Hunter gatherer

harrington kitchen

Rick in his kitchen

My friend Rick Harrington,just went through cancer surgery. They caught all of it, as they say, but the recovery laid him up for a couple months. Two months without painting and the mind begins to circle around how Quixotic the whole enterprise can feel. But he’s ready to gear up again and was in good spirits when I finally drove out to see his studio in East Avon, south of Rochester. He rents a house and studio next to a large expanse of farmland, which looked ready for a crop already, plowed and dark with snowmelt beyond the converted garage where he paints. (The temperature is back to 15 degrees today, so that melt meant nothing.) We had tea in his house and talked for nearly an hour and then spent another hour in his big studio, talking about painting. One thing we agreed on: this economy isn’t good for anyone, least of all artists. He had a couple years where he was selling work so fast, he could hardly keep up with the demand, and then came the real estate crash, the recession and this so-called recovery, which is mostly about Wall Street. His paintings still sell, but he doesn’t think he can map a path toward economic self-sufficiency as easily as he could have only a few years ago. The dream of forgetting about money and thinking only about how to do better creative work: how many artists can live that way? A lot fewer than were doing it before 2008.

Rick has a dog, Ulysses, who is closer to a Shetland pony than anything actually canine. He’s also more mastiff than Rottweiler (a cross between both) who was always at our sides, looking for affection, hugs, and stray crumbs of the chocolate chip cookies Rick had just baked for his two sisters who were also recovering from health issues. We talked about money, but also veered toward the question why paint? which is one I always answer by actually painting, a good Zen way to respond. Here’s a bit of our conversation.

Rick: Matthew Cornell, a friend in Florida, does tiny paintings. They’re spectacular. Last time I was in St. Louis (at a fair) he had a red dot on every piece in his booth. He told me about how Cornell had been in the Armory Show, and what the entry fee costs, and the expression on my face and my body language said, more or less, how can anybody be doing something like that in this economy, but then, of course, I reminded myself that the art market, especially the social strata that attends the Armory Show, is mostly about one-percenters, who are immensely encouraged when Wall Street is booming, as it is now. So I didn’t open my mouth. Yet Rick struggles with the downturn of the past year, in his own income, and with the notion of initiating a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to fund painting for the year he would need to do enough of the new work, focused on nature and the environment, that he wants to do in order to make some kind of breakthrough.)

Rick: I don’t care about any of that. All I care about is doing the kind of work I want to do. Three and a half years ago I was thinking why am I stuck being me all the time? The guy across the street, a retired mechanic from Pittsford. Good as gold. Why can’t I have skills like that?

Me: It isn’t you. It’s the economy.

Rick: Even in a thriving economy I still don’t fit.

Me: For two or three years you couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Rick: Well, that’s people spending money they probably shouldn’t be spending.

Me: Before the crash. When it didn’t matter. Yeah, that was what caused the crash. But that’s art. Money you ought to be spending on something else.

Rick: I think there’s an evolutionary reason I’m like this. When I was working on memory landscapes, I thought I was painting the collective memory of mankind. I realized most people don’t remember landscapes. When they think back they think of a house number. How do you exist with that? Those are the people who buy paintings. So I started thinking, why? Why do I have this . .  I don’t think it’s a skill set, it’s just the way I’m wired.

Me: I think it goes back to why art?

Rick: I’m not even thinking art. Why do I retain landscapes in my head. Why am I happier when it’s blustery and windy? I’m wired for outside. I’m wired for hunter-gatherer.

Me: There you go. That’s the title for your show. It should be Hunter/Gatherer.

(His new work is different from what he’s been doing for years. He’s trying to immerse himself in the particularity of a given place, the way Welliver did, and then convey the individuality of that landscape—it began for him on a trip to Alaska. He’s doing it in two different ways: through large paintings that both evoke the landscape but work almost as gestural abstraction, and also by exhibiting, along with the paintings, boxes with glass covers that hold all the objects he finds as he wanders through a particular place. Arrowheads, skulls, fishing net corks, little blocky shards of columnar basalt. So he hunts for the picture and he gathers for the boxes . . .

He’s already had a solo show in Geneseo of the work he’s completed so far in this series, but he needs to finish more. But he also needs to pay bills.)

Rick: I could have a Kickstarter campaign and then do a set of paintings that would be ready by next winter. To me the whole thing about this is conservation.

Me: It’s a great idea for Kickstarter because it’s both painting and a project to focus on a social and political issue, the environment.

We went on talking non-stop for another hour because, since we’re both working primarily as artists (and writer in my case, same thing in this context) our social contact is mostly through email. We’re both starved for conversation, which means exactly what you would expect. There’s no pretense of being the strong, silent type in these get-togethers, just two hours of non-stop talking, the sound of which has become more intriguing mostly because when Rick speaks, he could pass for Jack on 24. His cancer emerged on one of his vocal chords, which was removed, so he’s working with half the instrument he had the last time we met. OK, he also sounds like somebody who’s had laryngitis, but I prefer the comparison to Jack. Hope you get back up to full power soon  Rick. I’m eager to see what you do this year.


1 Response to “Hunter gatherer”

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