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SCULPTOR AND ART DEFY CLASSIFICATION.

Byline: Paul Denison The Register-Guard

Here's what Jerry Harris will tell you about his solo show at the Jacobs Gallery, opening Friday.

It will include 15 new sculptures in various materials, ranging from 3 feet to 5 feet 8 inches in height, and 11 new collages.

His work is "abstract, often surreal," "figurative in essence," "a bit avant-garde," "traditional but abstract in my own way."

This will be the gallery's first show featuring an African-American artist - which doesn't surprise him, considering how small the black community is here.

Being a man of color among pale people is nothing new to Harris, who married a Swedish woman and lived in her country for 20 years, returning to the United States with his son several years ago, after his wife died of cancer.

"When we came back," he says, "my son said he wanted to see some black people. I said I wanted to see some trees."

So Harris' son Andreas enrolled at Clayton State College in Atlanta, and Harris moved to Oregon. He has a studio in Portland and lives in Eugene.

This is not Harris' first time in Oregon. After graduating from high school in Pittsburgh, he spent a year in Portland with his uncle, professional wrestler and referee Shag Thomas. He attended community college in Portland and then transferred to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he found "a little too rigid and too conservative" for a restless young man in the turbulent '60s. So he headed west again, this time to San Francisco State.

In San Francisco, he met Britt-Marie Olofsson, who was traveling through on her way to Mexico, on the last leg of what Harris describes, with a chuckle, as a "finishing school" for Swedish girls who wanted to "get their English just right."

They fell in love, got married, had a son and shortly afterward moved to Stockholm. Before they left the states, Harris says, he asked his wife how her family would react to their marriage.

"She said she didn't know what I was talking about," he recalls. `I practically had to shout, `But I'm black!' She just didn't understand the question. And to her family, the strangest thing was that I was an American! It was amazing.'

Harris says his entire European experience was the same. He was accepted just as an American, and his skin color wasn't an issue.

"When you're treated that way, you just feel whole," he says.

Like most Swedes her age, Harris' wife spoke several languages by the time she left high school. But her parents spoke little English, so Harris studied Swedish at the University of Stockholm and became fluent in the language.

With the support of her family, who turned out to be wealthy, Harris also studied in the International Sculptors Program at St. Martins College of Art and Design in London, where the teachers included Sir Anthony Caro, Philip King and Frank Martin. While in London, he also took informal lessons in bronze casting from Henry Abercrombie at Central College of Art and Design.

He also returned to the states in 1976 to study bronze casting with James Lee Hansen, a leading Pacific Northwest sculptor.

Although classically trained in bronze, Harris has had to give it up because of osteoarthritis. His materials now include wood, fiberglass, clay and found objects. He's still in rehabilitation after recent hip-replacement surgery, and two studio assistants in Portland help him avoid heavy lifting.

Harris's Web site (www.members.tripod.com/media56/id2.htm) includes images of several earlier sculptures (none of which will be shown in Eugene) with titles such as "Homage to Charlie Parker," "Homage to the Muskogee Indians" and "Mississippi Burning" that suggest identification with African-Americans and other minorities.

But he cautions against reading too much into any artist's labels.

`My work doesn't say `African-American,' ' he says. "It's universal. I don't particularly believe in classifying art. Art is art, and mine is hard to classify. I really don't believe that artists should put themselves in a corner like that. I'll stand on what I do."

And if some of his sculptures show African influence, he says, he's definitely not alone in that.

"All modern art is derivative from Africa," he says. "Back in the 1920s, European artists needed a whole different way of looking at art. They had to be re-infused. Picasso, Henry Moore, Braque, Brancusi, have all taken from African art."

Harris has lectured at the University of Oregon on African-Americans in Europe and the United States, and he'll do so again at the Jacobs Gallery at 1:30 p.m. March 13. He says the lecture will cover artists from 1865 to the present, including "the new superstar of American sculptors," Martin Puryear.

Harris is a member of the Swedish Sculptors Association and one of a few African-American members of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, the nation's second-oldest artists association. He has had exhibits in Sweden and Europe and has shown his work at the University of Oregon, in a three-man show with Eugene artist Harold Hoy and California artist Richard Chavez about 2 1/2 years ago.

Harris markets his work through dealers in Stockholm, New York and London.

He says that when he talks to young artists, he advises them to think outside Eugene, to broaden their vision.

"You really want to be national and international," he says. "If you stay within a small community, you get too self-satisfied. You need to broaden your stage so you can get broader criticism. Criticism never hurt anyone."

Harris says he was "a very lucky man" to have family financial support at the beginning of his career. He advises younger artists not to expect to get rich, especially as a sculptor.

"Most people can't afford sculpture," he says. "I can't even afford my own work."

Harris, who has done some teaching over the years, is troubled to see so many students coming out of master of fine arts programs today as conceptual artists "with really nothing to say."

"I'm not saying you have to do art to please people," he says, but people go to galleries and museums "to see something; there has to be some meat there."

Paul Denison can be reached at 338-2323 or pdenison@guardnet.com.

ART SHOW PREVIEW

Jerry Harris: Sculptures and Collages

Where: Jacobs Gallery, downstairs at the Hult Center.

When: Gallery talk 3 p.m. Friday, reception 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday; normal gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Show will continue through April 10.

Also: Harris will lecture on "African American Artists: The European and American Experience" at 1:30 p.m. March 13 in the Jacobs Gallery.

CAPTION(S):

Harris describes his work as "abstract, often surreal."
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Title Annotation:Arts & Literature
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 29, 2004
Words:1130
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