Friday, June 2, 2017

Anne Harris

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


We loved the warmth and the happenstance of muralist Anne Harris’s apartment, rooms that have been put together with an artist’s eye for what is interesting as much as what is beautiful. With little worry as to what might “go” with what, that eye somehow unites it all.

Anne’s murals have been commissioned throughout Europe and the US and have been featured in publications such as Architectural Digest, The New York Times and Elle Décor. Although she describes herself as “a good technician”, she is quite obviously a highly skilled, sophisticated painter, seemingly unfazed by almost any request from any period in art history, and more often than not, guides clients towards a more original interpretation of an initial idea. But she’s not keen on vines and trellises: “I’ve actually never done one.” Soft-spoken, delightful, charming as she is, we had the impression she’s not going to be doing one either, so it’s probably best not to ask.


These kinds of apartments just have to sort of happen, don’t they—you can’t make them like this, they can’t be put into place.

I think somebody can do this … somebody who is good with arranging things … but it’s not yours.

Yes, it doesn’t evolve. I like the fact that your pictures aren’t straight—a decorator would make sure that they were straight. I mean there’s some accident here too—I don’t think you cracked the glass on that picture there on purpose … and perhaps you don’t care.

I kind of like it better with the broken glass.
Entering Anne's Upper East Side pre-war rental. "The style of my apartment is depicted through pictures of various parts of my life and travels," says Anne. The primitive paintings by Mose Tolliver, aka Mose T, were bought for $15 each thirty years ago and the laughing mask was picked up at a flea market in Brooklyn. The apartment entry door was stripped down to its metal base and left with an unfinished patina.
A series of baby pictures of Anne's daughter, photographed by her late husband, Scott Bowron, lines the entry. The marble foot doorstop was bought in Rome at the Colosseum gift shop, as a reminder of "how bad the pedicures are in Italy."
An upstate New York landscape painting by a good friend, Tom Goldenburg, leans against the photographs; the red bike helmet that keeps Anne safe on her daily ride to her studio in Long Island City hangs on the door knob.
Biedermeier chairs were obtained at an auction house downtown. The Palissy Ware black plate on the wall depicts crabs and clams, a reminder of Anne's hometown Hampton, Virginia, crab capital of the Chesapeake Bay. A metal abstract horse sculpture found on the street has become a catch-all for hats and scarves. The citrus prints are from Anne's first trip to Sicily.
An array of masks collected over the years hangs on a carved Indian screen, ready to be pulled down and used as a table at dinner parties.
A collection of drawings and small paintings collected over the years keep each other excellent company on a sidewall.
And the paint around the edge of your doorframe there is a bit smudgy … I really like that too.

[She begins to laugh …] I’m not sure that was meant to be noticed! Do you always notice this much this quickly?

You don’t know how many apartments we’ve been into …

I have to say I had to take some Christmas decorations down [before you came] because I just haven’t looked at my apartment for a while.

So this is very interesting because your work is beautiful but to some extent—I don’t want to use the word ‘meticulous’—but it’s very ‘executed’, which presumably is not your approach to furnishing your apartment.

[Sighs] You know I think it’s because I can. It’s because people turn to me for those sorts of things. What I’d really love to do is just to have a whole house because I really love walls—I’d love that continuum and it would change and the patterns would change. I’m not so interested in frames. But I have never had anyone let me do it!
An eclectic assemblage of treasures Anne has loved over the forty years of living in this cozy, rent-stabilized apartment.
"My borderline art-hoarding leads to a real estate boom of wall space," says Anne.
The gilt plaster frames hanging over the fireplace were lucky finds from Christie's auction house. Forty years ago, these frames were taken off paintings that were shipped overseas, and the frames stored in the porter's closet for anyone to purchase.
A soft sculpture by Kathryn Goshorn purchased during an open studio event at the New York Academy of Art sits on a camel sack pillow. A Chinese ceramic rooftop tile competes for space on the mantel.
Yard sale-sourced furniture is given new life thanks to white muslin slipcovers, inspired by the villas of the Veneto. While studying frescos in Italy Anne noticed how the simple, white, slipcovered furniture allowed one to focus on the murals.
A 19th century seascape painting purchased at Sotheby's arcade auction thirty years ago hasn't lost its allure. "A longing for the sea is a constant in my life." The cluster of barnacles on the coffee table are a reminder of the pier at Anne's home on the Chesapeake Bay.
A turquoise-studded hat from India, family photos, and a ceramic fruit lamp from a Long Island yard sale find space on a side table.
Various coral, shells and other objects collected over the years create a table of curiosities.
A black yak tail bought in Bhutan adorns the top of this full-length mirror.
The Moroccan metalwork lantern throws patterns of flickering candle light onto the walls in the evening.
Christmas lights are year around because Anne believes you can never have too many little white lights. "During dark winters, they never fail to liven up a room."
The large-scale drawing was bought from a street artist who was exhibiting his work on the walls of an abandoned Soho building.
A tortoise skull and shell candlesticks by R&Y Augousti, Paris sit on a marble column next to black Ikea chairs.
I would let you do it in my house—if I had a house. What do people want you to do? Do they come with a photo or just describe something to you?

