Johanna Harmon’s paintings reflect both inner and outer beauty
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the November 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2013 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
In a Boulder, CO, coffee shop, a server named Chris caught artist Johanna Harmon’s ever-observant eye. With his warm, thoughtful manner of speech, slightly vintage-looking clothing, and genuine courtesy, he seemed to have stepped from an earlier time. He was clearly practicing the almost-lost art of gentlemanly ways. The painter struck up a conversation, as she unabashedly does with those she believes might be fitting subjects for her figurative art.
Chris told Johanna about his newfound passion for archery as an art of precision and simplicity. He spoke of a fluid, harmonious relationship between the archer and his arrow and bow. He sent her photos of a mountain setting where he could pose in a timeless archery stance. On the day they arranged, the artist drove over a mountain pass in a snowstorm, which tapered into flurries as magical winter light filtered through the clouds. That’s when she learned just how much of a gentleman Chris was. “When I got there, I discovered he had been shoveling knee-high snow for over an hour, so I would have a path to the cabin,” she recalls.
From that snowy session she painted TRADITION [see page 93], which conveys both the story of a gentleman hunter and the formal artistic qualities Harmon finds most compelling these days. “As we walked in the tree-lined hills, I experimented with compositions,” she relates. “I was looking at it from an abstract perspective, and I selected this composition for its simple dark/light patterns and its beautifully arranged value shapes.”
For Harmon, painting means not only expressively rendering a model’s outer appearance but also reflecting the inner life. Rarely hiring professional models, she often engages friends to pose, but just as often she paints a stranger who becomes a friend. It’s one reason her art radiates a deep human warmth and has gained the attention and respect of collectors and her peers. Harmon earned the Gold Medal for best of show at the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition in 2007 and again in 2013, the first artist thus far to twice win the OPA’s top award. Other honors include a Certificate of Excellence from the Portrait Society of America’s prestigious International Portrait Competition in 2009.
“I always ask my models about themselves, their lives, their stories. People want to be heard,” the 44-year-old artist explains, gazing at the distant city skyline, mountains, and sky through the tall studio windows in her Denver-area home. A new Hughes easel was a gift to herself for winning the OPA Gold Medal. “I’m out-of-this-world excited about it!” she declares. On the studio walls are corkboards covered with snippets of inspiration. Among them: postcards of cherry-blossom paintings from San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, a Daniel Sprick still life, and photos of an actress modeling for re-created iconic images by Degas and Klimt. These offer glimpses of brilliant composition and color harmony, while a Daniel Gerhartz painting reminds her to be direct and fresh, Harmon says.
Her own fresh approach involves a creative collaboration with the model, beginning when they first meet. As she gets to know someone, she listens and watches, noticing facial expressions and characteristic gestures, skin tone, hair, and clothes. “I start off real slow, and eventually they relax and share more. I let them know about me and about the process,” she notes. “I tell them I can’t do my life’s honor and purpose without them.” When things click, Harmon’s models share her excitement, offering thoughts on possible settings to reflect their own interests and fit her artistic needs.
Harmon’s practice of close, intuitive observation has roots in her childhood but was reinforced by a life-altering experience she had a few years ago. Growing up in Tempe, AZ, as the daughter of a single, working mother, she was alone more often than not. She filled the solitary hours with drawing, looking intently at houses, palm trees, and neighborhood pets. Even at an early age she was aware of using values and shading to re-create what she saw. Painting instruction was not offered at her high school, but she continued to draw, building a passion for art that appeared, for several more years, to offer no clear future path.
In her mid-20s Harmon finally found her way to painting courses at the Scotts dale Artists’ School, the Fechin Art Institute, and the Art Students League of Denver, studying with acclaimed artists including Gerhartz, Carolyn Anderson, C.W. Mundy, Scott Burdick, and Quang Ho. She discovered an affinity for figurative painting and honed her skills for several more years before making the leap, at age 30, into a full-time commitment to art. “It was welling up in me for a long time,” she says of her passion to paint. Her husband, Steven, was “over-the-top supportive” of her choice, and together they agreed to accept any material sacrifices required to give her career a shot. After moving from Arizona to Colorado, Harmon acquired her first representation—alongside such greats as Ron Hicks and Daniel Sprick—at the now-closed Merrill-Johnson Gallery in Cherry Creek. She continued to develop her artistic and personal approach to the figure and models, and soon she was gaining a following and receiving awards.
Then a few years ago, Harmon met her biological father for the first time. The circumstances behind their late-in-life meeting—he was 86 at the time—are complex; throughout her childhood Johanna lived 15 minutes away from her father yet didn’t meet him until decades later, in 2006. That year she learned that his son, her half-brother, an archeologist and artist, had passed away. She wrote to her father and was encouraged to call him on his birthday. Although he was suffering from Alzheimer’s by then, “it was a really warm, beautiful conversation,” she remembers. Father and daughter connected in a brief, healing relationship for six months before he died. Harmon and her stepmother, Esther, whom the painter now considers a mother figure, also developed a strong, nurturing relationship, which continues today and includes frequent, supportive discussions on art. “It grounds you, on some level, to know where you’re from,” Harmon says of the belated union with half of her biological family. “In retrospect, I completely understand and have compassion for the circumstances we found ourselves in.” In fact, she says, she doesn’t wish her childhood had been different: “I do believe it’s changed me. I feel more open and accepting of people, and I believe it’s made me more sensitive and observant.”
Those finely tuned perceptive skills came into play at a retreat for women artists in Idaho, where Harmon noticed that one of the artists seemed quiet and a little withdrawn. It turned out the young woman, Katelyn Alain—whom Harmon describes as “a fantastically imaginative figurative painter”—was away from her infant son for the first time and missing him. Harmon was moved to ask Alain, who graciously agreed, to pose for her among the trees. THE CLEARING captures a subtle sense of melancholy in the young woman’s quiet form. Yet amidst the thicket of branches and trees, the image also speaks of something else. “Spiritually, it represents her bravery as she was walking through unfamiliar territory,” the artist observes.
In her own passage through unfamiliar terrain, Harmon learned that upheaval, as well as everyday sights and sounds, can propel artistic growth. In recent months she finds herself setting a clear artistic intention before starting each new piece. Often that focus is on patterns of light and dark that produce an engaging abstract design. “I’m more technically equipped now, so it’s very exciting,” she says. “It feels limitless.” Today as she jogs along mountain trails, she appreciates even more vividly the play of shadow and light. She lets the clear air sweep her mind clean and make room for ideas as she finalizes her approach for a new painting. Even while watching movies at home, she might freeze the screen to take in an especially striking combination of patterns and hues. “I feel like inspiration is everywhere,” she reflects. Occasionally almost too much so, as when light flows across someone’s face in a certain way and Harmon finds her attention divided between her eyes and ears. “I’m constantly painting mental portraits when I’m having conversations,” she confesses. “I’ve had to ask people to repeat themselves—I say, I’m sorry, I was painting you!” she laughs. “My visual world can unintentionally supersede my listening world.”
Yet in the final result, artistic vision and the human spirit are equally reflected in Harmon’s heartfelt work, both through her painting and in workshops she leads at the Art Students League of Denver and elsewhere around the country. “I love meeting new people, embracing each person’s life purpose and experiencing something outside my own self by connecting on a deeper level,” she says. “Most of my models evolve into genuine friendships. It releases creativity and adds meaning to my life and my work.”
Featured in the November 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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