25 inches; pastel, ink, colorpencil, charcoal on rag paper, from the series Animals in the Anthropocene. (Nancy Donskoj)

The pastel-and-ink paintings and porcelain-and-clay sculptures of Kingston-based artist Jan Harrison defy stylistic pigeonholes, but their otherworldliness and dreamlike logic relate to Surrealism, the 1920s Paris-based movement that celebrated the unconscious as the root of the creative impulse and exulted in the element of surprise.

Now that connection has been made official with Harrison chosen as the inaugural recipient of the Recharge Foundation Fellowship for New Surrealist Art, announced by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) on Nov. 5.


The $5,000 award, which attracted more than 350 applicants, is funded by a foundation started by the Gu family, which manages a collection of art, antiques and jewelry spanning New York, London, Beijing and Shanghai and administers grants and programs supporting artists. “While there are a lot of contemporary artists working in the New Surrealist style, there aren’t official mechanisms in place to support and foster their work,” explained founding partner of Recharge Capital Lorin Gu, who is a member of NYFA’s Board of Trustees. “Harrison’s work is both entrancing and prescient. We’re excited to help support her artistic practice through the Recharge Foundation Fellowship and look forward to seeing more of Harrison’s work in the future.”

Added Michael L. Royce, Executive Director, NYFA: “Harrison’s work, while rooted in Surrealist tradition, speaks very much to the present as we navigate complex relationships with nature and our own human struggles to survive.”

“In the abstract, my work has its roots in Surrealism, while being very much of today,” acknowledged Harrison. Unlike the classic European-based style, which is characterized by jarring disjunctions and infused with a sense of alienation, Harrison’s work posits a world view in which animal and human natures are fused; the mystery that pervades her luminous, spectral primates, cats, birds and other creatures from her Animals in the Anthropocene and Corridor series stems from their sense of deep knowing and immersion in a primeval cosmos in which the wholeness of nature is restored.

This nature is not hostile, but rather a realm to be discovered, an intrinsic, if buried, part of the human psyche; the viewer identifies vulnerability, innocence, and grace in Harrison’s animals. New Surrealism, as Harrison defines it, is concerned with reconciling ourselves with the other and centering the human experience within the context of deep ecology, a profoundly healing exercise with a feminist bent that contrasts dramatically with the rationalist, fallen-world strategies of the (mostly) male Surrealists. In its subtle patterning and brilliant, atmospheric color, her formal language bears affinities with non-Western traditions. The delicacy of line in her paintings and tiny scale of her recent sculptures heightens the sense of tender connection and tactile warmth.

Harrison, who moved to Kingston with her partner, architect Alan Baer, in 1989 was born in 1944 and grew up in West Palm Beach. She earned a BFA in graphic design from the University of Georgia and a master’s (in a pre-MFA era) from San Jose State. She has exhibited all over the U.S. and internationally, has been collected by the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art. She’s a frequent participant in exhibitions in the Hudson Valley, including most recently “Homely: Where and What is Home” at the Athens Cultural Center last September and “Aestivus: Summer Group Show” at the J.J. Newberry gallery in Saugerties last summer. Harrison is the subject of a monograph, Arcana Mundi, published in 2001 by Station Hill Press, and her work has been profiled in numerous books, essays, and articles as well as reproduced on book covers.

Lynn Woods recently interviewed the artist in the spare, art-filled brick Victorian home she shares with Baer in the Rondout.

Jan Harrison. (Alan Baer)

When did your close association with animals start?

I was the daughter of a single mother. To support us, she had to be at work much of the time, so I was alone a lot. My mother would send me to walk to church, but instead I’d go to an abandoned garden, where I would feel empathy with the spiders, lizards, birds, cats and dogs. Feeling a great connection with the natural world, I would disconnect from the dysfunctional events around me and uncover mysterious animal-connected worlds. At the age of eight, I made drawings of sea creatures and humans on the sidewalks and alleys with the soft white rocks indigenous to south Florida. The drawings were very large, and I would create a ritual with them, standing in parts of the images.


It sounds like your development as an artist grew out of your deep affinity for animals.

I knew I had a calling early on. [As a child] I made drawings and I still feel the intensity of doing the lines. It was a universal feeling, no different from what I’m doing now. I believe time is transcended in art.


What were your artistic influences?

Pre-Columbian art, also medieval art, and when I was growing up, comic books. The World Book Encyclopedia was a huge influence. I just loved the images and how you could look up art or animals and they would be brought to life. One of my earliest pieces was World Books A & B, which were huge tomes on pedestals that had ink drawings of animals and humans, along with word sequences, which I made in the early 1970s, when I was in graduate school. These were exhibited in San Francisco and Los Angeles and written about by [art critic and writer] Lucy Lippard.


Early in your career, how did you support yourself?

