Hugh Harrell Jr.
Hugh Harrell Jr., a former Baltimore sculptor and painter, died Wednesday of cardiac arrest at a hospital in Hampton, Va. He was 82.
Born and raised in Hampton, Mr. Harrell exhibited an interest in painting and drawing at an early age. By the time he was 12, he was sitting in on art classes at what is now Hampton University.
He attended Phoenix High School in Hampton until enlisting in the Navy during World War II. He served aboard a minesweeper, the USS Hogan, in the Pacific Theater.
After being discharged in 1946, he returned to Hampton, where he worked as a welder and a barber.
"Between cutting hair, he worked on his artwork," said a son, Bruce Harrell of Hampton, a former Baltimore artist.
In 1959, Mr. Harrell left Hampton and moved to New York to study and paint, and with a partner established the Soul Gallery in Greenwich Village.
With his work beginning to be recognized, Mr. Harrell was given a scholarship to study drawing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
He also studied printmaking at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and sculpture at the Johnson Atelier Foundry in Princeton, N.J.
Mr. Harrell left New York in the 1960s and returned to Hampton, where he owned and operated a studio and gallery, until moving to a Victorian rowhouse across from Druid Hill Park in the early 1980s, when he established Harrell Art.
"Hugh Harrell's gallery on Auchentoroly Terrace is as far away in look and spirit from the fancy downtown galleries as a lively, working Paris atelier is from the IBM Building," observed a Sun reporter in a 1991 profile.
"Here there are no stark and sterile white walls, no polished wood floors, no eyeball spots on slightly disembodied works of art. No manicured and suited sales associates whisper, 'May I help you?' "
Instead, visitors entered a world where every inch of wall space was covered with oil paintings, watercolors, charcoals and pastels.
"Faces stare out from the walls. Beautiful or plain, they all have a haunting sweetness, as if some spark, some bit of spirit, stayed behind in the image when the person sitting for the portrait walked away," reported The Sun.
In his studio proper, "thick, gilded frames both filled and empty, lean against the walls," reported the Sun. "In the front, near uncurtained windows, easels hold portraits in progress."
If that wasn't enough, wood or bronze sculptures, some finished and others incomplete, sat on a large wooden table.
Mr. Harrell's marriage to the late actress Beah Richards, from whom he was divorced, brought him to the attention of stars such as Marlon Brando, Phyllis Diller and Stevie Wonder, who purchased his artwork for their collections. Rosa Parks and author James Baldwin also were friends who included Mr. Harrell's works in their collections.
Mr. Harrell enjoyed telling a story about Mr. Baldwin, whom he met in California when he gave an art show. The author of Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time had admired some of Mr. Harrell's paintings.
"I called the next day and asked was he interested in buying them. And he said he didn't know. How much did I want for them? I quoted him a price and he said, 'You're a damn fool,' " Mr. Harrell said in the 1991 interview.
"And then there was the great long pause. Finally he said, 'Send them over.' He thought I was a damn fool for selling them at the price - which I know now is true. But I carried them over to him."
In the warm months, Mr. Harrell enjoyed working on the front porch of his house where passers-by often were invited up for a chat and a look at what he was creating at the moment.
He installed an orange light on his porch, and when it was turned on, it was a signal that he was receiving visitors.
"Orange represents good health," he told The Sun, "so I put an orange light on to welcome people in good health to come in."
Mr. Harrell's son recalled the day that Mr. Baldwin came up on the porch and talked to his father, who eventually painted a life-sized portrait of the noted author, who died in 1987.
"You would never know who would show up on his front porch. It could be Dr. Ben Carson, the pediatric surgeon, or even Mayor Kurt Schmoke," his son said.
His work is also included in the permanent collections of the African Heritage Center at Yale University, both the library and Third World Center at Princeton University, the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City as well as Hampton University and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Mr. Harell left Baltimore in 1998 and returned to Hampton, where he spent the last decade continuing to work as an artist.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Smith Brothers Funeral Home in Hampton.
In addition to his son, Mr. Harrell is survived by two other sons, Hugh Harrell III and Pernell Harrell, both of Hampton; two daughters, Brenda Harrell of Germantown and Latera Chestnut of Birmingham, Ala.; seven grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter. An earlier marriage to Pearl Charity also ended in divorce.
