He paints every day (every night that is) 10pm-4am and sometimes until daybreak when the muse calls and he loses time completely. Paul Harmon is the real deal - a living, working, already-famous artist. He has won awards- the Prix de la Ville de Monaco and the opportunity to represent the U.S. in the Bienal de Arte, Medellin, Columbia, S.A. to name a few. You can find his work in prestigious galleries, private collections and museums around the world. Princess Caroline kept one, “Walking Man”, for herself. His papers and digital images are held by the Archives of American Artists, Smithsonian Institute.
All this success and he will not rest. Days are full in the life of this fearless painter who loves to push visual and mental boundaries and, as he describes, use art “to cross the borders of life, the ones we cross like marriage, divorce, love, death” with his canvases. These days start late and go late: wake at 1pm, a light snack, errands and emails, ponder, sketch and get in gear; he prepares for when the putting paint to canvas part of the work begins. Paul pushes on inspired into the night, painting daily from 10pm until daybreak and the next chance to dance with the muse. He says he would “hate to miss a day in case the muse comes and I’m not ready with a brush in my hand.” He is not just prolific. He is on a painstaking mission to discover life’s connections and continuity with each startling and color-rich canvas. He is a self-titled “kill artist” meaning he draws 9 lines and kills 8 of them in his quest for a piece that can communicate the universal. “It’s not right until it’s right” is his matter of fact mantra.
The interesting thing about Paul’s “right” is that it often involves just the right amount of wrong. “The primary thing is to paint for yourself. There is no other choice. Not for galleries. Not for collectors. The result of that is that you paint yourself,” he explains intensely but in an educating, non-judgmental tone. He wants us to know he is painting his life but NOT a diary. Once the works are complete, they are ours. His continuum becomes ours as well. This rich body of work, from the 60’s through to the present, draws a mysterious and consistent line, as bold as his signature stencil borders. We peer along with Harmon through this looking glass that is both personal and universal.
An English Major first and at heart, he learned early on from his mentor Eugene Biel-Bienne that his paintings are “not his anymore” once in the eyes and minds of the audience. “Biel-Bienne,” he declares, “was absolutely honest with the work!” Despite the incredible body of work behind Harmon, a testament to his passion and skill, he is still curious. When he enters his studio and during the moments preceding the actual painting, he is still eager and on the treasure hunt of a lifetime.
His canvases are curious. They too leave the viewer searching. The response to Harmon’s work is open to cerebral, emotional or both. For example, over the years he revisits the architecture of the chair. They beckon us, lead us to the nostalgia of a previous occupant and the past or the ever-elusive future. “A Chair for Spinoza” is one left open for one of Paul’s influencers. This Dutch philosopher believed there was no separation between body and mind, that all matter organic and inorganic was connected. Paul’s work speaks to this as he yokes things together, fields of color broken and mended into a collage of symbols, patterns and images of forms living and man-made. He describes his work as “a place where past and present, the real and the invented all share equal force.”
He is on an intense hunt for new stuff, thoughts, even songs for his playlist that are strong enough to join the eclectic mix of lyric driven titles by Mark Knopfler, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash which set the mood. When he paints in his farmhouse studio in Brentwood Tennessee (a 1793 National Register of Historic places), he is “completely unaware of time.” When he is not painting, Harmon is in his study. “This may sound strange for an old guy to say but I still practice drawing,” he smiles and explains that he draws from memory or life or from hardware catalogues. “You never know when you will find a painting that needs a pair of pliers,” he says with a glint in his eye.
He is always challenging himself and the viewer-pulling together the unexpected. With this contrast of ideas and color, he brings the full picture of life into a unique focus. He says his process is “like diagramming a sentence.” There is a subject, there are verbs and adjectives. As time passes, what you thought was the subject can become the object and the verb becomes the adjective. Like life, roles and borders change with years and perspective born of experience; a landscape of things both remembered and forgotten. His wife and partner Karen Roark “talks about my look of anguish when I am painting. But I’ve never been anguished, just puzzled. Art is solving puzzles. That’s all it is. We are all doing the same thing but with different tools”, he laughs, “even a lawyer who is curious and inventive is doing it right.”
I ask him what he would be doing if not a painter and he immediately answers “I’d be a poet, they are the same, capturing life with very little, they are of the same cloth.” He is a published poet himself. His work “Dante’s Stones” covers the 11 years he had a studio in Paris at #1 Boulevard Saint-Michel. Paris is the city that inspires him most in all his world travels, for its fullness and its history of the footsteps of great artists before him. He is happy now to stay put at his studio outside of his birthplace, Nashville, Tennessee.
“My grandmother was a painter, started the Nashville Artist Guild. I grew up sitting on her studio floor with newsprint and crayons…all that’s changed is now my materials are more expensive.” When asked what he does to unwind, the answer is, “Movies, books and cutting grass. I have 3 acres here for thinking.” It is easy to picture the calm, monotony of the mower hosting this handsome, strong, 80-year-old master artist. The simple action, grass falling away, allowing his sharp mind to explore and venture into the past, present and future territory that he will share with us next.
Viewing a Paul Harmon brings together mind and body. A practice we can all learn from. An artistry and beauty that teaches us to feel, reminds us to think and above all, to stay honest.