I supported myself as a graphic designer, but I always made time to work in the studio and always exhibited and did fine art. I had some interesting early employment: I did technical drawings of the launcher tower for the Saturn V missile, at Cape Canaveral, in the late 1960s, during a summer and fall I took off from college. We would go on top of the roof and see the missiles go off and they were huge. In some of my earlier pieces there are images of spaceships with animals in them.

I also worked for a natural history museum, where I learned how to make an eagle’s nest and paint dioramas. I did book design for a publishing company, and after we moved here, I worked at SUNY New Paltz as assistant director of design in the publications department, retiring in 2007. I also taught painting at Antioch College and later at Marist as well as workshops at The Women’s Studio Workshop.


What brought you to Kingston?

I started painting in the Mojave Desert.  I was married, and after becoming divorced, moved to Cincinnati, where I started exhibiting a lot, and met Alan. Ohio was good to us: I received several grants from the Ohio Arts Council. But after a while we felt it was time to move. We met a gallery director from New York City and she suggested we move to Kingston, a place to nurture art, near the mountains, but close enough to the city to tap into.


Let’s talk about your process. What are your mediums?

In the beginning I mostly painted in oil on canvas, but for many years my main medium has been ink and pastel. (I’ve also worked in gouache, charcoal, encaustic and oil stick.) I use my hands, which is very important: as I rub and caress the surface of the work, the images go through metamorphosis. They’re moving, as if in a life cycle. As I rub the surface, forms emerge.

They may start as one thing and retain a vestige of that. I never know what they will be. When you do something very literal, it may look good but it’s not necessarily what needs to emerge in your art. I have to go in, caress and rub and scrape to get what it is. It has to come out.


Are you suggesting the images have an inherent existence, apart from the visual?

They have an existence in my mind and cells. My work has to do with the collective psyche. The beings seem to exist in different time frames and come forth from there. My art is very spiritual, but not in the religious context.

In 1979, I had a dream that I was walking by a river and came upon a beautiful bird. I wanted to talk to the bird but I didn’t know how. I reached down and held the bird in my hand and noticed a tiny medallion around its neck. I also had a medallion around my neck, and when I touched the medallions together the bird began to sing in a language I understood. From that time I began speaking and singing in Animal Tongues.


Are you still performing the Animal Tongues?

Yes, but it is really a more private experience, like meditation. Now I only do it in public in conjunction with an exhibition of my visual art.


How did you learn them?

They just happened. It’s similar when you look at a painting: it doesn’t speak to you in a written language but through your body and soul. There are beings expressed by the tongues, which sometimes come out in my visual art. This snow leopard in this painting is the one with that voice. It’s not a literal translation, and it doesn’t always happen.


The tiny porcelain sculptures you showed over this summer at JJ Newberry were extraordinary, resembling a mass of tiny sea creatures washed up by the tide onto the gallery wall. They were evidence of your skill and vision in using the clay to create living forms, rather than something static and monolithic. Your clay animals, including the larger cats, are always infused with energy and character.

I never had a sculpture class and took only one painting class. I studied printmaking — I used to have a press — and the monotypes I was doing led to the pastel paintings. So I came up with different ideas about how to make a sculpture, such as stuffing panty hose with newspapers and putting the clay over that, then moving the form.

I had temporarily stopped making sculptures, because of limited space in my studio, but recently I found some clay and started creating sculptures the size of my hand. [These became the Tiny Porcelain Sea Creatures and Other Creatures series, exhibited at JJ Newberry.] I use things to press texture into the surface, for instance some of the animal sculptures have a skin that looks like lace, which was imprinted from part of my mother’s lace tablecloth. [Curator, artist, and educator] Linda Weintraub once gave me a metal block, possibly used by East Indian fabric printers, which I pressed clay on, creating prints that resemble characters in a language.


Your physical connection to the work seems very important.

Yes. It has to do with the process of making and being in touch with my body. I work on the floor, sitting in the middle of the piece. There are a lot of surprises that happen. I’ll start out with one primate, walk around the piece, and add another figure on the top or bottom (I’m often not sure which is which.). Sometimes a darker shadow figure will appear. Many of the figures are inspired by images of endangered animals.

From the beginning, there has been a knowledgeable animal and an innocent one and they interact. I’m working with knowledge and innocence, and accepting the shadow, so that they come together as one.


How has getting the award affected you?

I am very grateful. It makes me feel more hopeful for artists who are working, making sacrifices, and taking risks. It’s very important for me to keep in touch with what I value and love. We have to be knowledgeable but also nurture the innocent part of ourselves and the world.


Do you have any upcoming exhibitions?

I’m in several upcoming group exhibitions, and in September 2020 there will be a solo exhibition of paintings from my Animals in the Anthropocene series and an installation, Tiny Porcelain Sea Creatures and Other Creatures, with a performance in Animal Tongues, at 11 Jane Street Art Center, in Saugerties.


Harrison’s work may be viewed at janharrison.net.