THE STEAMPUNK ART OF JOHN HARRIS: PROFILE AND INTERVIEW

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN LIP SERVICE WEB MAGAZINE

Every so often, we at the ‘zine like to give our stage over to an artist whose work we love, to share their brainchildren and thoughts with all of you. Similarly, the designers and stylists at Lip Service also like to give a spotlight to artists who create jewelry, accessories, and other fashionable goodies in their catalog shoots. Sometimes, these two worlds collide in exciting and beautiful ways, as in the case of John Harris.

Preparing for the (then) upcoming catalog shoot for the new Fall collection, the designers put out the call for steampunk goodies to include in their Step In Time editorial photos. Well, as you have probably already guessed, everyone involved fell in love with John’s wonderful work . Fortunately, they contacted your faithful webmistress and suggested that we might like to feature him and his art in the ‘zine. I couldn’t have agreed more happily.

So, without further ado …

Ladies, gentlemen, and assorted fashion freaks, it is my distinct pleasure to introduce John Harris.

With multiple artistic disciplines under his belt, as well as a degree in Anthropology, John approaches his works as both artist and scientist. While applying research methods toward technique and design concept of varying cultures, his creative abilities spin these ideas into a new form of visual art, balancing rigid constraints of metalwork with free organic forms of nature. Shining metals act as foils to the natural organic feel of leather, light and dark contrasting brilliantly. Art is, in John’s words, an amazingly accurate depiction of what it is to be human.

If you think John’s art is just intricately precious steampunk pieces of beauty, you’d be sorely mistaken. His muse also takes a walk on the wild side with his work for Eerie Productions, one of the most successful special effects companies in New York, designing horror props, costumes, and haunted houses. Every day, his life-sized installations delight and terrify his customers at the award-winning Frightworld: America’s Screampark.

I could continue to expound on John’s accomplishments and philosophies of art and the creative process, but would rather let him tell you himself. From his home in Buffalo, NY, John was kind enough to answer some probing questions for the LS webzine.

First, I must say … Your work is absolutely gorgeous! Where can we see more of it? Where else has your work been exhibited?
Thank you, Mich. The best place to see my work is right on my website at JPHii.com. I keep it pretty updated with new pieces, and the News section of the site is actually a feed directly from my Blog which contains process images, concept designs, and works in progress. Aside from that, I have pieces in and out of exhibitions on a regular basis. Usually the exhibitions are in the greater Western and Central NY regions, but I try to branch out as often as possible. My work has been featured in Runway 4.0 which is an awesome runway show in Buffalo. I’ve also been involved with the Buffalo Infringement Festival (buffaloinfringe.com) in the past. There have been many small exhibitions left and right, but those are the bigger ones.

Can we buy pieces directly from you? Will you take on commissions or collaborate on special designs?
I do have an Etsy store which I link to on JPHii.com. There’s a constant flow of new work going up on there, as well as occasional discounts and sales which I announce on the JPHii Design Facebook page. I do take on commissions, and actually prefer those over more commercial work. Anything that pushes my skills, technique, or concept is always fun. The best way to contact me for a commission or collaboration is right on the Contact page of JPHii.com. I check my email fairly often, so I usually respond within 12 hours. I love tight deadlines also, as the people at Lip Service can probably tell you. I made the Mechanical Eye of Aman-Ra (the telescope) in less than a week specifically for this photo shoot.

When creating new pieces, where do you get the inspiration for the unique forms your objects take?
Inspiration can really come from any place at any time. I spend a lot of time reading and researching different ideas. I guess intellectual curiosity can really help an artist! Sometimes inspiration actually comes from the technique used rather than the object itself. I’ve been known to decide randomly to use a new technique, or one that I hadn’t used in a while, and the technique ultimately decides the outcome. But sometimes I just see something I like and try to improve on it.

On your website, you mentioned your philosophy of art, in which life influences set the artist’s path. Can you elaborate more on the influences which have shaped your creative direction and vision?
Many things have influenced me over the years that have set me off in odd directions. Just the fact that I work in metal is, in and of itself, a tangent in a long path. I accidently fell into this medium when an Anthropology professor of mine, named Dr. Dennis Gaffin, recommended that I use my artistic background to inform my cultural studies and that I should take another design class. I saw in the Buffalo State College course catalogue that they offered Introduction to Jewelry Design, so I took the class. I was hooked. My jewelry professor, Stephen Saracino, convinced me to take the next level of Jewelry Design to decide wether or not I’d stick with it, and I never turned back. But aside from just the medium and technical aspects of design, I grew up as a dedicated Catholic and even wanted to be a priest! The spirituallity I took away from the church essentially set me up for a life of wondering and questioning, which has been a major portion of my design process. Every little thing that a person encounters in life is a chance to learn. I have met many great artists over the years, my brother Kenny Harris, Vincent Pontillo, Rachel Timmins, Tara Nahabetian, Stephen Saracino, Dave Koszka, and Chris Graham just to name a few, and every single one of them has left their mark on me. But at the end of the day, an artist is displaying something bigger than just themself; they are displaying part of all of our greater humanity.

