ART & COMMUNITY: Interview with Painter Bill Harris
(Interviewer: Rachel Hicks, Art & Editor for SPACES)
Bill Harris is a painter who began his artistic journey with the hope of becoming a syndicated illustrator. After years of mastering his craft and hundreds of paintings later, he now works primarily in oil paints, but has also developed a reputation for beautiful murals, as well as eye-catching posters and CD covers for businesses and musicians. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but in the mid-90s, moved to Virginia where his passion for art became his profession. Working closely with live models to create intimate narratives, Bill Harris has succeeded in capturing raw emotion through his mastery of color and elaborate compositions. His studio, where he teaches painting, is located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he lives with his wife, Karen and three sons Jacob, Sam and Ben.
Rachel: How many years have you’ve been painting?
Bill: In oils, twenty, but before that, it would’ve been watercolors and pen and ink, so you can easily add another ten to that. I’m forty-five, so even as a young kid – I’m an only child – I was always drawing little pictures and cartoons.
Rachel: Were you self-taught?
Bill: Yeah, I actually was an athlete in high school, played football and baseball, but I was also the class artist. I was cartooning for the newspaper and was voted Class Artist. Out of high school, I went to a community college and I was a fine art major. I only did it for a year and then I quit and just got a job. At this point, I was a pen and ink guy. I actually wanted to be a syndicated artist, and for years I was trying to become an artist and that didn’t pan out. Somewhere along the line, a friend of mine’s dad died. and the family asked me if I knew anyone who could paint the guy’s portrait. I said I know I can draw it, so I said I’d try and paint it. I bought paints and did it.
Rachel: And was that oil paint?
Bill: That was the first time I ever painted in oils. They liked it, but I think it was a disaster. But they liked it enough, and for me, it was like, “Well, that is pretty cool.” You saw me teaching: the ironic thing is that I’ve never had an oil painting class in my life. Now, I’ve done it a long time, but I’ve also studied it myself through books and things like that.
Rachel: So you started out in pen and ink. You said you wanted to be a cartoonist?
Bill: Cartoons and comics are distributed through Universal Press Syndicate; Artist Syndicate is another. So you send your strips in and they say, “That’s good” or “That stinks.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, you get a letter back that says, “We aren’t accepting new artists at this time.” Once in a while you’ll get a handwritten thing: “Hey, we like what you’re doing, it doesn’t fit us right now but keep trying.” See, if they like your stuff you need at least 100 more, so they can see the progression. I would send photocopies along with a form letter saying, “What do you think?” Then I started being creative, saying, “I’m trying to wallpaper my apartment in rejection letters. Can you help me out?” It worked and they found it clever. Toward the tail end, I had a roommate and we were 23, 24 years old. What do guys that age do? I was drunk at eight in the morning on a Wednesday, shit-faced, drinking scotch all night and the President of the Syndicate calls me. It was shocking. That just does not happen. I was drunk and couldn’t even talk. Then I realized the gravity of the situation, and it was a disaster. I was crushed. I had a little shot and I blew it. You take things like that and use them.
Rachel: Is there any particular reason or experience where you draw your concepts? A lot of struggling women, glimpses of poverty, and obvious reflections of Fredericksburg: how is your life reflected in your paintings?
Bill: These are ideas that I feel and I have. They could easily be me, but nobody wants to see a painting of me. Take the same emotion and make it a little more pretty. They are all the same—escape, you know? The feeling like I got to get the hell out of here, but make it visually appealing. And Fredericksburg is my sound stage. Like the painting of the girl cutting the other girl’s hair–that could be about change.
Rachel: Are your models locals? How do you choose them?
Bill: I pick the classic girl next door. They might work in local restaurants, local shops. They don’t have a lot, trying to make ends meet, but they are beautiful in their own way.
Rachel: If you could give a bit of advice to an aspiring artist, what would you say? There are a lot of people who don’t think it is realistic to do this for a living. What would you say to them?
