Sunday, September 4, 2011

Evolution of an artist

Juneau resident Harrison has tried just about everything

Gordon Harrison works in his home shop on Tuesday.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Gordon Harrison works in his home shop on Tuesday.

Gordon Harrison is an extremely busy retired person.
When he and his wife, retired Juneau family practitioner Sarah Isto, built their Juneau home 27 years ago they built a garage so Harrison would have a space and tools to create art. Since then, the garage has never housed a car.
His garage studio, located on top of the hill above Juneau-Douglas High School, has sweeping views of the channel and Douglas Island.
These days it serves primarily as a shop for his latest passion: ceramics.
“I started taking courses out here at the University in clay with Todd Turek, I took at least four semesters with him and learned how to work with clay,” Harrison said.
He combines his woodturning skills with ceramics to make pottery that rises up out of a mold. He makes intricate woodworked pieces like beaks and feet, which he adds as finishing touches to his ceramic pieces.
As it turns out there aren’t a lot of people using this technique.
“I kept looking in all the clay magazines and books about surface treatments and surface textures and things and nobody was describing this technique I was doing — and I thought that was strange because I didn’t invent it — but nobody was writing about it,” he said.
Harrison sent off a query to one of the main clay magazines and ended up writing an article on the subject.
“I sent them pictures of what I was doing and she was really excited about it and jumped on it — so (an) article was the result.”
Making ceramic pieces gives Harrison a thrill.
“It may sound corny but it is a joy to make some of those pieces,” he said. “I see those figures come up, those birds and fish come up out of the clay, it’s just absolutely thrilling when I do it ... and I do it just for the pleasure of seeing it.”
He doesn’t earn much money from his work, but to Harrison it doesn’t matter.
“If you don’t sell them, you can’t just keep making them. I mean all my friends have all the fish plates they are ever going to want so what do you do? By selling them it keeps me active and it keeps me working on new designs,” he said.
Currently, Harrison has his pieces on display at the Juneau Artists Gallery where he is also a board member.

Room to go
His latest art endeavor has been the culmination of years of trying out different art forms since childhood.
“(Art) is just something that’s been compelling in me — and again, I don’t feel like I have any great talent, I have a nice sense of design and so on — but it’s just been a compelling need to physically make things with my hands, and if you have that you just have to give it room to go,” Harrison said.
One of his first artistic passions was blacksmithing, which he picked up while he was a professor of political science in Fairbanks. He also took glass workshops, and eventually started making jewelry.
“I got on a jewelry jag, I was making belt buckles for a while and I came up with a really nice design for belt buckles. So, I thought about making those but there was just too much work in it,” he said.
Harrison then turned to woodturning, which also ran its course because it was too repetitive and restrictive.
“Wood turning these big bowls — you have a tremendous amount of time invested in it and most of that time is just sanding — but it’s just really hard to get the money out of it. It’s just not worth it to spend that much time and you can’t charge that much for it,” Harrison said.
He also worked with wood doing carpentry and building furniture for their remote family cabins in Denali and on Admiralty Island.

Finding Alaska
Harrison was born in Stockton, Calif. In June of 1969, he simultaneously completed his Ph.D in political science from Claremont Graduate School and his master’s in journalism from the University of California Berkley. In October of 1969, he took a job teaching at the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Fairbanks, but Alaska had been on his radar for a while.
“I always had a childhood fantasy about Alaska, and between my freshman and sophomore year of college I spent a summer, this was in 1962 or so, in Kodiak logging and at the end of that I went out on a commercial fishing boat. The next summer, I came up to Kodiak and worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a stream guard. It was the best job of my life,” Harrison said.
“They took us way out in the boondocks and left us with a boat and flew in every two weeks and brought us food and mail and left us alone again, and oh god it was wonderful … I think I’ve been always trying to reconstruct that summer. That was my introduction to Alaska and I just absolutely loved it.”
Fairbanks was where he met his wife, but the weather turned out to be too brutal for him, and he was drawn to Juneau.
“I’d begun to do a lot of traveling with a project I was working on in Fairbanks, and it brought me into Juneau in winter I saw Juneau and said ‘this is where I want to live.’ It was just magical to me.”
They moved to Washington for about seven years so his wife could continue her education as a doctor and Harrison did consultant work with Dames and Moore in Seattle.
He ended up living in Juneau for a legislative session while working for Fran Ulmer in 1978 and was hooked. When his wife completed her medical education in Washington it was his turn to pick where they lived and he picked Juneau. Here he spent years as the director of the Legislative research agency from which he retired.

Continuing evolution
In addition to his different art ventures, Harrison has been doing photography, studying calligraphy and has now gotten fired-up about papermaking thanks to David Riccio of Lemon Creek Digital.
His wife said she has enjoyed seeing her husband’s constant evolution.
“I don’t care about traveling to exotic places, I just cherish the time I have to fool around with art,” Harrison said.
He also admitted it was a luxury.
“I’ve had the luxury to just indulge myself and a lot of people don’t have that — they are just trying to get by,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people that have talent that are never going to be able to do anything with it, because art you know doesn’t pay. I mean a few people can make a living as artists but they have to be good and have somehow figured it out and found a niche.”
“That bothers me about society, you know, because society doesn’t reward art,” he said. “People are not willing to spend much on it, they’ll spend $400 on getting their car repaired and think nothing of it, but spending $400 on a painting — I mean, they just won’t do it.”
With all Harrison’s education and numerous careers, one may wonder how he has accomplished all he has.
“You can get a lot done if you don’t watch television,” Harrison said with a laugh.
See more of Harrison’s work at the Juneau Artists Gallery.

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