February 17th, 2021
Oil painter T.S. Harris knew she wanted to be an artist for as long as she can remember. Raised by two professional artists, she made a name for herself in the art world at the ripe age of 17. However, as T.S. Harris will reveal, finding a career in the arts isn’t the same as finding the art you were meant to create. For Harris, finding her style took a journey of trial, error, risk-taking, and self-discovery.
Now T.S. Harris is renowned for her large-scale, high-contrast oil paintings of mid-century figures in expanses of landscape. Sparkling aqua waters and stretches of blistering sand outline the negative spaces of her vintage figures, echoing forgotten summers, all at once nostalgic and presently familiar. Grounded through the strength of her dynamic compositions, her paintings bask in the sunlight of a time too precious to last. But how did T.S. Harris discover this world of “Sunshine Noir” and where will it lead her?
In our first interview with the artist since she joined the Gallery MAR team, we unpack this journey and present it to you in the artist’s own words. From her early start as a precocious young artist to her drastic mid-career style shift to her recent exploration of powdery winter worlds, T.S. Harris takes us through her ever-evolving art journey to find and create the work that makes her soul sing.
Gallery MAR: I understand that your artistic career began rather early in life, thanks in part to your upbringing. Could you talk about what it was like to grow up with two professional artists as parents?
T.S. Harris: I think the biggest blessing was that I didn’t have to overcome what so many artists do, which is thinking that you can’t make a living in the arts. I never had that thought. I have talked to so many people who felt like they had a lot of talent but were discouraged from pursuing art as a career at a very early age in favor of a career considered “safer” than the arts. That was never on my mind at all because both of my parents were professional artists.
My mom was (and is) an oil painter who paints landscapes. My dad is a graphic artist. So they both had different, successful art careers: one in the fine art field and one in the commercial field. Between the two of them, I was confident that an art career was possible. So, I just always knew that I wanted to be an artist. It’s in my DNA. When we traveled as a family, we used to always go to art museums and galleries and art supply stores. It was just so much a part of our daily life.
Gallery MAR: What a lovely environment to be raised in! In what ways do you feel your work is informed by, not only your parent’s careers, but by their artistic styles? Knowing that your father was a graphic artist and your mother was an oil painter, we can certainly see a blend of those influences in your work.
T.S. Harris: Definitely! You’re absolutely right. The graphic part of my work is brought in from my dad. I like art that is dynamic, full of high contrast and grounded in really strong compositions, and that’s influenced by my dad’s graphic art. My mom’s an oil painter like I am, but that’s honestly where the similarities in style end. We all want to be our own person and make our own way, so I think that having that differentiation is beneficial.
Gallery MAR: Well, you’ve certainly found your own voice and style. What initially drew you to the mid-century iconography found in your work?
T.S. Harris: Well, finding that imagery really changed my career and made it what it is today. It was one of those beautiful, synchronistic things. I really became a professional artist at 17 when my parents opened an art gallery, but I didn’t discover my current style until much later. You have to find your way as an artist. I tried a million different things. I had been going through every kind of subject matter from still life to urban landscape, but I always kept coming back to the figure — that was my love.
When I was in my thirties, I realized that I had been selling artwork and doing really pretty well in an area where I didn’t want to stay. It just really wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I got to a point where I thought, “I’m kind of getting stuck here and I need to… unstick myself.” At the time I was making smaller urban landscape paintings with a darker color palette. They always had a figure in them, but on a smaller scale. The paintings were more about buildings and perspective. I love these things, but they were not singing to my soul anymore as an artist. I honestly didn’t know what would.
“I’m looking through these images, and I came across this old-time photo of a woman on a beach towel with her daughter at the beach…and I just knew it. I knew that is what I’m going to paint. That’s what my work is going to be about.” – T.S. Harris
I realized that what I really wanted to do was to work on super large canvases. I wanted to be splashier. When you’re working small, you tend to work with smaller brushes and smaller strokes – you can’t get a huge rhythm going. I knew I needed to work bigger and splashier, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to paint. I then thought of the line from the movie Field of Dreams: “if you build it, they will come.” I thought, “I’m going to go ahead and buy these big canvases and trust that the ideas will come to me.” The canvases intimidated me because they were huge. I think the biggest that I got was 60” x 48”, which at the time, to me, was just massive. I was staring at this big, white canvas, and I was just so excited to do this… but I didn’t know what it was I was going to do! I just thought, “What am I really trying to say?”
Everything came together one day when I was working on a commissioned painting. I needed to find imagery of beach sand and beach grass for the piece. It was in the early days of the internet, and I was scrolling through looking for reference photos. While scrolling, it was in the back of my mind that what I was truly looking for was inspiration. So I’m looking through these images, and I came across this old-time photo of a woman on a beach towel with her daughter at the beach… and I just knew it. I knew that is what I’m going to paint. That’s what my work is going to be about.
“Rushing through life, it’s so easy to get caught up and miss what’s most important. So, I started painting that feeling — that feeling of what’s most precious, about what you don’t want to miss.” – T.S. Harris
That image ended up being the inspiration for the start of my “Lost Holiday” series, which I’m still working on to this day (with variations on the theme, of course). It was all so perfectly suited for everything that I felt at the same time, and everything that I still feel. I saw that image of that woman in the ’40s, and I knew immediately what it was all about: It was about the fact that my kids were getting older and that time was rushing by. I thought “time is moving way too fast.” I wanted my kids and everything in my life to slow down a minute. Rushing through life with little kids (or rushing through whatever is going on in your life), it’s so easy to get caught up and miss what’s most important.
