By Justin O’Brien
Rick Harris, outsider artist, wood carver, musician and raconteur of Mineral Point, likes to tell how he was saved by a book. No, not that one. Not at a torch-lit camp meeting down by the river, but rather at the Milwaukee Public Library.
That book, which he would repeatedly return and check out again to avoid overdue fees, was “American Folk Art of the 20th Century,” by Jay Johnson and William C. Ketchum. This visual compendium of folk art became his personal bible. And in stolen moments, reading it in a car in the factory parking lot at lunchtime, it presented to him the possibilities for a blue-collar, self-educated family man who occasionally drummed in rock bands to express himself through art, although lacking in formal training and with only a sketchy knowledge of art mediums or methods.
“I had a family to support,” Harris explains. “My family and my kids were the joy of my life. But I fought severe depression. I was a factory worker. I made stuff. And every day was like, ‘How do I make it from when I wake up to when I go to sleep? How do I survive that?’” So, he turned to the book.
“It was literally my salvation,” says the spectacled and mustachioed Harris, smiling broadly under his large panama hat. “I would take that book to work with me. There was only one person I could talk to who shared any artistic leanings — a guy who played sax in R&B bands. The two of us would go out to his car at lunchtime. I would sit and read and re-read this book — for which I was ridiculed — while Willie lay down in the back practicing his sax as quietly as possible so as to not draw unwanted attention from the guys we worked with.”
Also to counter his intolerably repetitive job, he would occasionally hit the road, sometimes by thumb in the early days. And whether fully conscious of it at the time, he was already seeing with the eyes of an artist.
“I’ve always returned to Wisconsin,” says Harris. “I actually love Wisconsin. Everywhere I go, I’m like, ‘Well, there’s the ocean. But the light’s weird. It’s not like Wisconsin light.’”
It might also be argued that Harris, who’d spent much of his life laboring in Milwaukee where he “made stuff,” was also saved by a small town in southwestern Wisconsin with a large artist community, where he found he could create things.
Today his two daughters are grown and have families and careers of their own. And Rick now lives happily retired in the small historic mining town of Mineral Point, renowned for its bright, rolling green hills and native-quarried stone Cornish architecture.
“I always tell people I’m from a weird little town where everything’s made out of rocks. It’s a great natural environment. I like the surroundings. Mineral Point has really reinforced a lot of things about me that I wasn’t sure I knew.”
The unusual and historic stone structures of his adopted hometown are set among hills with rock outcroppings and fields and pastures graced by oak savannas. This part of the Driftless Territory has an organic beauty to it that has drawn a small arts community that now shares space with the prevailing agricultural community in a peaceful and modest coexistence.
Before oil painting on canvas became an outlet, Harris scratched his creative itch by playing music — as a drummer in a band, then later as a guitar-playing singer/songwriter. And still, in his butterscotch baritone voice, he croons original songs about bucolic environments, friendly dogs, lazy rivers — always with a touch of humor. One song, for example, has the simple and evocative line, “the bees in the buttercups,” a phrase that he recently carved into a basswood panel — yet a new artistic outlet.
“That’s from a song I wrote,” says Harris. “‘The bees in the buttercups, crows in the corn, I just figured out why I was born.’ I have a little pocket treasure trove of things I’ve written that I can translate visually. That’s lucky.”
Harris also incorporates images and characters from American history and mythology, as well as from science fiction. He has found a parallel between all of his pooled images and the wealth of imagery in which earlier folk and vernacular artists found inspiration.
“I think about artists — especially self-taught artists — who have this tremendous religious belief to draw on. The Rev. Simon Sparrow, from Madison … he did amazing African faces, but out of beads and buttons. He’d be out there in his front yard, gluing stuff. He was drawing on this incredible faith, and Biblical stories, or legends, or however you want to view them. That’s tremendous source material.”
“I’ve discovered I’m developing my own little world which I can draw from. So, ‘Bees in the buttercups,’ that’s the first line of a song, and ‘Crows in the corn,’ I’m going to do that next. And in the middle can go the one I did called, ‘Science Is Real.’ It has three flying saucers with rays coming down, and robots. I like to mix up things that don’t necessarily connect — like a robot standing in a flowery field.”
Harris has moved from conventional 2-dimensional oil painting to carving wood panels he then paints. He started with carving pine, which he found “punishing,” and has recently switched to softer basswood.
“It’ll still be painting, but it’s a board. It’s a thing. There’s a thing-ness to it. A painting is an image, it’s more abstract. But this is real. You can put that under your arm and walk around with it. It’s a thing! Why would you want to take your painting out for a walk? I’m making things now. I really like that.”
It’s a long way, literally and figuratively, from Milwaukee where, working in a factory, he discovered the liberating artwork in “American Folk Art of the 20th Century.”
“I really studied those paintings and carvings,” says Harris. “That’s what got me through each day.”
Today, Mineral Point seems a quite natural place to find artist Rick Harris, white hair flowing from under his broad-brimmed hat, whistling a happy tune while striding along a hilly, tree-lined street in his checkerboard-pattern shoes, a woodcarving under his arm like a beloved book.
Justin O’Brien lives in Mineral Point with his wife, Karen, and likes to write about people and music. He has contributed to Living Blues magazine for about 40 years, written liner notes for more than 40 albums, writes the copy for the annual Chicago Blues Fest program and last year published his first book, “Chicago Yippie! ’68.”