Profile - 1995
The faces of past and present surround Hugh Harrell in the studio/gallery/living room of his home. He's somehow wedged among life-size paintings of James Baldwin and Miles Davis, and a sculpture consisting only of a head and feet. As usual, he's creating. He's the artist-in-residence and proprietor of Harrell-Art, a rowhouse-turned-art gallery that overlooks Druid Hill Park on the corner of Auchentoroly Terrace and Gwynns Falls Parkway in West Baltimore. More than 300 portraits, drawings and sculptures grace the first floor of his home, and Mr. Harrell has no designs to part with most of his creations. "It's all from the heart," he says. "It's honest." His heart (and studio) are filled mostly with depictions of African-Americans in everyday surroundings. Nothing unnatural, he says. "I prefer doing work that I get inspired to do," says Mr. Harrell, 63. "If someone sits for a portrait, I do it for the money, but it still comes from the heart after awhile."
He once painted what he believed was an honest portrait of a woman. Mr. Harrell liked it, so did the woman's husband. "But she had a problem with how real it was," Mr. Harrell said. "I painted it just the way I saw her, and she took offense to that." And didn't buy it. For more than 25 years, he's worked mostly from the front porch of his home, which provides a subtle attraction for the Mondawmin neighborhood and a display for aspiring artists to observe. "I like showing people, without a doubt," he says. "I see so many different stories in them. I look at one face and see 1,000 pictures."
His work will never become poster art available in two-bit specialty shops. But over the years, word-of-mouth has attracted some fairly highbrow patrons to his studio: Comedian Dick Gregory, actress Esther Rolle and the late author Baldwin all purchased his works from his studio. Berkeley S. Thompson, curator at Baltimore's Only Black American Museum on Carswell Street, which was called the ThirdWorld museum in the late 1960s when Mr. Harrell exhibited there, describes Mr. Harrell's work as unforgettable. "He has real talent. He's from the old school," Mr. Thompson says. "He can do so much with any subject he's given."
Mr. Harrell painted the life-size portrait of Baldwin after a brief meeting in the mid-1970s. "See that chair," he says, pointing to an aging but sturdy chair with a faded cushion in the center of the room. "That's the same chair he sat in when he came here." He shows a snapshot of Baldwin, and, yes, Baldwin is seated in the chair.
One of his favorite and most controversial pieces is a sculpture titled "Burrhead," which depicts a young black man "contemplating," his hands covering his mouth in an almost prayerlike position. It shows Mr. Harrell is nothing if not a persistent artist. "I had a concept of 'Burrhead' as being the black version of 'The Thinker,' " he said, referring to Rodin's sculpture. "That was the concept I had. His hands are covering his mouth as if to say 'Don't say anything' or 'Think before you speak.' " Mr. Harrell first created "Burrhead" in 1975 while in Virginia. That 900-pound concrete and steel piece once was displayed prominently in Newport News, but later discarded -- unknown at the time to Mr. Harrell -- and dumped in a six-foot hole, where it rests today.
He again created "Burrhead" in the late 1980s while working in a vacant Park Circle warehouse in West Baltimore. He had hoped city officials would display it in Druid Hill Park, but the 1-ton piece was broken before it was moved. "It took me five months to finish it," he says. "It was waiting to be cast in bronze" when it was accidentally shattered.
He now wants to build another "Burrhead" and have it displayed in the park. He's looking for a place to build and a sponsor to help with expenses. Jeanne Davis, curator for City Hall and the mayor's liaison to the Art Commission, says Mr. Harrell thought it would be best to submit a proposal with a design to the city's Art Commission before beginning a new "Burrhead." She also remembered "Burrhead" from the 1980s. "It came before the Art Commission years ago, and they liked the design," Ms. Davis says. "The Art Commission got concerned that the dimensions were too big and might not translate well." Even if "Burrhead" never makes it to the park, Mr. Harrell will continue creating from his rowhouse. "I think he should be displayed. Everyone should see it," he says. "It's honest art."
He has tried many things, but he always comes back to art
By Valerie Smith Madden Artist Hugh Harrell's living room is filled with pieces of his work. From paintings in watercolor, to sculptures in bronze. to wood carvings. the works serve to remind the visitor of the unlimited avenues of expression which have beenpursued by the artist. The Hampion. Va., native has called Baltimore home since 1941 and he is one of those rare black artists who makes a living by selling his works. Like many artists, however, Mr Harrell began his career in another medium. a non-artistic one.