Bill: You have to paint what you love. Funny thing is–I don’t love painting. I don’t love sitting here with a paintbrush in my hand. What I do love is driving in my car and having this idea pop up in my head. Time it all–it’s exciting having this concept and seeing it in the flesh. You have to do a lot of paintings, be very prolific. You have to promote yourself; get out there and make it happen. I moved here in ’96 from Philly and I was doing a lot of murals in restaurants and nurseries. I didn’t know anybody, but I read in the newspaper that these two girls had opened a restaurant. I was already painting wall murals in Philadelphia, so I went into this place and said, “Hey look, I just moved here. How about I do a wall mural for free?” Doing it for free was great. If they’d paid me a couple hundred, it wouldn’t have mattered. I wasn’t doing it for the money. Next week guy calls me – Dan Finnegan, now a friend of mine – and wants me to do a mural down Hanover and Sophia. A girl called me and said she saw the mural and asked if I could do a CD cover for her. Absolutely. So I do another CD cover. Now things are happening. You meet people. In The Blue Dog music store, where I went for my music, I had an idea. I said, “Hey, I’m an artist, how about I do a poster for free? You can just hand it out to people when they buy CDs.” It’s a business card. Do what you like and network; spread your name. Doing a CD cover or doing a poster is worth so much more than whatever you get paid for it. Some kid takes that poster home; his friend sees it and says, “Bill Harris did that.” When I moved down here, I had 300 paintings. They were small, and there was The Eyeclopes Gallery. The owner gave me a big space and high ceilings, and said, “It’s your wall, do what you want.” I was just lucky enough to have 300 paintings. There wasn’t an inch between them. They did it for three years. The first year I think I sold sixty, second year, forty. Now I was selling them for $50-$100 max. All of these things were happening at once–the murals, CD and posters. By the time I hung paintings, somebody would say, “Who did that?” and the answer–“Bill Harris, he did the mural and he did those CD covers”–gave me a name.
Rachel: You live and work in a pretty conservative area, and a lot of your work has images of guns and nudity. Have you found problems with locals for painting things like that?
Bill: Well, to Fredericksburg’s credit, there are a lot of people like that, but those are the people who also aren’t buying paintings – actually that’s a stereotype of this area. Fredericksburg is really diverse, made up of government workers; the college is here. There are a lot of interesting people in this town, famous actors, and famous writers. That stereotypical crusty Fredericksburg person–yeah, they hate what I do.
I always keep music going, so people know I’m working in here. One time, and for whatever reason, my Ipod was dead or something, and there was a lady walking around. Clearly she had been here before and was showing someone around. She comes walking around and says, “Oh, this guy. I don’t know why everyone likes him, his stuff is so gloomy and so dark.” No matter what you do – a writer, a musician, an artist – you are going to have that. There will always be people who hate what you do. But there are enough people who like it. If you go to my website, there are a lot of Sold tabs on there, some I’m not even sure why.
Rachel: Some of that success surely comes from the fact that you’ve made such a connection in the area where you live. How did connecting with the area help you?
Bill: I needed models and I was staying at the bars a lot, so who was I going to use? Someone who people knew, local models. Say I did a painting of you, well, your family and friends want to see it, and now they all know my name. Slow process, but it’s about the networking. You gotta infiltrate. It makes sense to me and you because we’re artists. You don’t do it for the money. You do it because you have to. That’s the difference between someone who likes to paint and an artist–an artist has to do this. Like if I don’t, I get the shakes.
Rachel: Yes sir, withdrawal.
Bill: That’s how you know. That’s what I say to people starting out–are you like that? Could you go three months, or a day, without painting?
Rachel: Three months?! No way.
Bill: If they loved it, they would do it and nobody would be able to tell them any different. They will become successful. Since ’95, I’ve made a living from this, but from ’85-’95, I worked a job and painted every night.
Rachel: What did you do for a full time job?
Bill: I worked in a hardware store. I loved the people, learning people. One of the things I think I’m okay at is body language and figuring people out helps me with this. Also, I was the manager of the painting department, so that helped the art. I wasn’t wasting those ten years, I was painting, I was learning my craft. By the time ’95 came around, I’d done it for ten years.
Rachel: Yeah, people come out of art school thinking they’ll put their stuff in a gallery and make it, but that’s not the case.
Bill: What’s worked for me is building outwards. This past year I’ve showed in England, California and other places. Those are really hard places to develop because I’m not there. You have to be there to network, to make an impact. Now when I did my show at Kybecca, a local wine bar, I think I sold fifteen out of the nineteen paintings. Two weeks ago I sold a painting to a couple in North Carolina. This is my place; this is where they find me. With that center, I’ve reached out and done juried shows. Both are good–just don’t turn down anything that’s a network.
Rachel: Where do you see your career going from here?
Bill: My goal in life is to get better, and I think I do. I think if you’re trying, you’ll always get better until you get worse. I still do murals, but I don’t advertise it. I still have to do those things. I teach, but I get paid for it too. There is a balance. Every artist goes through it. They can overlap.
Rachel: Do you feel you’ll keep painting once your eyesight goes?
Bill: I’ll have to. I have no choice.
Rachel: Is there anything else that you’d like our readers to know about what Art & Community means to you?
Bill: My work is serving some function in the community by being a part of it, living in it, observing it, holding the mirror up to it. I try to support the community and, in turn, it fully supports me.
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