Shock Art!

Bryan Harris proves that every artist has a time, a place and ... a seal monkey?

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2004

In Dallas and then Tacoma, north Douglas residents Bryan and Lydia Harris had their own art gallery - the type of place that embraced "the suits" during the day and a hodgepodge of goths, punks and drifters at all hours of the night.

Bryan would hang his portraits of God, Lucifer and nudes next to surrealistic landscapes of death, triumph and sunlight. Nearby would be his "shock art" - animal skulls refabricated with drier lint, Styrofoam and fuzz, and reassembled into impossible, leering ghouls.

By their accounts, the shows were a success. Customers would drift into the kitchen, throwing food out on the floor while searching for a drink. The party would stretch into the bathroom and the kitchen, lasting well past 3 or 4 in the morning.

It was a whirlwind and it was entertainment, in the name of art. But it was eventually time to move on.

Now in Juneau for just over two years, the Harrises have a quiet and more private life, for the time being.

Bryan, 37, spent years as an Alaska commercial fishermen, and now fishes in Gastineau Channel, about 30 feet from his porch. Lydia, 45, has been retired since a job-site accident in 1994. They share their home with four Jack Russell terriers, six television screens, a jury-rigged computer, a giant bed, more than 400 pounds of frozen salmon and dozens of their found-object artistic concoctions.

Financially secure since Lydia's accident, and content to enjoy their surroundings and each other, they see no need to rush things.

"I like being grounded more, especially in Alaska," Lydia said. "Sometimes I think I want to go back to work, but I look around and I see this beauty, and I get to hang out with my husband and these (Jack Russell terriers). And being around Bryan, I've discovered my own art. He's encouraged me, because I'm quite shy about it."

"We're trying to break out and have another gallery space downtown," Bryan said. "But I'm not sure if I want it myself. We've been through that experience two times. It takes a lot of energy to deal with all the people. They all like personal attention. By the time you get done with that, you don't have a whole lot of energy for doing art."

Bryan has plenty of energy now. He spends hours painting, churning out miniatures, working on his "shock art," reconstructing jpeg digital images and creating fishing flies out of hot glue, feathers and bobbly eyes. But so far, his only public works in Juneau have been a few sets for Northern Light Junior Theatre.

"We're just taking it slow," Bryan said. "I don't think you can paint Alaska properly until you've skinned your first deer and gotten blood on your hands. Or knocked your first salmon on the head with a rock because you forgot where you laid your billy club in the frenzy of the excitement of seeing this big bright silver.

"You have to sit through sunsets," he said. "You have to stand outside in snow and freeze and see the aurora when it's really cold. You have to feel these different things before you jump in. You're not going to find another place in the Lower 48 that's going to feel, taste, smell anything like this.

•••

As early as kindergarten, Harris had a knack for art. He won a gold medal at the Edmonds (Wash.) art fair for a dinosaur scene - brontosauruses, flora and fauna in fingerpaint.

Harris had severe dyslexia, and throughout school, art was his reward for struggling through another book. With black print on a white page, he sometimes needs to read a sentence five or six times before the words fall into place. Math, too, was difficult. But while equations were sometime futile, mirror reflections and an unusual depth perception turned out to be his forte.

Harris took art classes to escape other kinds of electives but did not consider an advanced degree in arts.

"People have told me that I've limited myself by not getting a college degree," Bryan said. "Maybe I have. But in other ways, I haven't had that influence they've put on me. It's not that I'm being rebellious. I just never had anybody tell me I couldn't do something."

In college, he earned a culinary arts degree, learning to "turn mushrooms into Alice in Wonderland for somebody to eat." But he was soon burnt-out from cooking 60 plates of chicken cordon bleu a day, and sick of looking at food altogether. He stepped away from the kitchen, and with few prospects, began looking for a job that he could also use as an artistic outlet.

The world of cement masonry and the concrete jungle of East Texas beckoned.

"They came in and offered me a job for $23 an hour," he said. "I was living on food bank at the time, so it wasn't like I was going to say no. They flew me to Austin, to San Antonio, and then moved me up to Huntsville and Palestine."

Bryan worked in concrete, 16 to 18 hours a day. "Once the pour starts," he said, "it doesn't stop until it's finished." He made swimming pools with sculptures that spit out water, miles and miles of hand-formed, sloping curbs, and most of all, prisons.

"Their whole environment is prisons down there," he said. "It's prison after prison after prison."

Bryan and Lydia met on Thanksgiving Day 1984 in the drive-through lane of a Palestine pizzeria. Bryan never went to the other pizza place in town, because the green olives made him ill. He was hungry and single. Lydia was working at the window.

"She looked like the kind of girl I'd like to go out with," Bryan said. "I backed up in the drive-through and made all the other cars back up too. I asked her what time she got out of work, and she told me. I showed up, I was always where I said I was, and I never stood her up."

They've been married 16 years, despite Lydia's early fears that the relationship wouldn't last.

"She was convinced that a younger man would run off on an older woman," Bryan said.

Bryan was also nervous - about how he would fit in with the relationship between Lydia and her 6-year-old daughter. And early on, he was confused, as her daughter would break off pieces of his art and take them with her when she left the house.

"It was totally nerve-wracking, and then I realized, 'This is really serious. To her I'm something,'" he said. "Before I'd never been something to anybody like that. I'd say it changed the way I did my art and a whole lot of things in my life."

It also changed things for Lydia, who was freer to criss-cross the country on business. She worked for the restaurant industry, opening up franchises. Six weeks in one town, three months in the next.

"I thought he was wasting his time being a cement mason, and I thought his talent was extraordinary," Lydia said. "I wanted to go out and be a businessperson, and I needed someone to stay home. He helped raise my daughter, and he helped clean my house. When I came home the person I loved, and the other person I loved, were OK."

One day in Palestine, Bryan was building a cell block for a jail. One of his coworkers dropped a wrench and fell into the main electricity conduit. The power went out, and Bryan was locked in the cell, in the dark, until it was reconnected.

"I was in there for 10 hours, and that was too much for me," he said. "I didn't want to go back."

Palestine - its tight-laced social structure, its rigid segregation and its lack of an arts scene - was also too restrictive. His art - nudes, demons, God, portraits and landscapes - was not winning fans.

"You can't have a picture of Lucifer on the wall if you have a picture of Jesus on the wall," Bryan said. "Anything that's demon-esque or nude is just out there. If you try to bend the edges a little bit, they're afraid their children are going to go wacky, play D & D and jump off a building."

Bryan and Lydia decided to move to Dallas in 1988 and quickly found the



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