Sandlapper Society

Time-tested

Aiken celebrates 175 years with new and old paintings by the beloved Jim Harrison

by Mary Jane Howell

Jim Harrison started his career as an artist by painting signs. Now, some 40 years later, when he looks back on his life, he recalls the sidewalk sales from Ft. Lauderdale to Greenwich Village; having a sold-out show at the prestigious Hammer Galleries in New York City; the famed Frame House Gallery in Louisville creating many of his limited edition prints; and, most recently, creating 20 original paintings depicting Aiken for the city’s yearlong 175th birthday celebration, Celebrate Aiken!

arrison, 74, will be honored in a major exhibition of his life’s work, Jim Harrison: A Retrospective, April 1 – May 8 at the Aiken Center for the Arts. Included in the show will be the new Aiken pieces, which Harrison calls “Glimpses of Aiken.” These small, watercolor-style paintings are a new direction for the artist, whose works have ranged from depictions of sand dunes to the familiar rural farm scenes.

“For almost 40 years Jim Harrison has reflected rural America in his paintings and we feel privileged to bring this retrospective exhibition to the Aiken community and the Southeast,” notes Kristin Brown, the center’s executive director. “Mr. Harrison is one of the South’s finest and most productive painters. His well-documented body of paintings will be a worthy visual experience in American history.”

A fair question for Harrison at this stage of his career is why the change in painting style, so evident in “Glimpses of Aiken.” He laughs before answering: “I like painting in this looser, watercolor style,” he says, explaining that though he’s still using acrylics, they are water-based paints, allowing him to employ a freer technique if he chooses. “I’m promoting it as a new style, although I’ve done it for years as studies for larger, more detailed paintings. I’ve never focused on this style for a show, nor did I – until recently – realize these kinds of paintings have a good bit of appeal.”

Many of the paintings feature cottages and oak trees that could be anywhere in Aiken. They are not always specific locations, but rather subjects Harrison feels “are” Aiken. “Aiken is very special to me and when I heard about Celebrate Aiken! and all the events that were being planned, I wanted to be involved,” says Harrison, a native and resident of Denmark, in nearby Bamberg County. “I had lulled myself into thinking I didn’t need to promote myself, but I was a bit stunned to find out that many of the collectors of my work had died! I am now making a conscience effort to reach out towards young people and people who may not be familiar with my work.”

One of Harrison’s first big breaks came through an Aiken connection in the early 1970s. He fondly recalls the late Mrs. Henry Paxson, who had a large Thoroughbred racing stable in Aiken, visiting his gallery in Denmark. Not only did Mrs. Paxson have a keen eye for horses, but she was an avid collector of art. She fell in love with two large paintings – one of a dune, the other of a peaceful marsh scene. They were $3,000 a piece, and in that one afternoon Harrison saw his life change.

“Mrs. Paxson’s purchase of those two paintings gave me the freedom to stop traveling to all those sidewalk sales – and just concentrate on painting for a year,” he recalls. “It changed my life – and it also gave me a warm feeling for Aiken!”

Another important moment occurred when Hammer Galleries accepted his work for a one-man show in 1975 – and it sold out before opening night. Much like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Harrison had stood in front of the galleries’ darkened windows night after night during trips to New York, seeing himself as a true artist – an artist whose work would hang in such a gallery. “I had the vision – and I saw the route,” he explains. “There were several times in my life that I was in the right place at the right time and that made the difference. I also believe that good painting is 90 percent looking and 10 percent doing. If there is a talent it has to do with the ability to select a subject – and point out beauty in places and things where others might miss them.”

Harrison admits that his temperament has changed, and he’s more willing to go with the flow and emotion of a subject. About 10 years ago Harrison was painting under what he considers the “Wyeth influence.” The paintings were desolate, aching with loneliness – solitary barns, snow-swept hills, skeletal trees and grey skies. It was the Pennsylvania landscape – art and nature taken to its bare bones.

After several paintings in this style, Harrison returned to the landscape that was truly home – rural South Carolina and the Southern coast. Salt marshes, palmetto trees, rustic barns with faded Coca-Cola advertisements painted on their sides, cotton fields, train depots. These familiar scenes – and some surprises – will be in store for viewers of his exhibit. Harrison will attend the opening reception at the Aiken Center for the Arts April 1.

The exhibit heralds Celebrate Aiken’s April-June “Arts, Education and Entertainment” theme. As Bill Reynolds, Celebrate Aiken’s chairman, puts it: “There’s no grander way to kick it off.” 

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Writer Mary Jane Howell has covered arts, history, and chocolate festivals for Sandlapper. She lives in Aiken.

There is no charge to see “Glimpses of Aiken,” on view at the Aiken Center for the Arts, 122 Laurens Street, SW. For more information, call 803.641.9094. To learn more about Celebrate Aiken, visit celebrateaiken.com.


Photos courtesy Jim Harrison Gallery. Pictured top right: “Path Through the Woods,” acrylic on canvas, depicting autumn in Hitchcock Woods. Above: The artist at work in his Denmark studio. 


This article is sponsored by SCPRT and City of Aiken.