Toyland Fantasies

Charney Harris’ sculptural world lets the imagination flow.

By: Daniel Shearer


Staff photo by Daniel Shearer
Charney Harris’s wall-mounted assemblage, "Pages from the Book," hangs behind another work in progress.

   Sipping a cup of coffee in her Lower Makefield, Pa., home, Charney Harris flips through a scrapbook with obvious pride. The surrounding walls show ample evidence of her artistic vision, but the pages in front of her hold special memories.


Staff photo by Daniel Shearer
Above, Ms. Harris in her home studio. The largest piece is a portion of her "Monument to Man."

   "This is the show I had at the Hudson River Museum," she says, lovingly turning a page. "In the center there was this large, 10-foot pyramid, and in these two rooms there were 1,100 configurations. It took a whole summer to make and paint them all, and 10 days to hang it. It was quite an experience. I was actually painting on the ceiling."
   The "configurations," as she calls them, were actually three-dimensional forms hanging from the ceiling — animals, crescents and other shapes, all decorated in a rainbow of pointillism. A large triptych painting enhanced the installation.
   Ms. Harris’ work is difficult to characterize, although some of it is reminiscent of Frank Stella assemblages — unusual painting/sculpture hybrids — produced in the ’60s. Ms. Harris prefers not to cite any particular influence, other than pointing out that she developed her sense of color while working in a Philadelphia silk-screen house. "I don’t really know anyone who influenced me," she says. "I just did my thing." Her philosophy becomes more apparent in a workroom at the other end of the house, near her large studio.
   "This is an old piece," she says, pointing to an odd white sculpture. The work sports two pairs of human legs and a large "belly," partially cracked to reveal a colorful, lighted interior and a tiny infant.
   "It’s a molding compound," she says. "I had this at the Woodmere Museum. This was a chair in my studio. It sort of looked like a woman to me, so I put the breasts on, put a woman’s legs in front, man’s legs in the back. Then suddenly she became pregnant," says Ms. Harris, laughing. "It leaves a lot to the imagination. I call it ‘Here Comes the New World.’"

Below, a two-sided sculptural assemblage, "I Don’t Want to Be an Artist/I am an Artist."

Staff photos by Daniel Shearer
Above, "Here Comes the New World."

   On the opposite wall hangs the centerpiece to her exhibit at the Michener Museum, held in 1998. Ms. Harris’ was one of the first artists to participate in the museum’s invitational show, now in its fifth year. Completed in the mid ’90s, the work, roughly 10 feet in diameter, has several hinged panels that suggest a vision striving to break free from the normal, two-dimensional confines of the canvas.
   "I call that ‘Pages from the Book,’" she says. "This is when I started to build out from the canvas. Every one of these doors opens or shuts. These images could be from the Bible, the Koran, anything. There’s your big apple (of Adam and Eve lore), there’s the future of the young man. This old woman is saying to her, ‘Wake up. Take a look. Live life.’ I think that’s a very big thing for me."
   Children, in fact, are a recurring theme in her work, which she calls "sculptural assemblages." "Which One?" depicts rainbow-colored infants climbing a spiral base toward a pinnacle, gradually evolving into adults, perched at the top. Like much of her work, the piece uses thin wooden shapes, positioned and painted on all sides.
   "You see all these children and you say, ‘Which one is mine? Which one will I be in this lifetime.’ Just a few things to think about," she says.
   Twice a week, Penndel, Pa., resident Lou Dalessandro visits Ms. Harris help her cut out the shapes and assemble her work. Ms. Harris produces sculptures that would fit nicely on a coffee table, as well as larger works like her 9-foot-tall "Monument to Man," which occupies a sizeable portion of her studio.
   "I painted this memorial when my husband passed away," she says. "Took me three years to do it, but that’s how I got through it. It’s got three other pieces that go with it, but I don’t have enough room to spread it out.
   "Usually, I’ll spend three to six months one of these things. First the construction, then the painting. I’ve got so many projects going."
   Ms. Harris walks over to another unfinished piece, which at this point is a large black frame.
   "I don’t know what this one is going to be yet," she says. "Probably something to do with time."
   As an art student, Ms. Harris attended Philadelphia College of Art and learned to create assemblages while constructing elaborate store displays for Philadelphia department stores.
   "I used to do the displays for Toyland, and I’d paint murals on the walls," she says. "Everything I did led me to what I do today."
   While her family grew, Ms. Harris continued to paint and develop her art. Her oldest son, Jeffrey, is an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; her daughter, Dena, has her own OB-GYN practice in New York; and her youngest son, Scott, is a medical director for a pharmaceutical company in Ohio.
   Ms. Harris began taking classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art under Hobson Pittman, a faculty member at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She also studied at the New School of Social Research in New York.
   "Hobson Pittman was a marvelous teacher," she says. "He never imposed his own will on you. He always let you discover yourself. He said to me, ‘Find a teacher in New York, and learn New York. That’s just what I did. I found a teacher and stayed with him for three years."
   With nearly 50 one-women and group shows to her credit, Ms. Harris’ work is part of collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Allentown Museum of Art, the first Ronald McDonald House, Bryn Mawr College and numerous private collections.
   "I more or less paint the way I look at life," she says. "Where it’ll take me, I don’t know, but the flow will go where it goes."
For information, call Charney Harris at (215) 493-2654.