SOME/TALK : SCI-FI ARTIST 'JOHN HARRIS'
John Harris (born in 1948) is a British artist specializing in science fiction and fantasy art.
With not much visual culture to speak of in his family, Harris found himself in the post-war landscapes of England where he grew up. After graduating at Exeter in 1970, he spent 6 years traveling and studying meditation. Followed by spending a large amount of time producing work for the commercial sector of science fiction in the 70's and 80's. Including a commissioned assignment for NASA's art program.
We contacted him to discuss about his development throughout the years and his current projects.
First, you started painting at a quite young age, who were your influences and what made you paint back then? Who were your influences later on when studying painting at the Luton College of Art?
I grew up in the post-war southern counties of England. Though there was not much visual culture to speak of in my family, I was acutely aware from a very early age, of the landscape in which I found myself. In those days, the area to the south of London still bore the traces of heavily mechanized conflict, and the imagery of deserted airfields, of abandoned concrete bunkers buried in the scrubby young woods reclaiming their territory, all had a deep effect upon my imagination. But I don't recall drawing and painting at all until my secondary school, when my art teacher noticed I had a" certain way of seeing". However, I was not really aware of any artists describing 'my' world, until I went to art college in the mid-sixties and became aware of Graham Sutherland and John Piper amongst others.
After your graduated in 1970, you travelled for 6 years and studied meditation. I can see how painting and meditation go hand in hand. But I am curious why you made this decision and where you travelled?
My period as a student was not auspicious, and I had a real difficulty reconciling two parts of my nature. On one hand I had the practical, earthbound painter's nature, on the other, that of a dreamer, suffering from migraine- induced 'visions'. I had always had a tendency to the mystical, and learned the practice of meditation while I was still at college. When you consider that this was the late sixties, I guess it's inevitable that I, like many of my contemporaries , took to the road as soon as I could. I had intended to make my way to India but remained in Europe.
The places you visited, did they influence your development as a Science-Fiction artist?
Not noticeably, until much later.
In the 1980's you spent large amount of time producing work in the Science-Fiction genre for the commercial sector. Can you tell me more about your projects during this time and which ones were the most inspiring and influenced the genre to this day?
Actually it was from the late 70's, that all those images that made my career first erupted. As early as 1977, a publisher, Phillip Dunn gave me the opportunity to produce a series of paintings, entirely self-generated, over a period of about a year. These paintings formed the basis of the book MASS which fuelled a huge amount of commercial work. The images were very personal, and I was not really aware of any particular influences which shaped them except my own experiences and feelings that were born out of a certain perspective.
How do you reflect on the current Science-Fiction genre compared to the 70's and 80's?
When I first came into contact with the genre, the writers of that time were expressing a spirit of immense aspiration and expansiveness. This was the era of the Space Race, culminating in the landing on the Moon, of 2001 a Space Odyssey, and Silent Running. It seemed to me at the time, to be an age of awakening and there was a freshness, full of joy, surrounding the age. It is true that many dystopian visions also came out at that time, but the overriding sense was one of optimism . Then much of that energy fell away and a more materialistic age dominated things, particularly in the 90's. But I have sensed a sea change in the last year or two. The re-emergence of the Space effort and rise of film directors like Christopher Nolan may be part of it. This may be more a reflection of my age rather than a true assessment of how things have changed, but for whatever reason, I feel that something of the luminosity which I felt so strongly in those days appears to have returned.
Later on in the 80's you got invited to join the NASA art program and record launch of a space shuttle. How was it to witness this event?
This was for me a "making flesh" of that spirit I have just alluded to. When you actually visit the Cape site and see those launch gantries standing there, all pointing up to the sky, it brings home how close space actually is. And to watch a launch , with all that committed energy pointing in one direction , really brings it into reality. It made me aware that I'm part of it, of human evolution, as we all are, whether we're aware of it or not.
Inspired by this commission, you began to work on paintings which reflected man's relationship with earth and the resulting projects you called ''The Secret History Of The Earth''. Is this an ongoing project and can you tell me more about why you chose to go for an aerial perspective in these series?
Yes, this is a project which certainly has room to grow and I've barely scratched the surface.
The choice of that perspective is a crucial one is several regards. Firstly, it evokes the viewpoint of an astronaut who has the privilege of seeing his home in a new light, which reveals the 'secret history' of the surface of the Earth, invisible from the ground. It also gives me the freedom from the 'illustrative' view of things while remaining representational and allows me to tip the balance towards abstraction, to create an image, not just of what is represented, but of what it actually is, ie. a coloured and textured surface that evokes feelings about the Earth.
I've always been interested in man reforming the natural landscape and architecture being a method of reforming the earth's surface. How do you see ''man's relationship with earth'' ?
We are the product of the Earth, and part of its history. Although much of our efforts in the past have been to demonstrate our 'dominion' over it, in reality, of course, this not the case. Whatever we do, is part of the Earth's effort. Our intelligence is the Earth's intelligence. We are not separate. That said, we can make the Earth sterile, or we can increase its fertility. We can make it an environment that is friendly to life, or hostile. The call is ours. Personally, I think the 'exploitation' of the Earth's material resources is like selling the family silver. Once it's gone, it's gone forever. But our huge reserves of creativity (which is also the Earth's creativity) are capable ofmeeting any challenge. I believe our only real problem may be overpopulation.
You've broadened your work to include a whole range of styles and content. You call it ''Imaginative Realism''. Can you tell me more about this and what made you work out of your ''comfort zone'' ?
The way I use that term is very literally, to make real , that which is imagined. I dream up in my imagination, worlds, landscapes etc. and paint them as if they were in front of me. As if I were a traveller amongst the stars, recording what I saw. Ironically, since I'm supposed to be a 'science-fiction' artist who imagines the future, I see it as an ancient art, which mankind has practiced since the dawn of self-awareness. I'm inclined to think that imagination is the most basic tool that evolution has given us, and the source of all our powers. As for working out of my comfort zone, I have never really felt that I have done that, in as much all I ever try to do is to create imagery which expresses my feelings. That is my comfort zone. The manner and techniques by which I do it, are almost incidental.
Are you currently working on new projects and can we expect more future films?
Yes, this journeying through an unknown landscape, continuously throws up new things, mostly centering around architecture, which takes up my time at the moment. There is a third film in development, which explores the world of The Hidden Sun.
Your philosophy in one sentence?
No pressure there, then!
I don't even know when I came into being! So what do I know? I only know that we live in a vast mystery, and our time together as individuals within it, is limited. When I remember this, it changes things, making us and our work a bit more magical.
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