Getting to Know Gary Harrell
"My favorite piece of art is the one I have not yet created."
Getting to know Gary...
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.