The Sorcerer of Pleasant Lane An alchemist at work
By Mark Segal
Pleasant Lane in East Hampton Village is an unassuming cul-de-sac off Newtown Lane between Mary’s Marvelous and the Suffolk County National Bank. Not the kind of street where you’d expect to find an alchemist at work in a studio hidden by dense privet, transforming molten beeswax, resin, and pigment into thickly painted surfaces from which she excavates an expansive range of swirling, mutating forms.
Tracy Harris is the sorcerer of Pleasant Lane, which she calls "a cool little street. It’s a multicultural community, where a lot of the people have little kids and pets, and my dog, Ruby, knows them all."
The road to Pleasant Lane began in Lawton, Okla., from which she moved as a toddler to Dallas, where her father joined the firm of George Dahl, a prominent architect there. She lived in Dallas until she was 10. Then, she said, eliciting a double take from a visitor, "We started moving around Southeast Asia for four years, mostly in Bangkok." Her father was a civilian architect who became head of architecture and engineering for the Thailand regional exchange of the Army and Air Force.
"We lived in Honolulu briefly, Guam, Manila, but longest in Thailand. At first I was terribly homesick. It was very unfamiliar, and I was a really tall kid, freakishly tall, even in the States. So in Bangkok I was taller than everyone. But it became home, so when we eventually moved back to Texas, that was very hard to get used to."
She earned a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. from Southern Methodist University. Creativity was encouraged in the Harris household. "My parents met in art school, were both art students, so there were always fabulous supplies in the house, and we were allowed to make anything and leave projects around."
After graduation, she taught painting at several Dallas colleges, worked as a museum educator for five years at the Dallas Museum of Art, and was a guest lecturer at the University of Dallas and the University of Texas in Arlington. During that period she exhibited her work in galleries and museums throughout Texas.
At the Dallas Art Museum, Ms. Harris worked with Julie Cochran, who was the niece of the Abstract Expressionist painters James Brooks and Charlotte Parks, who lived in Springs. When Brooks died, Ms. Cochran came to East Hampton for his funeral and ran into Dan Flavin, whom she knew from previous visits and whose fluorescent light sculptures had established him as one of the leading artists of his time.
"Dan told her he wanted to meet a tall brunette who was an artist. Julie said, ‘You should meet my friend Tracy,’ " and when she returned to Dallas she told Ms. Harris she’d given Flavin her number.
"We started writing to each other and became friends through letters. I had to come up to New York anyway to see about a gallery, and we met for lunch and wound up closing the restaurant on our first date. We were married six weeks later."
The wedding took place at the Guggenheim Museum when it reopened, after an extensive renovation, with an exhibition of Flavin’s work. "So that’s how I got here."
Flavin died four years later, but Ms. Harris has remained here, moving around before finding the house and garage, which she converted to a studio, in the village.
"It’s home here," she said. "Part of it is its history, but it also has a great group of artists. The physical beauty of the place is amazing. Because I moved around so much as a kid, it never occurred to me toeave Dallas, but when I moved here. . . ." She trailed off. "How could anyone want to live anywhere else?"
When Ms. Harris first came to East Hampton she was doing very large work on both wood and Masonite and using wax emulsion and oil, "sort of the same materials I’m using now. I usually work on hard surfaces, because I often add wax and heavy materials and sometimes incise into them. Canvas can’t stand up to that."
In a corner of the studio were several hotplates and bricks of encaustic pigment, which she mixes with beeswax and resin. "You can make it as transparent as you want to. It goes on in layers, and between every layer you have to fuse it with a heat gun or something like an iron. It’s tough, labor-intensive, and time-consuming, but it’s magical because you never know quite what it’s going to do." When she’s working in wax she will go back and forth between drawing and painting, sometimes deliberately covering up images and then scraping back into them.
All the work in the artist’s studio was unfinished. Some of her paintings have spiraling motifs, rendered with the precision of scientific or architectural drawings. In one work in progress, the black emulsion is a thin wax surface on which she draws, or incises, with a nail or an etching needle. Another large canvas contained an almost staggering variety of forms – a sketchy step-pyramid, crystalline shapes, swirling lines, and much more – all of it colorful and dynamic, as if everything is about to whirl off the canvas. While there are similarities among her paintings, with curvilinear forms appearing in many, her range of invention is such that each work is unique.
"They’re all abstract paintings," she said, "but they’re all like stories to me, the way they process information. Everything I’m reading or looking at or everything that’s going on in my life comes out in my painting. I don’t deliberately make images, and I’ll be surprised when there are resemblances to certain things. Sometimes I start by drawing on the surface, and sometimes I start by making a gesture with paint across the canvas and then doing something in response to that."
Ms. Harris is currently having her second solo exhibition, "Testaments," with the Gerald Peters Gallery in Manhattan. Locally, she has shown at the Southampton Cultural Center, the Peter Marcelle Project in Southampton, and the erstwhile Benton, Spanierman, and Arlene Bujese galleries. Her work is in a number of public collections, including those of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Telfair Museum, Savannah, the Amarillo Museum of Art, and the Paris-Maclean Foundation in Paris.
TRACY HARRIS "TESTAMENTS"
November 12 – January 8, 2016
GERALD PETERS GALLERY
235 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022
Open Monday through Friday 10am – 5pm
and Saturdays 12 – 5pm