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.
Where Gary's Work Has Been Featured
University of Derby, England
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Art in Action Gallery, Flagstaff
Kala Art Institute
Cooper Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian, New York