Paul Harris, of Bolinas, harnessed power in art

Christopher Harris
Paul Harris lost his mother at age 5, a trauma that may have sought expression in his work.  
06/21/2018

Paul Harris, an artist, sculptor and art professor who lived in Bolinas for 55 years, died on May 13 in Bozeman, Mont., at age 92. He is known for a body of work that defied category and genre, harnessing media from fabric to pencil to bronze. His sculptures, portraits and still lifes turned ordinary objects into bearers of unexpected power in what the artist Bill Berkson described as “oracular shadow play.” 

Emily Lazarre, a painter and close friend, called him “one of the most important artists of his time.” She described Paul as singularly devoted to three things: family, work and friends.

Though intensely focused on his craft, Paul could also be extroverted. “He was just as varied as his work,” his son Nicholas said. “He could be a ladies’ man at parties. He would tap dance—they loved it. He was a very graceful dancer, and also had a great sense of humor.” 

Paul’s multi-faceted and eclectic approach to art prevented his career from being positioned among any particular school or era. Parts of his oeuvre are among the collections of the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

He first received notoriety in the ’60s with a series of cloth sculptures of women, some of which were exhibited in the New York World’s Fair of 1965. (“We didn’t have enough money to cast them [in bronze],” his wife, Marguerite Harris, said.) 

The artist Theopilus Brown described the sculptures as “unlike anything in the history of sculpture,” challenging the viewer through their use of materials that are as “impermanent and mortal as the subjects portrayed.” 

Paul was born on Nov. 5, 1925 in Orlando, Fla.. His father worked as a small-time broker for an orange grower and dynamited hardpan to loosen the soil to grow more oranges. His mother died suddenly, of unknown causes, when Paul was only 5.

During the Depression, Paul and his sister would tap dance after school for spare change to help put food on the table. He recalled squeezing oranges and selling juice at farmers’ markets. “Money was hard to come by,” Marguerite said. “One Christmas only enough for one bicycle… for the sister.” 

After graduating from high school, Paul enlisted in the Navy and was stationed on the U.S.S. Ault, a destroyer in the Pacific theater of the Second World War. 

Seventy-three years to the day before his death, the ship was attacked by kamikaze aircraft during a spring of perilous combat. Paul supplied ammunition belts to the gunner, who shot down, or “splashed,” the incoming plane with seconds to spare.

The Ault later entered Tokyo Bay and anchored near the Missouri, close enough to witness the formal surrender aboard that battleship between the Japanese command and General Douglas MacArthur. Paul sketched the ceremony. 

During idle moments aboard ship, he also drew portraits and detailed scenes of life at sea. 

“He was not very mechanically inclined,” Nicholas said, “yet he had pictures of these machine rooms, with manholes open, and all these gears and stuff going on, and these guys sweating… It gave an exact feeling of what it was like to be there.” 

A photo of the Ault during the war shows a small destroyer with a striking, three-dimensional paint job to provide camouflage. The geometric design would not be out of place among some of Paul’s abstract work, although the majority of his drawings are still lifes of flowers, fruit and everyday objects, where the color blue often predominates. Other drawings depict linear, erotically charged bodies in contorted positions of anticipation and arousal. 

It is in sculpture, however, where Paul’s imagination was most on display. “Mary Jane As I Know Her,” from 1958, is a skirt, woman’s legs and red high heels made of painted papier mache, seemingly stuck in the ceiling. The disembodied quality amid traditional domestic tranquility is a current that runs through much of his work. 

In other sculptures, fabric arms extend from upright, upholstered arm chairs, as though a woman had sunk into and disappeared into the furniture. 

In the late ’60s, Paul made surreal masks of vacuum-formed plexiglass, sometimes mounted on painted wood, the features barely denoted in yellow and orange hues or marred by intense, childish strokes of color and daubs of paint. 

Another series, made entirely of unvarnished wood, has bottles or vases on irregular shelves, sometimes in gravity-defying positions, or a sword extending out of, or penetrating, boxes with testicular orbs attached to the hilts. 

Paul worked extensively in bronze, in both figurative and abstract modes, shapes often suggestive of curvaceous legs, buttocks, hips and shoulders that seem to sink into and merge with unseen forms. Bodiless heads and hats were another common theme, as well as household objects such as lamps, kettles, knives, bottles and spoons. 

