A conversation with our January artist Hannah Harper




   We begin the new year with a visit from the artist for our one-woman show, “Buoyancy,” this month. We hope those of you who have not seen her show will be inspired to make it by the end of this month. I think you will discover a world that invites imagination and exploration. In this instance, there is more than meets the eye.

And this comes from Maryville-born Hannah Harper, all of twenty three, who has managed to make an impressive start to a very promising career. Her rather unique vantage point comes from underwater, actually. In painting after painting, Harper shares her worlds, some in the bi-level story form, some totally immersed in the here and now.

A scuba diver, Hannah takes us below the surface to catch a swimmer in motion, or one in languid suspension…in green-toned, at times, blurry river water. The effect is plainly experiential, especially in the larger canvasses; a swimmer may be a bit larger than life-size, with a wonderful interplay of refracted light, shadow and reflection as noted in “Jill”, which you will see right off, as you first walk in the gallery. A strong arm reaches across the canvas in beautiful patterns of light, shielding her dark and silhouetted face. This is the kind of contrast and play with light you will see often.

   Her father’s enthusiasm with the underwater spread to her and her sister. Hannah became certified as a scuba diver when she was twelve. While she says she has only snorkeled in the ocean, her scuba explorations have been to quarries, and mostly in rivers locally. Rivers, Harper says, have a different quality to them, often with cloudy water, and various shades of green.

Hannah’s finely-written “Artist Statement,” which you will also find posted here, discusses how water became an expression to her of “time and memory” and the subconscious, and the unknown. And the significance of water in her life seems to run deep, through the roots of her family, even to include her grandfather aboard a ship in the US Navy, during WWII.

   In one painting, entitled “Surface Musings” the artist depicts herself touching the surface of the water while rings form at the tip of her finger. While, below, in a ‘bi-level’ view, one sees, and senses much depth, and indeed, the unexpected: a park bench, a stone path…in an underwater world. While she literally just touches the surface, this signifies the point where her journey began in creating her larger canvasses in “Buoyancy.”

Hannah was inspired by a YouTube video (her father shared with her) of Green Lake in Austria, a place where the lake disappears in winter, and becomes a park, with stone paths, and benches, then is flooded again each spring and summer. And you will see a park bench, or a stone path in several of her “bi-level” works.

In “Seclusion in Shallows” we could almost be looking at an aquatic Magritte, as two young men, immersed, sit upon lawn furniture, in casual repose. A quiet, mountain lake scene sits atop them, above the waterline providing the perspective of the present. The figures signify a memory in the artist’s life. In “Regression,” the same figures appear underwater while a cluster of stark white trees grows from below and out above the surface.

   Imagine how Harper manages to photograph the two subjects who actually pose for her in a pool sitting in chairs! There are no bubbles flowing up to the surface, as you will see in her swimmer portraits. Perhaps this reminds us that these are moments of the artist’s past and not so much experiential, as her swimmers are.

Hannah comes from a “very creatively gifted family.” In addition to scuba diving, her father plays with the band “Pistol Creek Catch of the Day,” which performs often in East Tennessee venues. And her mother, an accomplished seamstress, has made upholstery bags professionally, knits, and has dabbled in painting. “My mother cursed me to be an artist…she told me at five years old that I would be one,” Hannah shares with a smile.

And her studies at East Tennessee have challenged her in ways that she needed, she says. Her professor at ETSU, Mira Gerard, would ask why water was such an important recurring theme in her work, and urged her to build a concept around it, to discover the significance. And, Harper has done just this, as evidenced by her body of work, involving water most always.

   Harper’s lighting choices are interesting; in some paintings, a swimmer might seem deeper from the surface, and the effect is somewhat cosmic, while there are several with a very pronounced glowing source of light, (as in “Maggie” swimming with fish all about) and the light and swirls of water are integral to the picture. “The play of light and dark” are integral to her work. The last paintings in the exhibit form a triad, where you will notice these qualities.

Oil is her medium. And she says she tends to be sort of “stingy” with the paint, as it is costly. An artist who visited her studio once suggested she paint very quickly without sparing the paint. And the result was heavy patches of paint on “Selkie” (a play on the name of mythological seal women and “selfie”). But usually, painting is a slow process, using a series of layers, using a lot of Liquin, a medium to dry the the paint faster. She finds the process of painting “meditative” and thoughtful.

As our visit at Vienna Coffee ended, Hannah invited me to her studio nearby at Studio 212 in Maryville to see what she is currently creating. She shares a studio space with other artists, whom she finds fun and supportive. Hannah works as the pottery studio’s manager and, quite conveniently, finds time to work right there in her own space. While she is in transition, Hannah has chosen to make a painting of an imaginative collage she made in college, something “almost melodramatic” she describes. Picture a river full of candles, a woman in a field, and a tornado looming in the background!

She will bring her same imaginative, playful approach to a “teen painting” class she teaches at Studio 212 in February, she says. “It’s more interesting than a still life…you’re more invested in it…doing something you make.”

   Hannah seems at once playful, and analytically in her approach to creativity. There is very much a quality of spontaneity in Hannah, of seizing the moment to consider a new idea. And when inspiration fails, she is pragmatic. “I’m a painter, I gotta paint,” she exclaims. She will find something to work on and maybe “something” will come of it or it will “turn into something else.”

Hannah Harper’s work speaks directly to the viewer. It appears mostly autobiographical, certainly in her bi-level story compositions. The river portraits are experiential, and quietly powerful that way.

“Buoyancy” is the perfect title for an exhibit that seems to share some of the artist’s soul, her passion for life in all its phases, and her reflections of the past. This is an artist to watch.






   Note: I invite you to read the artist statement, as her words best describe her intentions:









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1127 North Broadway Knoxville TN 37917

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