As is the case with all art, it’s best to experience Marshall Harris’ firsthand. You can see all of it on his website, marshallharrisstudios.com, and photos of some of it accompany this story. But the reproductions don’t do justice to the detailed, life-size — and sometimes bigger than life — graphite-on-Mylar drawings that make up much of Harris’ current work.
“I want to take and draw the viewer in to looking at something like they’ve never looked at it before,” Harris says, while showing some large sketches from a series of drawings that are based on a cat skull that’s maybe 2 inches long. “That’s the only way I can create, is to really look at something. Sometimes there are shadows within shadows, and that’s what makes things look more dimensional than just a color in a dark space.” (It’s tempting to call Harris a little bigger than life himself — he’s 6 foot 7, which provides some perspective when he poses in photos with his work.)
Harris’ eye for detail is evident in “Round Up” B.F. Smith & Son Saddlery Circa 1940-1942, a drawing that shows every scratch, stress mark, shadow and stitch in the saddle. B.F. Smith, which is part of Harris’ “Western Saddle” series, recently earned him the Hunting Art Prize. Harris is the first Fort Worth artist to win the 33-year-old competition, which is open to Texas artists 18 and older and is sponsored by international oil services company Hunting PLC (nearly a dozen Fort Worth-area artists made it to the final round). According to the Hunting Art Prize website, the $50,000 prize is the most generous annual award in North America for painting and drawing.
The “Western Saddle” series also includes M.L. Leddy Saddle, inspired by a saddle Harris spotted in the Leddy’s Ranch at Sundance store in downtown Fort Worth; and Carcass, inspired by a saddle he saw hanging at the now-closed Lambert’s Steak, Seafood & Whiskey on White Settlement Road.
When the saddles caught his eye, he asked for permission to photograph them, then meticulously re-created the images in drawings that look almost like photographs themselves. The saddles and skulls are only a portion of his art, which is rooted in Harris’ fascination with the way time marks things and people. And that makes details key.
“What turns me on about it is bringing something to your attention in a drawing,” Harris says. “First of all, it’s a piece of art. It’s not a photograph. So you see that someone has taken the time to make something look like something. Then to get into the detail so closely that it’s ‘OK, what do I have to do to make this leather look like it’s actually broken open or the fibers on the underside are [frayed].”
He points out fibers in some ropes on Carcass. “They stick out and create these little shadows. Well, if you didn’t re-create those, they wouldn’t look realistic. The eye knows what it’s supposed to look like.”
Harris says he has drawn since the third grade in Little Rock, where a nun noticed his talent and told his mother she should consider developing it. When Harris’ father’s Air Force job took the family to Cheyenne, Wyo., his mother met a woman with an artistic background who taught Harris how to work in different art media. He was still young when his family moved to Fort Worth, where he attended Southwest High School and went on to TCU.
At TCU, he received a bachelor’s of fine arts degree, but he also played football, and was good enough to be drafted by the New York Jets. He eventually played defensive end for the Cleveland Browns and later for the New England Patriots in the early ’80s; he also played for the USFL’s New Jersey Generals for a couple of years.
He went on to a career as a commercial graphic artist that lasted for decades — till he was installing a show for a client at the Javits Center in midtown Manhattan on the day that the World Trade Center towers fell.
“I wound up sitting in Central Park that afternoon, doing a big reflection of what I was doing with my life, and how things could change in a moment,” Harris says. “And that day, I decided that I needed to make a shift. Graphic design was great, it was money-making, but studio art and teaching were things that I wanted to pursue.”
By that time, Harris was in his mid 40s, but he eventually let all his clients go, began to do sculpture and pursued his master’s of fine arts degree at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where some people asked whether he was a student or instructor because of his age. He received his MFA in 2010 and returned to Fort Worth, and, now at 57, says that regardless of how he uses his degree, it was one of the best decisions he made in his life because it changed the way he thinks and his work process.
“I say they zip off the top of your head, take your brain out, put it in a blender, then pour it back in your head,” Harris says. “I know I wouldn’t be doing this type of work here in Texas if I didn’t go back to grad school.”
During his thesis year, Harris lost the space for his sculptures and knew he had to make another change. He discussed it with instructors, saying that he was considering going back to pencil drawing. One of his inspirations was Ron Mueck, whose hyper-realistic oversize and undersize sculptures were the subject of a 2007 exhibit at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The idea of exaggerating size interested Harris, but he took a more direct approach with life-size nude sketches of people.
“I thought, ‘What if I were draw the human figure so that in the gallery, it’s almost an eye-to-eye relationship?’ ” Harris says. “First of all, you’re relating to a piece of art almost as if it’s a personality, and second of all, somebody’s naked, so there’s that sort of psychological weirdness that happens.”
Harris is fascinated by the way time marks bodies and objects, both physically and emotionally. He found scars and stretch marks difficult to replicate, even in life-size drawings, because the details were so delicate that he had to get close to look at them. But the human figures informed his decision to do life-size drawings when he began doing the saddle and skull series.
“When I went to saddles, it just meant to draw them big,” he says. “I can replicate things like seat patterns. I can suggest them on a smaller scale, but they’re certainly easier to replicate on a one-to-one scale. The skulls almost have to be bigger, just to get all the nooks and crannies and weirdness that a little skull has.”
Some of Harris’ work can be seen at the Mary Tomas Gallery, 1110 Dragon St., Building 1080, in Dallas’ Design District; he will have his own exhibit Oct. 12-Nov. 16 at Red Arrow Contemporary, 1130 Dragon St., Suite 110, in Dallas.