The latter work, in league with Paul’s crayon and pencil drawings of still life, is reminiscent of the Italian artist Georgio Mirandi’s careful observation and single-minded repetition of bottles and vases.

Paul led a peripatetic life after the war, attending The New School for Social Research in New York, where he met Marguerite Kirk, a graduate of the University of Chicago. The couple married in 1950 and had two children, Christopher and Nicholas. Christopher is an attorney and Nicholas works as an architect in Bozeman.

Paul studied with the German abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman in Provincetown on Cape Cod, and earned his B.A. and M.F.A. from the University of New Mexico, where he formed a lifelong friendship with the celebrated Bay Area painter Richard Diebenkorn. 

He completed his doctoral work at Columbia Teacher’s College in New York, and began his teaching career in Jamaica and Santiago, Chile, where he was artist-in-residence and a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad Catolica.

On a trip to California, the Harrises visited the captain of the U.S.S. Ault at his home in Bolinas. Paul immediately took to the place, though Marguerite feared there would be no work in so small and remote a town. 

Marguerite, who received a master’s in history from Montana State University, would write a 1977 thesis on environmental protectionism in Bolinas that detailed the unintended impacts of a moratorium on new water services in town. 

The order, she noted, resulted in a degradation of the water supply, sub-standard illegal dwellings, and higher real estate prices without entirely preventing the growth the measure was designed to control. “The mixed rural and vacation community is well on its way to becoming an expensive and therefore exclusive suburb,” she concluded 40 years ago.

In 1963, Paul, his sons and local laborers built a two-story home on Ocean Parkway with a view of the Pacific. There was a kitchen upstairs and a studio below, with a large atelier in the rear where the wooden floors are now covered in layers of splattered wax Paul used to create the positive for bronze castings. 

Clay originals, plaster molds and oxidizing sculpture litter the yard also abundant with lemon, grapefruit, sour orange and plum trees. (“Grapefruit, in Bolinas!” Marguerite said on a recent tour. “No one can believe it.”)

Despite having no taste for the mandatory social whirl of the commercial art market, Paul was featured in more than 22 solo exhibitions and numerous group exhibitions in the United States and Germany. 

“He wanted to put his energy into his work, not making money,” Nicholas said. 

In contrast to Diebenkorn, Paul felt fortunate to have the freedom to innovate without the pressure of continuing in the style that defined his success, Marguerite added. “He told Paul, ‘You’re more imaginative than I am,” she said.  

He taught for nearly 25 years at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, scheduling classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and spending the night in a small apartment near the college. The compressed schedule left him free to work in his home studio the remaining days of the week.

Paul remained prolific and innovative over more than seven decades. In his late 80s, he completed several bronze works of disembodied human parts, heads and abstracted figurines that are among his most compelling. One evocative work, “Hats Off America,” shows a stricken face with a hat falling or tossed behind it, with hardly any identifying detail. When pressed, Paul, who rarely explained his works, recalled sitting on the benches of the waiting room in a V.A. hospital. Another veteran walked past, without a face. 

Though he suffered from Parkinson’s disease like his father and his father’s brother before him, Paul retained his appreciation of art, commenting to family on the qualities of various pieces even after his cognizance of worldly facts and figures had slipped away.

While he preferred his own work to speak for itself, he once wrote of a walk he took in the garden with his grandmother shortly after his mother’s death. 

His grandmother pointed to the sky and said that his mother had gone to heaven. Imagining his mother as a passenger on an airplane, he wondered why he had been left behind, and waited for her return. 

Then “I took matters into my own hands,” he wrote, drawing lines in crayon on a sheet of paper. “It looked as if I had drawn a tent. It was not a tent. It was a woman’s dress.” He added a circle and curly lines, for hair.

“She wasn’t really a woman…yet there were ways in which she was,” he wrote. “She was somewhat my mother while my mother was away. I began to see that drawing was a way to make things you didn’t have. So draw.

“Draw a bicycle. Draw a dog. Draw an airplane…” 

 

A memorial for Paul Harris will take place on Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. at 200 Ocean Parkway, in Bolinas.