In many ways, 70-year-old Hugh Harrison is like a college student. He’s always taking classes and he waits until the last minute to get things done.
Despite his claims of using “important diversionary tactics” to procrastinate, Harrison is now exhibiting 71 works of art that he has produced in the past two years. Entitled “Works on Paper,” the exhibit is this month’s featured presentation in the City Hall Rotunda Gallery.
Coordinated by the Division of Cultural Affairs, the gallery exhibits a different Jersey City artist each month. Joan Moore, special project manager for the Division of Cultural Affairs, chooses the artists based on their portfolios and an interview process. “The goal is to give a diverse spectrum [of artists] the opportunity for exposure,” Moore said.
At a gallery reception on Dec. 13, Moore walked around the charcoal drawings with a wide smile. She said that Harrison’s exhibit was one of the most successful she had seen based on the number of works sold.
Harrison said his exhibit, which debuted on Dec. 4 and runs through Jan. 2, has already sold 16 pieces. “I’m happy because I really had no idea what the response would be,” Harrison said. “And of course you’re always happy if someone likes your stuff enough to buy it.”
Originally from the United Kingdom, Harrison studied art at the College of Art in Kent, England. During that time he concentrated his studies on “illuminating and lettering,” art processes that depend on a high degree of precision. But even when he was most consumed with the idea of attention to detail, an inner desire for artistic abstraction would sometimes surface. The work he produced for his graduation was a map of his home village designed on goatskin, in which he used turkey quills and raised gold leaves.
After graduating, Harrison embarked on a career in commercial design, creating the window displays for Simpson’s, a London clothing store. In 1958, he moved to the United States and began working for a consulting firm responsible for arranging window displays in various boutiques and department stores throughout New York City.
But after three decades of a practicing his craft professionally, Harrison began to feel artistically restricted by the routine that marked his career. He saw younger artists emerging with fresh perspectives and high-end ideas that he felt his work lacked. So he went back to school.
Since 1970, Harrison has taken drawing and composition classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Jack Potter, a mentor that Harrison continues to study under, helped him embrace an entirely new approach to creating art that continues to change. “It forced me out of my realism,” Harrison said.
Eventually, he also gained a renewed sense of purpose. “I’m not doing it to please other people,” Harrison said. “I’m doing it to please me.”
In “Works on Paper,” Harrison displays his most recent collection of abstract drawings. Using something that Potter describes as the “premise of opposition,” Harrison has created many charcoal drawings that focus on contrasting images. While one person in a sketch is drawn with a minimal amount of lines and curves, another person or object receives significantly more detail.
For Harrison, the pleasure of creating these objects in opposition exists in the visual relationships that emerge. Something with little detail stands out. Something with a lot of detail hides. Rather than be a slave to detail, he has learned to enjoy the possibilities that occur when realism is abandoned.
As a long-time admirer of Pablo Picasso, Harrison hopes that his work constantly undergoes a transformation. “Picasso is wonderful because he was always doing something different, always changing,” he said. As one views Harrison’s dozens of sketches that play with the form and shape of objects and people, Picasso’s influence becomes clear.
But Harrison is most pleased with his ability to withdraw from the urge of including every detail possible in his work. In doing so, he has come to appreciate the value of abstraction. “I think my work is getting looser,” Harrison said, comfortable with the strides his technique has made over the years of training.
However, Harrison admits that abstractionists have told him that his most abstract work still falls on the realistic side.
While he has found inspiration and renewal through his changing approaches to the drawing board, his attention to detail continues to earn him a living. Since 1994, Harrison has worked as a freelance illustrator, selling art to magazines, book publishers, and documentarians requesting storyboards.
Harrison overcomes his instinct to procrastinate by forcing himself to keep busy through his freelance assignments and class assignments. Reflecting on his age, he wryly commented, “I better do it now, otherwise I’ll never do it.”