by Jordan Green
There was a kind of taciturn restlessness about Patrick Harris when he left Winston-Salem last May.
A generous role model in the local art scene, he goes back a ways with our paper. From the inception, he painted a big double newspaper box we salvaged from the Daily Tarheel, finessing the detail on a self-portrait depicting himself dressed in a bear suit. He worked late into the night to finish it on the eve of our maiden publication date. And then after donating his labor and talent to us for free, he thanked me for allowing him to be part of our enterprise. Talk about a gracious man.
He could be irritable, too. Last May, as Harris was getting ready to move to North Charleston, SC, I remember staging a photo shoot with him and Radio the Artist at the intersection of Sixth and Trade in the Arts District. I was having trouble getting the two of them into position and finding the right angle for the shot while negotiating the change in traffic lights. Harris got impatient and threw up his hands. I think the tension shows in the shot.
His father had recently died, and he had a show up at Delurk — the gallery where he was a managing partner — called Puzzled. It seemed like a fitting theme for what he was going through: dealing with the loss of his dad and figuring out how he was going to process it. On his last night in town, there was a party at Delurk — a farewell for Harris and a birthday celebration for artist Holland Berson. Harris was in his element, nursing a PBR and digging the set by Uzzard, a local grindcore band. The lead singer unleashed a friendly string of obscenities at Harris, who responded in kind by flailing his arms and convulsing his body, initiating a frenzied mosh pit. It was a final arghhhh! — an exhale for his sendoff.
Harris opened the pH Gallery in North Charleston with the support of Mayor Keith Summey, a fan of the Winston-Salem art scene who wanted to emulate the City of Arts and Innovation’s model. Harris had left Winston-Salem with no bad feelings, only the desire to challenge himself and to build something new. But he closed the pH Gallery after only four months and returned to North Carolina — not to Winston-Salem, but to his hometown of Statesville, just a 45-minute drive down Interstate 40 to the west.
Just as dealing with his father’s passing marked a coda to his time in Winston-Salem, coming to terms with his mother’s declining health prompted his return to Statesville.
A collection of new paintings produced mostly in the past nine weeks that are currently on display at Ember Gallery in Winston-Salem elucidate a gentler, more reflective state of mind. The jumbled and bunched-up numbers that formed the leitmotif of Puzzled are discretely sampled for the new Vanitas Vanitatum exhibit. And Harris’ brilliant sense of pop-culture wit is on display with his inaugural foray into black velvet painting — wait for it… a portrait of Elvis Costello.
But for the most part, the new exhibit marks a break with the frantic pace and preoccupation with pop-culture guises during his Winston-Salem period. The new paintings, particularly a series of studies on a dilapidated red barn, have a more rural, gentle feel.
He found the barn in Hamptonville, a small town in Yadkin County where the woman he’s been seeing lives. It’s been hit by two tornados, Harris tells me, and you can see that the back end has been obliterated while the front remains intact. It’s a metaphor for his mother, who has survived five heart attacks in recent months.
As the exhibit’s name — it translates to “vanity of vanities” — suggests, the deteriorating barn reflects the ephemeral nature of the material world.
Harris speaks with the same thoughtful deadpan that I remember from before he left for North Charleston. As is his wont, he’ll fall silent to let the words settle in, and then break into a slightly unsettling laugh, but now there’s a new afterglow of warmth.
“Being back in Statesville, being in the country — that’s been refreshing,” Harris says. “I grew up in the country playing in the creeks and the woods. I didn’t realize how much I missed that. There’s a peacefulness and quietness of it, sitting in the backyard and painting under a shade tree. For the last eight years in Winston I’ve been over-productive. From not being involved in any gallery right now, I’ve just been working with watercolors and ink. There’s no pressure tied to what people expect from me.”
A portrait of a woman of undetermined age with long hair pulled back but slightly loose is among the more transfixing of the paintings. Her head is framed by clouds, and she’s looking down as if playing back the scenes of her life. The painting is entitled “Flying Over Water,” and Harris told me the painting made him think of his mother flying back home from Germany, where his father was stationed with the Army in the early 1970s, because she wanted to give birth to his brother on American soil.
Beside it is another painting of the half-obliterated barn floating in the air, representing Harris’ mother. Underneath the barn is a skeletal pattern interwoven with numbers that is vaguely shaped like a tornado. Harris told me that he thinks of the tornado as supporting the barn.
“That’s a tribute to my dad,” Harris says. “He had a super bad back. He got his knees shot out in Vietnam.”