Family Values

The Harris clan produces three generations of artists.

When Martha Sue Harris was 3 years old and starting to draw, her mother, Betty, made a stuffed monster doll inspired by one of the little girl's doodles.

The drawing was fierce in the way little kids' art is--a big red head, three eyes, a slash of purple mouth and a lime body--and Betty, a longtime art professor at Pima Community College, faithfully reproduced it in felt and buttons.

The humble cloth monster has recently been promoted to a glass display case at Obsidian Gallery. There are a couple of reasons for its now-exalted status. While it may have calmed the little girl's fears long ago, more recently, it triggered an outpouring of new art by this artist family.

The Harris Family is a multigenerational exhibition documenting the creative cross-fertilization among the numerous Harrises. Besides the monster doll, Martha Sue--now a grown-up artist--and her mother have collaborated on some intriguing jewelry that's a combo of Betty's metalwork and Martha Sue's drawings. Each woman is also showing her own work--Betty has made bronze sculptures and Martha Sue dollhouse drawings and monster-like stuffed animals. Dad Joe, a retired Pima art prof, has contributed his own jewelry, sleek swathes of silver attached to bolo ties and the like, and there's even an homage to Joe's father, Ed Harris. Back in the 1950s, Grandfather Harris made intricate metalwork, including a ravishing incised cigarette case in gold and silver that stands as a kind of ancestral art progenitor for the clan.

His granddaughter Martha Sue, a San Francisco artist who trained at the California College of Arts and Crafts, notes in an artist's statement that she rediscovered her mother-made monster doll back in 1998. The little figure inspired an outpouring of artwork examining memory and childhood. She made some stuffed animals of her own in the monster vein: a fuzzy red fur puff with eyes, an alien with antler, an "organ brain bear" in rough brown cloth. These are fun but less like art than first sewing efforts by a precocious kid. More interesting are dollhouse drawings in charcoal and pastel. These use the dollhouse format to re-examine the house, that all-encompassing metaphor for home and family, remembered from childhood.

Drawn in a childlike style, the houses are primitive board boxes roughly divided by planks into an upstairs and downstairs. Martha Sue had filled these with both universal and personal icons: teddy bears and teapots, a giant yellow ducky, a Mickey Mouse hat. In "Time," though she's surrounded by the comforts of this domestic treasure, a little girl longs, as children do, for the future. She stands on tippy toes and peeks out at a night sky sparkling with white stars, in the great world beckoning beyond.

"The Engagement" offers a subtle critique of domesticity. A Barbie-doll woman in the kitchen is prepared for everything her homemaker duties require: She's dressed for sex in underwear and she wields a fork, ready to prepare the family meal at a moment's notice. But there's something rotten in this heartland. Underneath her tidy checkerboard rooms lie dinosaur bones.

"Obsidian," a colored "neopastel," pays tribute to this fine crafts gallery--and to mom and dad. It's a fun collection of Southwest kitsch, a drawn dollhouse filled with prickly pear cactus pads, an elaborately painted kachina, a striped snake. Overseeing the whole thing is a painting on the dollhouse wall of a jewelry-maker hard at work; on the floor are the results of her (or his) handiwork: an elaborate silver bracelet.

What makes the jewelry collaborations between mother and daughter so fun is the unexpected juxtaposition of materials and themes. Semiprecious jewels line up side by side with funny little watercolors encased in clear acrylics. Dalmatians, babies and a series of women in underpants are integral parts of necklaces and bracelets. A "Yellow Kitty," painted in watercolor, shows up on a sterling-silver medallion dangling from a black rubber cord. Creepy-crawlies cavort on "Spider Bracelet," a charm bracelet made of silver, copper and moss agate. An oil-painted pink elephant graces a brass pendant in "Elephant Bubbles."

Not to leave out dad, Joe Harris, all three family members share credit for "Bog Monster," a glossy sculpture in steel, black enamel, sterling and bronze. An update on the earliest Martha Sue-Betty collaboration in cloth, this one is finely crafted in valuable materials. It's just as fierce and endearing as its cloth cousin; standing stalwartly on a pedestal, its spiky tail aloft, it suggests that this artist family not only stands up to its monsters--but embraces them.

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