PHOTO ESSAY | Charity Harris on Southern aesthetics, Duck Dynasty, and found materials
ISSUE 0: PAST-LIFE
JAMIE HOPPER DOCUMENTS ATLANTA FASHION DESIGNER AND ARTIST CHARITY HARRIS’ WEARABLE, SCULPTURAL PIECES. CAROLINE COX INTERVIEWS HARRIS ON THE FIRST ACT OF ART-MAKING, IDENTITY, AND HERITAGE.
Make up by Jamilla deBow, Modeled by Felicia Smith.
Topics like a region’s history, a person’s background, and a vision for a brighter future can be hard to tackle in one piece of art. But for Atlanta-based artist Charity Harris, it was a natural inclination. She uses found materials to create one-of-a-kind wearable pieces that are both visually appealing, and that tell a story.
Since obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree from Georgia State University, Harris has been a Windgate Fellowship finalist and an Idea Capital Grant recipient. Her works have been displayed at galleries such as Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, and her solo show Southernoids II: Symposium is forthcoming at Hathaway Gallery.
Just after returning from a short sabbatical in Denver, I spoke with Harris about blazing her own artistic path, expanding the conversation about what it means to be Southern, and art as a catalyst to spark important conversations.
What’s the first piece of art that you remember making? I know that can be a hard question.
I actually do remember. I was proud as pudding about this poster that I made for my kindergarten class. I remember [my mom] helping make it, and I was so excited that I was able to create something, kind of out of nothing. It sparked this whole idea of being able to be creative, and then make something that other people enjoyed as well.
What was your artistic journey to the aesthetic that you have now?
When I was applying for schools, I wanted to go to fashion school, and I couldn't afford it. So I ended up at [Georgia] State. I was excited to go to State, don't get me wrong, but I wanted to go somewhere where I could do fashion. I marched into my counselor's office and I was like, "Hey, I'm gonna make my own major. I'm gonna take all the courses that a fashion major would take, and then I'm gonna see you in four years."
For a little while, I was helping produce fashion shows, and then I realized that I was still interested in making art, so I went back to being more focused on creating pieces. It was towards junior year of college, and I felt like I hadn't found my place yet. A lot of times when I would try to do certain fashion things, it didn't quite go over well. Do you know what a capstone course is?
OK. Because I was making my own major up as I went, I still had to take this capstone course. We had to make this big solo project when we got to class. That summer before, I was researching. I was gonna do this really beautiful dress, and I researched it for like three months and had everything ready to go before we even got to class. I get there, I show him everything, and he's like, "This is super boring. No one really cares about dresses," and I was like, "What?"
And so I said, "If I figure out a different way to kind to incorporate this, would you be open to it?" And he was like, "Show me what you're going with." I started finding the weirdest materials that I could. I think the assignment was about connection, and I just figured out what things [represented] me being connected to my personal history. I felt like that was always something that I had trouble with in school: trying to figure out how to connect what I love. So I found all these different materials to convey that.
I ended up making this thing called a sister robe. It was made out of construction materials, braids, wire, different things that you could connect together. Each part had its own separate meaning. That was the very first wearable piece that I made.
How did your professor react?
I brought it to school, and he's just like, "Now, this is cool." This is the same professor who told me that maybe being an artist was not for me my freshman year. For me to get to the capstone course and for him to finally say, "This is cool"? I figured I had stumbled on something that was worth pursuing.
You’ve said you use your Southern upbringing as the driving force for the content that fuels your work. Tell me more about that.
I'm a Southern girl. My mom is from Alabama, my dad is from Mississippi. I was born in Alabama, raised in Georgia. For the longest time, I didn't want people to think that I was from the South. I appreciated the fact that I didn't have an accent.
It wasn't something I accepted [until recently]. I was at church when I came up with the idea for the sister robe. The materials themselves, a lot of the silhouettes are historical costumes and things like that. Being honest about my upbringing has been a driving force, and it also shows the South in a different light, the South that I know to be true. When some people think of the South, they think of Duck Dynasty or a caricature of what we are.
I didn't want to view the South in a rose-tinted lens, but I also wanted to be honest. The South is beautiful, and it also has ugly scars. I think that bringing both of those out to talk about them is what's gonna really prove to be what we call "the new South." It’s recognizing our scars, and still finding a way to move forward into a more beautiful future.
Anything else you want to add?
The pieces are important, but I think the conversations about the pieces are more important. That's why I make them. That's why I spend all the time figuring out the materials. I want to show a true representation of the South, but I also want people to have the conversation about this new South that we really want.