When Anne Harris was a child, she loved to draw on sheets of butcher paper with her siblings and mother. If no paper was available, she would draw in the air. As Dr. Seuss would say, she drew and drew and drew.
In first grade, she started drawing faces.
"I became obsessed with pretty faces — pictures in magazines, cartoon stylizations of pretty faces, makeup ... these waxy faced females ... so I was making a face by drawing the surface mask — weirdly the same issues I'm still pondering."
Harris will share her ponderings, influences and process in a free artist talk at 7 p.m., Friday, March 21 in ETSU's Ball Hall Auditorium, with a Q&A and reception with the artist to follow.
Nowadays, the art professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago paints torsos as well and, most often, the subject is some illusory image of herself.
"To sum it up simplistically," Harris said in National Portrait Gallery Face to Face blog, "I've been painting the same freaky self-portrait for the last 25 years."
Her freaky self-portraits with "ghoulish red-rimmed eyes" and "distortions of weirdly lit flesh" have been called "seductively beautiful and disturbingly ugly," searing in honesty and brutally frank. In a 2013 exhibition in New York, Harris dubbed them "phantasmatical" — unreal and fantastic.
"I tend, inevitably, to veer toward the grotesque, although I'm never aiming for that," she told Huffington Post reviewer John Seed. "Really, my best paintings seem to happen between subtlety and the grotesque ... I realize I'm trying to make a beautiful painting of a subject many won't consider beautiful."
ETSU painting Professor Mira Gerard has followed Harris' work for years and interviewed her in December for "Figure/Ground Communication." Gerard does find beauty in the technique, if not always the topic and thinks the ETSU community will also.
"I think her paintings are hard not to love, even if the imagery seems bizarre," Gerard says. "They're so beautifully crafted. There's so much luminosity in her tonal shifts and the way she handles the light on the flesh of the figures. They are just gorgeous paintings ...
"If somebody thought the paintings were weird I would say, 'What if instead of being something that is calming and pretty, you think about the work in the way you would think about a really complex book you would read or a song that puts you in a mood?' Sometimes people think about paintings and they want them to be very pleasing and pretty ... A movie can be scary. Why can't a painting be considered scary? Maybe a painting can be something other than one idea."
Harris and her psychological self-portraits can bring much to the conversation, says Anita DeAngelis, director of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, co-sponsor with ETSU's Department of Art & Design.
"The artists we help Art & Design bring to speak are often discussed or included for instructional purposes in classrooms or artists who are on the cutting edge or getting some attention in the contemporary art world," DeAngelis says. "Anne Harris serves in both capacities — and she is not only a well-known painter but also a longtime art educator."
Harris, who holds a bachelor of fine arts from Washington University in St. Louis and an MFA from Yale, indeed proffers a rich rsum. She has participated in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions. Exhibitions from the past year include her solo exhibition "Phantasmatical: Self Portraits" at Alexandre Gallery in New York; the "OBPC" exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery; "The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World" at the PAFA Museum; and "The Mind's I," a collaborative drawing project organized by Harris at Julius Caesar Gallery, Chicago. She also teaches in the BFA and MFA programs at SAIC and lives in Riverside, Ill., just outside Chicago.
She brings "touches of the Old Masters" to her work and to discussions of art, with a love for art regardless of time period, as long as, she says, "it mesmerizes."
"I make it a point, when teaching, to discuss all art as contemporary, that it all exists now," Harris said in her interview with Gerard. "That paintings can be widely diverse in subject matter and yet offer a similar experience, be about something fundamentally akin. So, at the AIC, I'll take my students to see the [Dieric] Bouts "Sorrowing Madonna," and we'll then go see an Ad Reinhardt black painting and will talk about the commonalities."
Her breadth of knowledge, understanding and perspective will benefit all who come to the Friday evening talk, as well as studio and classroom visits while Harris is in town, Gerard says.
"Anne has a gift of being able to communicate ideas about looking more deeply at art and she will be able to talk to students in such a way that they might bring that back to where they are sitting in art history class or in a museum and just slow down and unpack the mysteries of great work," she says. "That is such a valuable thing and as a young student it was probably the most important thing that helped me grow ... She has a way of communicating ideas that is compelling."
Although, it is not all pretty, expected and/or classical, the Chicago painter has a lot to communicate, in her work and in her discussions online and in person.
"I hope the work produces questions, instead of just answers," Harris said in an interview with Blouin Art Info at "Phantasmatical." "We actually had a student in Advanced Painting Studio here who asked, in his final crit, if his paintings were answers or questions — a brilliant way to begin a critique. My hope is that mine function as questions — that they leave you wondering.
"The meaning is going to come from the conversation it has with you."
For information about the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or the artist talk, call (423) 439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. "Like" ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts on Facebook and follow it on Twitter and Instagram @ArtsAtETSU.