Despite having shown an aptitide for art at an early age. - The first thing I remendwr drawing was my father's car." he said. Like all young children. Mr. Harrell was eager to share his creation with his family. "They Just laughed. The next time I came up for air. I was in the fifth grade.-The occasion was a special visit by a man who would eventually head the art department at the Hampton Institute. ,
Everyone In Mr. Harrell's fifth grade class was asked to draw a picture. His work stood out and a teacher asked him to stay after class. 1 thought I was in trouble again." be recalled. "She told me that the visitor liked my work. I didn't take her seriously because I had never had anyone compliment me on my work. I actually thought they were putting me on. When I looked at [others] work. I thought they were doing things to make me not look so good. I couldn't understand why their dexterity and their sense of perception was oil - In 1943, despite such a promising start, Mr. Harrell shelved his art plans, dropped out of high school and undertook two very adult responsibilities. He married the former Pearl Viola Charity and he joined the Navy.
During his 27-month tour of duty. he worked as a ship's steward and a "hot shellman." He eventually received eight battle stars. To alleviate the monotony on long days at sea. Mr. Harrell turned once again to his art. He began to draw pictures of the wives, girlfriends and children of his shipmates.
In 1946. with the Navy behind him. he returned to Hampton and settled into a career as a barber. He spent the next 18 years cutting hair to support his family. which would eventually Include five children. In 1957. his marriage ended and he began to think more seriously about his art. Dismayed by the thought of spending the rest of his life in a barbershop, he enrolled in an correspondence course. -The Famous Artist" course. He studied for more than two years. but he didn't complete the course. "I had $839 more to pay. but looking back. I feel that my spiritual guide didn't want me to become an illustrator." he says. He decided to pursue his art on a full-time basis, and headed for New York.
His years there were fruitful. He and another artist. Stuart Anderson. spent summers in Provincetown. Mass., sketching the natives and the visitors. and squirreling away money. The two would later go into business: they opened the 'Soul Gallery" in New York's West Greenwich Village. He continued artist by taking courses at the Pratt Institute and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
In 1962 he married actress Beah Richards. Ms. Richards. who recently won an Emmy, is probably first known for her role as Sidney Poitier's mother in the 1967 film. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." During their marriage. Ms. Richards went to California to star in James Baldwin's "Amen Corner' She sent her husband a ticket and he joined her. But his time in California proved to be paradoxical. "I caught fire out there. but I didn't like it." he recalled. The West Coast art environment was different from the East Coast and Mr. Hamill soaked it up.
While on a visit to a San Francisco library. Mr. Harrell viewed "The Thinker." one of the best-known works of the sculptor Rodin. I looked at my wife. she looked at me and she said. 'Now you have to do it.' Her remarks referred to a piece which Mr. Harrell had been mulling over for nearly a decade. He produced what would become his signature piece - "Burrhead" - The image, a black man with tightly curled hair in an almost prostrate position. with his legs tucked under him, is also deep in thought.
While California was artistically fertile. it was also stressful. The strains of two artists sharing their lives were difficult for both Mr. Harrell and Ms. Richards, and their marriage ended. Mr. Harrell returned to New York in 1965 to continue his study of art.
His pieces were now in demand. His works are in the collections of New York's Schomburg Center. the Third World Center at Princeton University. the African Heritage Center at Yale University College Institute at Hampton Union Virginia.
Harrell numbers among his artistic influences Jacob Lawrence, Ernie Crichlow. Stuart Anderson and Rocky Hayden. All are black artists. He came In Baltimore in 1981 to open a gallery with his son. Bruce who Is also an artist It didn't work out, but Mr. Harrell stayed anyway and continues to make a living as an artist. He says he has never regretted his decision to become an artist on a full-time basis. "I do my art because it's a challenge. I love it now. It's like when you get married. AI first you have affection for the person. but then you fall in love with them. You don't know when that happens. Well, that's what this has been like for me. When the kids were small. it was kind of scary, because I had to support them."
His son echoes his sentiments. "I didn't understand what he was doing then." Bruce Harrell says. "The issues that concerned me as I recall were our own security as a family unit and whether we had food in our mouths. In a situation like that, it's like any career decision. It affected everyone. Despite the joys and sorrows which the children may have experienced because of their father's decision. they pay him the greatest homage. "We're proud of him for being an artist and getting the respect of his peers and the public," son Bruce says. "He looks at the big picture and tries to affect some meaning a large scale. "He strives to be honest in his work and not compromise ."
Hugh Harrell said he would like to establish sculpture gardens in Baltimore. Washington and Philadelphia. Meanwhile. he'll be quite content. creating from nature and giving back to nature In that way that artists seem to do.
- Honest artist, honest art Artist: Hugh Harrell has created sculptures, portraits and drawings for more than a quarter-century. His studio has become a Mondawmin landmark.
- He has tried many things, but he always comes back to art
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