“My art uses photographic technologies to capture a moment in time.”
Paul Zimmerman in conversation with Howard Harris
Paul Zimmerman: Technology is one of the most influential aspects of contemporary art. What impact does it have on your work?
Howard Harris: Without technology my work would not exist. From the invention of the camera to the development and refinement of lasers my work is augmented by technology and the machinery that uses various technologies to produce my images. As an artist one should master technology. But mastering technology only makes one a technician. The artist must transcend the merely technical. The goal of the artist is to add the intangible dimensions of personal expression, emotion, movement and the opportunity for the image to interact with its ever-changing environment. That is why all technologies not only enhance my creative process, they are my creative process. However, I was not able to use traditional “art” technology to achieve the dimensionality and movement of images I wanted to create. I had to develop a new process to achieve the results I could see within my imagination. The process and images derived from the process were unique enough that most people who saw it said they had never seen anything like what I presented. It turned out that my process was unique enough that the US Patent Office issued me a patent for my art processes.
PZ: How did you develop interest in light, movement, and space?
HH: I developed my interest in light, movement, and space from three different sources. The first source was my studies in Eastern Philosophy. While pursuing my master’s degree in design at Pratt Institute, NY I minored in Eastern Philosophy. Eastern thought and principles helped me better understand my Western Newtonian perceptions. My studies revealed “the other side of my perceptual coin”. The juxtaposing of Eastern and Western perceptions continues to be an inspiration to my work. My other inspiration came through surrendering myself to a trusted mentor. My professor and friend, Rowena Reed Kostellow helped me go back to the beginning of how one perceives line, form, space, movement, and light. One of the exercises had me working for over 6 months, 12-18 hours a day bending 24-gauge copper wire. This exercise catapulted my quest to further explore how volume, line and form interact to create a perceptual and hopefully beautiful space. I also worked with her to understand how one can define the fundamentals of aesthetics. The result of these two quite different inspirations is that I found myself more curious than ever about what defines the perception of our physical environment. These two perceptual methodologies drove me to attempt to understand as much as I could about Quantum Physics, Chaos Theory, Fluid Dynamics, and Visual Perception. These disciplines/theories gave me an even deeper insight into light, movement, space, and visual perception.
PZ: How do you define yourself as an artist?
HH: I would describe myself as one who loves the beauty of the world and all the technologies that help create what one can only imagine. And it is the depiction of images in my imagination where I begin my art adventure. My art uses photographic technologies to capture a moment in time. Then I attempt to expand that moment. The image engages the viewer’s natural eye-brain function called perception and the physical parallax created by stereoscopic vision. I also play with negative and positive spacing to create the illusion of depth. Overall, the combination of human functions and visual technologies creates an image that is unique to each individual viewer, lighting situation and viewing environment. I use various technologies to combine three basic elements, aluminum, acrylic and the viewer to create what one sees as my art.
PZ: What inspires you to create new work?
HH: Inspiration comes most often from my travels viewing all the beauty the world has to offer. My fascination includes the macro of landscapes and the micro of fractal forms. The world of things constantly inspires me. As does the process of creating the “art”. Most often the imagery takes over and creates itself. Sounds odd but I often become the conduit for the image. So, I only help the image become what it wants to be. My formal art education also plays a conscious or unconscious role in guiding the ultimate result.
No Monkeys, 2019, sublimation print on aluminum with an acrylic overlay, 36” x 30”
PZ: How did your practice change over time?
HH: My artwork progressed through several stages throughout my adventure as an artist.
- The first stages of my work were mostly technology based, using the camera, with what one would consider a good eye. Meaning, I did what I did somewhat unconsciously. The “art” or image just happened because I understood technology and was lucky with subject, composition, etc.
- The second stage of my work began in the early 70’s at the Kansas City Art Institute. It was there I began to understand that mastering technology was just part of the “art” equation. Going through their foundation program helped me realize that intuition and a good eye were great, but without the discipline of deliberateness all my art would continue to be either lucky or random. It was there that I became a deliberate artist, able to control my actions and images.
- The third stage also happened at the Kansas City Art Institute where I used my art to become a designer. The quest to create for others overpowered my desire to create for myself. My technological skills improved not only with the mechanics of creating images through tools but the mechanics of my mind and thought also improved.
