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Apr
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2024
Arts

The late artist and Yellow Springs resident Raymond P. Harris amid some of his work, in a photo from a 1953 LIFE magazine profile about a group of American artists working in Paris, of which Harris was a part. “Artistry Re-Kindled: The Raymond P. Harris Retrospective Exhibit,” a retrospective exhibition of the work of Harris — who lived in the village from the 1950s until his death in the 1980s — will open April 6 in the Herndon Gallery at Antioch College, with a smaller exhibition and event to follow April 7 at Central Chapel AME Church, where Harris was a longtime member. (Submitted photo, originally published in LIFE magazine)

The legacy of Raymond P. Harris, a forgotten Black artist

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A hidden treasure trove of art has recently been unearthed, shedding light on a pioneering figure in the art world who called Yellow Springs home.

Raymond Perret Harris, a name largely unknown beyond family circles and local communities, is now gaining nationwide recognition for his groundbreaking work as an African American artist in the mid-20th century. Harris’ legacy is being resurrected from obscurity and celebrated across the country thanks to the efforts of local resident Ena Nearon, founder of the Ten Talents Network. 

“Artistry Re-Kindled: The Raymond P. Harris Retrospective Exhibit” — curated by Nearon in collaboration with the artist’s son, Robert Lee Harris — will debut at the Herndon Gallery at Antioch College on Saturday, April 6, with the exhibition on display through April 27. 

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On Sunday, April 7, a smaller, one-day exhibition of eight to 10 pieces will open at Central Chapel AME Church — where the artist was a longtime member and sang in the choir — with an accompanying event beginning at 4 p.m. The three-hour event will include speakers Kevin McGruder, Antioch College associate professor of history, and Erin M. Smith, artist and associate professor of studio art at Central State University; the two will “share insights into the importance of the field of art conservation to cultural heritage, enriching the audience’s understanding of the field of restoration and conservation while preserving Yellow Springs’ African American artistic legacy,” according to a press release. Also on-hand will be Robert Lee Harris and the artist’s niece, Shirley Cummings, who will share personal anecdotes and historical insights on the artist.

A tour of the artist’s former Corry Street home is being planned for the future; a time and date for the tour will be announced at the Central Chapel event.

The journey to rediscover Raymond P. Harris began with a serendipitous encounter, Nearon told the News in a recent interview. During a visit by Nearon to the home of the artist’s son, Cincinnati resident Robert Lee Harris, Harris unveiled a July 13, 1953, edition of LIFE magazine featuring his father’s art. 

“[Robert Harris] went in the drawer and he pulled this magazine out and I say, ‘What would you show me this for?’” 

Robert Lee Harris went on to show Nearon an invaluable artistic cache: More than 100 pieces of his father’s art, stored in a basement.

Born in 1910 in Fort Scott, Kansas, Raymond P. Harris embarked on an artistic journey against the backdrop of a nation grappling with racial segregation. He would go on to graduate from Wilberforce University in 1939. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Harris relocated to Cincinnati with his family, where he pursued his passion for art at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. 

In 1953, Harris made history as the first Black artist to be awarded the prestigious Stephen H. Wilder Scholarship by the Art Academy, granting him the opportunity to study art in Europe for 18 months.

While living in Paris, Harris was featured in a groundbreaking LIFE magazine article titled “Turmoil Rules the Left Bank,” showcasing the era’s vibrant artistic scene. 

“A lot of African Americans had to go over to Europe to be received or even seen because they weren’t being seen here and that’s why that was such a big deal. And that’s what he took advantage of,” Nearon said. 

Harris was part of a unique group of Americans in Paris, challenging the status quo and forging a path for future generations of artists of color. 

Artists came together as a unit, as Americans, to produce and judge an art exhibit. In Paris, Raymond Harris found the descriptor “American” was more important to the Parisians than him being a Black man. 

Upon returning to the United States, Harris settled in Yellow Springs, where he found a supportive community that nurtured his artistic talents. Despite facing the challenges of earning a living as a Black artist in a racially divided society, Harris continued to create and experiment with his art.

“He built a home and captured the essence of local citizens through his art,” Nearson said. “He remarried and built a house at 1315 Corry St. He had to earn a living, and I think it was extremely well-received because he has a lot of portraits of families and of white women and white men, as well as Black women in the community. He seemed to have an affinity for circular shapes [bodies], and he created a lot of nudes.” 

Harris began to experiment a lot. His artistic repertoire encompassed various styles, from classic African American portraits to innovative geometric designs infused with African motifs. His work reflected a deep connection to his heritage and a commitment to exploring new artistic frontiers. 

“He began to invest his own culture into what he was producing, and using the knowledge and experience that he gained,” Nearon said, adding that, despite the challenges he faced, Harris’ resilience and determination didn’t waver for the rest of his life. The artist died in the 1980s.

“He pushed, because he had the challenges, he had the resistance, he had to overcome all that — and he still held on to what he was doing,” Nearon said.

Today, Raymond P. Harris’ artwork is finally emerging from the shadows to be celebrated by art enthusiasts nationwide. Through initiatives like the Ten Talents Network’s “Canvas Celebrations,” Nearon is spearheading efforts to showcase Harris’ work and empower young Black and Brown artists. 

“My goal is to travel with that message and use the art exhibit as the thing that draws people together and then talk,” Nearon said.

“The Retrospective Legacy Collection of Raymond P. Harris” is set to captivate art enthusiasts and history buffs alike upon opening at the Herndon Gallery and Central Chapel. Art connoisseurs and enthusiasts can expect a profound journey through the life and work of the acclaimed artist, as his legacy is celebrated and honored in a display of artistic prowess and cultural significance.

Ena Nearon’s commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in the arts extends beyond her work with the Ten Talents Network. With a background in event coordination and fundraising at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where she curated the widely attended “Hair Affair,” Nearon also recently served as development director for the Yellow Springs Community Foundation. She is currently a member of the Yellow Springs Public Arts and Culture Commission. 

Nearon’s expertise has been instrumental in amplifying Harris’ legacy and creating opportunities for underrepresented artists. Through her leadership and dedication, Nearon is bridging the gap between art and empowerment, ensuring that artists like Raymond P. Harris receive the recognition they deserve.

Contact: tgarrett@ysnews.com

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One Response to “The legacy of Raymond P. Harris, a forgotten Black artist”

  1. Don Hubschman says:

    Not “forgotten” by me. Mr. Harris lived across the street from us when I was a kid. Nice article. Thank you.

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