What is the origin of your studio name, Hallway 7?
This is actually an interesting question, as I’ve never really been asked it before. The name Hallway 7 comes from my adolescence. When I was a teen, my friends, my girlfriend, my twin brother, and I were a group of mall rats at a small mall in Syracuse, NY called Shoppingtown Mall. There used to be a small hobby store in the mall that we all hung out at. Next to the hobby store was a hallway leading out to a parking lot that no one ever used, so we used to hang out in the parking lot. This was Hallway 7. I use the name Hallway 7 to refer to the fact that every experience in a person’s life is a chance to learn and develop. I probably learned as much around Hallway 7 as I have in my 6 years of college. A person just has to look for the chance to learn.

What are the most unexpected factors which have significantly shaped your art?
There have been a lot of “wow” moments to occur to me, and each have been significant. I have to say that the single most influencial aspect of my life has been my job at Frightworld: America’s Screampark. Frightworld is a world-famous haunted attraction here in Buffalo, and has become part of the Halloween tradition in the greater Western NY Region. In 2008, I applied for a job at Frightworld as an actor to make some extra cash. Little did I know that this would become such a huge part of my life. In the following years, I became an artist working on different aspects of the attraction, which features 5 haunted houses in one building. Ron Doherty and Jason Anderson, the two owners of the company, took a chance with me and allowed me to get more and more involved with the company. I was promoted to the house manager of Return of Mummy’s Curse, and started working more closely with the design team and special effects team. The special effects team became a huge part of my success. Arick Szymecki and Andrew Lavin have always been a great asset to me as an artist. Arick has been a boss that has gone out of his way to support my work, and give me feedback. Arick and Andrew have both taught me so much as far as mixed media goes, but have also never been too good to sit down with me and discuss a concept or give me a tough, but real, critique of something that I was doing. Really, Frightworld has to be the most unexpected factor to shape my artwork because of the fact that they became my home away from home. Frightworld has truely become my family in WNY, and that feeling of belonging in a city where I didn’t know anyone really made a difference. It gave me confidence and support.

How has your background in Anthropology informed your creative process?
Anthropology has become a huge part of my process. The main reason: Research! Many artists don’t do enough research on a concept to fully understand the imagery or symbolism that that are employing. Honestly, human beings have been around for a long time and the odds of coming up with something brand new are fairly low. I look to the people of the past to help me solve problems of the present. This can be done with technique, like making fine silver filigree or figuring out seemingly impossible math to mix a Tumbaga alloy, or it can be done with concept, much like we see in Steampunk design where the refferal goes back to Victorian and Edwardian design concepts. Artists shouldn’t be afraid to read.

You often combine the machine-works of steampunk metal with organic forms and natural materials like leather. How did that aesthetic juxtaposition come to be a consistent theme of your work?
This became an interest to me through my Anthropological studies. I came to a slight realization that it seemed that the ultimate question to an Anthropologist, to me, is “What does it mean to be human?” I argued and fought with myself over this question, seeing it as my Philosopher’s Stone. At the same time I was struggling in my metalwork. Conceptually, I preferred to work on organic designs. However, my hands seemed to prefer meticulous mechanical designs. My hands were fighting my head. After much frustration, I realized this is actually part of the answer to the question! What does it mean to be human? We are both mechanical and organic creatures. We rely on technology, yet we still eat, sleep, and live organically. Humans are a combination of two completely opposing forces. I try to depict this through my work.

Speaking directly to aspiring artists, what is the most critical piece of advice they should keep to heart, no matter what stage of their career or development?
Work. Work hard. I’ve spent many nights in the Jewelry studio working. I’ve slept on floors, on work benches, and in my car on many naps to achieve personal goals. Set a goal for yourself, and work towards it. Don’t take no for an answer, just work for it. Nothing worth having is easy.

Is there is anything you’d like to add before we sign off? 
If anyone is interested in reading more on philosophy and art, I recommend reading The Mission of Art by Alex Grey. I’d also like to thank the Buffalo State College Design Department, especially Tara Nahabetian, Stephen Saracino, Robert Wood, and Sunhwa Kim, as well as the Buffalo State College Anthropology Department, especially Dennis Gaffin, Lisa M. Anselmi, Lydia Fish, and Susan Maguire, for their amazing support and education over the years. Also my parents, brothers, and wife. Really, you are all an inspiration to me.

Thank you again for taking the time out to talk with us, John, and for adding a special bit of extra magic to the new Lip Service catalog with your works.

If you’d like to find John online, here’s where to do it:

official John Harris Hallway 7 website: http://www.jphii.com
etsy store: http://www.etsy.com/shop/JPHiiJewelry
John Harris on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/johnjphii
JPHii Design on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/JPHii-Jewelry/208246699200767

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