So, I started painting that feeling — that feeling of what’s most precious, about what you don’t want to miss. We have a moment to enjoy. We have this beautiful sun. We have this beautiful beach and an umbrella and just this moment in time where we can slow down and feel free.
Gallery MAR: Wow, what a beautiful revelation! I’m so thrilled to hear that you’ve found a style and a subject matter that makes your “soul sing,” as you say. I imagine it must have been nerve-wracking to put out a brand new body of work like that when you had galleries and collectors expecting something else entirely. What was that transition like, going from small-scale urban landscapes to large-scale mid-century figurative works?
T.S. Harris: Yes, that was really scary, but also super exciting. I had bought the canvases on the trust that the imagery would come to me. I just knew that eventually I would get the inspiration, but it was a challenging transition. It pushed me into different outlets as far as galleries go. For instance, the galleries that I was represented in, they were used to giving me a small space to display all my work, and now, all of the sudden, that space would be filled with one painting. I ended up sending out portfolios and proposals to quite a few new galleries with the new work. I just figured that I would work on the new series of 10 paintings and then see where they would fit. I ended up getting into more big city galleries, which worked out great for me. I think that great artwork will grow with the artist. I felt like I was growing. I was changing, so the artwork needed to change, too.
Gallery MAR: We couldn’t agree more! We’re excited to see how your work grows and evolves here at Gallery MAR. Speaking of which, much of your portfolio focuses on capturing ephemeral moments from “Lost Holidays,” often beside sparkling aqua water in the summertime. In a slight pivot, your latest work captures “Lost Holidays” on snowy slopes in the wintertime. What has it been like painting these wintry ski scenes for Gallery MAR?
T.S. Harris: Surprisingly, it’s been a natural transition. I’ve been wanting to work on snow paintings for awhile now – I love skiing. Painting this new work is similar in the sense that I’m substituting snow for water. Regardless, I’m bringing in these large expanses of natural elements. Water is such a huge part of my paintings (whether you actually see it or not), and it’s the same with the snow. The figure is just part of the landscape, so whether it’s snow, sand, sky, or water, my paintings are landscapes with a figure in it. I treat the landscape with the same importance as the figure.
It’s fun because the winter series is so new for me. I love the graphic quality of the ski paintings. The skis and ski poles are just amazing to work with because they offer beautiful lines with the same kind of high contrast and natural light. I paint with the same kind of feeling as the summer scenes, but rather than bringing back memories of being next to the ocean, they bring back memories of being on top of a mountain.
Gallery MAR: I’m sure that’s a feeling many of our collectors can happily relate to. Now, you touched on high contrast and natural light being signature elements of your style. It reminds me of how your signature style has been poetically described as “Sunshine Noir.” Could you elaborate on what this phrase means to you?
T.S. Harris: Yes, I think it’s the perfect phrase for my work. The initial impression of my work is that it’s bright, it’s sunny, it’s colorful. Thus, the “sunshine.” That’s what people see in the first instant. Then people realize that there’s more to it than that. The work asks that you stay with it a minute, because there are all of these subtle connections to the past and present. There’s a lot more going on, and I think that’s what people really respond to. That’s the “noir” aspect.
I love it when collectors tell me what draws them to the artwork. It’s fascinating, because most of the time, they really hit the nail on the head: They’ll say “it’s about how life is precious and fleeting, so let’s enjoy this moment.”
Gallery MAR: Your work certainly has such depth, both emotionally and aesthetically. In that vein, could you walk us through a little of your artistic process?
T.S. Harris: Absolutely! With the oil paintings, they end up having so many layers to them that I work on quite a few at the same time. I’ll spend a couple of hours working on a piece, and then it’s really too wet to continue, so I’ll set it aside and work on another one. I’ll normally have a handful of paintings in progress at once, and I’ll always have a handful of imagery to work off of. I’ll be finishing up one painting right as I’m planning out another one.
“I think that great artwork will grow with the artist. I felt like I was growing, I was changing, so the artwork needed to change, too.” – T.S. Harris
Even still, it really feels like once I start painting, most of the work is already done. I know that sounds strange, but most of the work is finding imagery, choosing the colors, mapping out the composition, and all the planning. So I look through images until I find something that excites me, whatever it is. Most of the time, these images are in black and white, so I need to choose the colors. Then I need to decide the composition. I need to figure out if I need to crop it, manipulate it, or if I need a model. At this point in my career, I can just feel when the composition’s right and when it’s not.
Once I have the composition laid out, I get going on the early phases of the painting. There’s always a first layer of color which I let completely dry. Then I get all the lines in. I draw on the image with paint and wait until that layer is dry. By the third layer of paint, I can actually work in a more abstract way. I can let the brush strokes go, and I can be more spontaneous with color, and I can move with the paint in a more intuitive way. I actually love that it has multiple layers. It gives the work depth.
Gallery MAR: Well, we’re just thrilled to represent you and your work at Gallery MAR, and it’s been lovely chatting with you. Our last question to you is actually something we like to ask at the end of every artist interview, which is: What currently excites you in the studio (it could be subject matter, a series, a new media, a color, etc.)?
T.S. Harris: Well overall, I’m excited to be working with Gallery MAR. Maren’s mentioned that my work may be featured in the Carmel gallery, too, so I think it’ll be a perfect, perfect relationship. I’m really excited to get started with them.
But in the studio, I would say that the thing that I’m most excited about at the moment are the new winter paintings. They’re so fun! There are a few that have figures at these strange, compelling angles down in the lower left corner, with huge expanses of snow. It’s just working out so cool. I honestly can’t wait for this next batch of winter works!
Written by Veronica Vale