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Gary Harrell interviewed by Kanyinsola Anifowoshe
I started making art in 1985, eight years into a prison sentence that I would serve until 2020 — forty-five years in all. Before being incarcerated, I had played the harmonica and ridden a unicycle without falling off, which is itself a kind of art. But I had never considered turning to visual art until I saw other men in prison making it. I started out doing woodwork and molding glass and plastic. As I began liking and improving my craft—as I expanded into new media like block prints, advanced techniques like pointillism—the meaning of art changed for me. It transformed from a desire and a hobby into a need and a vocation. I wondered how different my circumstances might have been had I discovered this passion earlier in my life.
My art comes from a wellspring of visions that I do not fully control or understand. Sometimes I am inspired by pictures, in the news or in a book, of recent or historical events. Most of the time, however, an image flashes in my mind. I might be on a walk or in the middle of a conversation when this image arrives, and I know I must use it so it does not go away. Even my most political art begins with an image, not a message. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” about police brutality, began with an image of a boy raising his hands; “Divas,” about the strength of women, began with an image of childbirth. In producing each image, I have a practice of studying reference points. In what contexts has that image appeared? How have other artists represented it? Then I choose a medium that fits the image. For example, if I see many objects vying for attention, I tend to make a collage to accommodate them.
There are times when I’ve actually wondered if any of my work would receive recognition, now my spirit is renewed and I shall strive to maintain a high level of quality work now and in the future. My art is for the world to see, the wind blowing the trees. The perfection of beauty in one’s eyes, only you can see, frees me. I enjoy the peace I find when I’m doing art. It’s a way of expressing myself that I can’t do verbally. I combine printmaking with other kinds of art forms.