- The fourth stage of my art happened when I went to Pratt Institute to study under Rowena Reed Kostellow. By this time, I was clearly on the design track, not the fine art track, and wanted to learn Industrial Design from one of the earlier practitioners of the profession and the creator of Pratt’s industrial design program. It was Rowena that helped me discover that the understanding of technology of machine and thought were not enough. One also needs the understanding of self, vision, emotion, and surprise to create either good design or good art. There need not be a difference between design and art. Yes, they can exist separately but when they come together it becomes “nirvana”.
- The fifth stage lasted from the early 70’s through 2011. I became part of a 5-person company, that expanded to 160 employees based on the concept of merging technology with design with the end goal of making art. Honestly, 95% of what we created I would classify as design. The 5% that could be considered art helped the entire company keep going with the knowledge that art was possible in a very commercial setting.
- The sixth stage of my quest to create fine art. I have come to the realization that until around 2010 I have been a designer not an artist. I define design as that which one does for others. Pleasing them, working for them, having them set the parameters for success and passing the final judgement as to what is successful or not. Now, I am striving to create art for myself. I am the one I must please. I am the one that sets the parameters and I am the one that judges what is successful or not. Since I am still trying to understand this phase I cannot explain it much more than I have. But also understand I am still somewhat in the struggle between “Art” and “Design”.
- The seventh stage of my development takes the struggle/learning from the sixth stage and adds more color and technique to my thought. My images now reflect my vision. I use design as a basis for the image composition and augment the vision with color, line, and volume. Light and color has become a more important element in defining my images. I might have finally broken through my designer brain and began using my fine art brain. However, I still struggle with the notion of fine art.
PZ: What are you working on now?
HH: I am still working on getting over the disappointment of not traveling to strange lands and seeing art in museums that I have never seen. However, I am going back through hundreds of images from my past travels to see what I have missed developing. The rediscovery of memories has put my brain in overdrive conjuring what may have been a previously foggy image into a clear path for more exploration. Such as, I have rarely focused on landscapes. Now I am recreating the wonderment I felt in the many vistas experienced in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Israel, and Jordan. Coupling my new thoughts with newer technologies may not have happened if it was not for continuously being isolated and challenged by my own thoughts.
PZ: How do you see the role of art in our society?
HH: I believe that Art has an especially important role in our society. Art speaks to what people are thinking, seeing, and feeling. Art breaks through the clutter of everyday life to show people what is important, beautiful, and often unseen or unnoticed. Art is a powerful means to lift our imaginations to places never experienced. And art can help society just feel good or bad.
PZ: Which artists are you most influenced by?
HH: That is a hard question to answer since I am inspired by so many in the arts world. Here are a few in the visual arts that I admire and am inspired by: Rowena Reed Kostellow, Julian Stanczak, Moholy-Nagy, Bridget Riley, Josef Albers, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Victor Vasarely, Yacov Agam, Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi. I thought I would stop here with the arts world. From the Photographic world (understanding many do and have done more than photography) I admire Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Diane Arbus, Edward Weston, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. From the Architectural/Design world (yes, most did more than just architecture) Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ray Eames. I could go on and on naming sculptors, philosophers, and physicists but, I think you get the wide variety of people that have influenced my vision, aesthetics and technology. The short version of who I admire is just about all people who work in multiple arts/multi-disciplinary techniques and push the edges of perception.
PZ: What is your next project?
HH: I will continue my quest to create dimensional photographic images with a deeper understanding of what Arshile Gorky once said about abstractions, “Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes…. Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” I will continue my quest into the unknown with the belief that whatever I strive to create should be aesthetically pleasing, and forever changing.
PZ: How does the pandemic influence your work and sensibility?
HH: COVID-19 impacted my artistic output in a good way. I am producing much more than I would have before being confined to my home studio. Some have asked if COVID has made me lonely? My response is the only loneliness I feel is when I have a blank slate to work with. Given one’s ability to create anything feels like a solitary/lonely adventure. The way I counteract that feeling is trusting in the creative process that demands discipline of thought and starting by beginning. Often, starting is the loneliest/hardest activity one has in life.
The pandemic has limited my access to viewing art firsthand. I have had to cancel trips to Greece, Turkey, Ireland, and Italy. I studied Art History for 6 years in school, viewed numerous of art books, seen tons of art online and all that was good. But nothing compares to seeing the painting, sculpture, photograph, etc. in person. Seeing art, and I would say seeing any art in person gives one a completely different and deeper understanding of the art and artist. Canceling my shows this summer also deprives me of viewers’ reactions and critique.