Usually it’s based on something they’ve seen and what I try to do is to get them to do something they haven’t seen. I draw from the history of art—I’m not a part of the art world, really, I’m sort of a cousin to it, but I look at people who have been painting paintings for thirty or forty years and they’ve got a style, and they have to stay in that style.

Are there things you get asked to do and just don’t want to do?

I can go to whatever works for a space … but um, a trellis is probably like … [she grimaces] … you know … just so tedious. I’ve actually never done one.
The TV-and-popcorn room, where a lot of work and relaxation both get done.
A hodgepodge of paintings collected over the years.
While Anne almost always collects figurative works of art, the architectural works on paper were collected by her late husband, photographer Scott Bowron, and are painted using rust.
An extensive collection of art books, canvases, and paintings. Canvases exist in all states, all over the house, displayed, rolled up, or stacked. "Forty years in one apartment can create havoc," says Anne.
A multitude of textiles, from India to Turkey to Pottery Barn.
Taxes and unfinished business are pushed in the corner of the room.
Reference books are a big part of Anne's life. Old FMR magazines are dog eared and adored.
This painting of a small boat on the Chesapeake Bay was a gift from Anne's best friend and a reminder of home.
A favorite painting by an old friend Tom Goldenberg. And as Anne puts it, "a rather poor attempt to clean up my office space."
So you grew up in Virginia? What did your parents do?

I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. My mother was married four times … so it depends. [laughs]. I actually grew up with my stepfather who was a judge. I think they realized early on that there was a pea on one side and a grapefruit on the other—there were certain things I could do and certain things that were probably never going to come easily and so I took art lessons every Saturday mornings for four or five hours.

So when you look at a painting, can you dissect how the painter gets from A to B and then do it yourself?

Yes that’s exactly what I do. I get my nose up this close. I once had to do something in the style of Fragonard and I thought “Oh shoot me!” because I’m not crazy about him—it’s so very frou-frou. So I went to the Frick and I went around the Fragonard room—and this guy is a genius! The economy of stroke and he would create these lush environments!

Which painters do you most admire—who do you love?

You know probably my all time favorite is Egon Schiele. I just love that tortured line.
The hallway to the kitchen is covered in black-and-white family photographs by Scott, of their kids, Harry and Miller. A collection of collaborative Christmas cards, photographed by husband Scott and painted by Anne.
More family photos that are rarely updated.
"My forty-year-old prewar kitchen that has never been renovated." Ceramics line the shelves from Italy, Turkey and Morocco.
The classic New Yorker's desperate search for green.
Baby photos of friends and family on the side of the fridge.
A guest bedroom, ex-maid's room, with a painting by Tom Goldenberg.
That’s not who I expected you to say! Anyway, how did you make a living out of doing this kind of work?

I didn’t for a long time. I worked in Washington for a congressman for a long time and tried painting—but I couldn’t make it all work. Then I moved to New York and I got a job at Christie’s. I [eventually] went into Antiquities and Tribal Art. And then there was a point where somebody said, “You know you should at least be making your age in salary.” And I was 27 and making $13,000 and I thought, “You know I am so tired of being poor. Really tired.” So I bought a book and it said the best way in the world outside of prostitution was sales!

Prostitution is sales!

Oh … [laughs] well … I got a job at a travel trade magazine and then—it’s a long story—and then I became the travel manager at Town & Country and then I was fired. They had a new publisher and basically they fired everybody and I have to say they should have fired me. I’m not a writer and I’m not good with paperwork. Anyway, it was the 80s and decorative painting was really big and I was dating the man who was to be my husband and he was photographer and he said, “You know Anne, you can do this.”
A metal Paris chair purchased at the 1988 International Contemporary Furniture Fair by sculptor Andre Dubreuil is positioned below a Conte crayon figure drawing.
The hallway with a "too-blue grey" trim. "Mistakes were made," says Anne.
A hall lighting fixture from Ikea cast lovely shadows on the walls.
Two paintings: one was bought at auction and the other of a fish with a strap-on shark fin, was painted by Anne for her daughter, Miller Bowron.
Personality-filled portraits of Anne's children watch over the guest bathroom.
Friends and family photos all over the bathroom walls. "No one grows old," says Anne.
How did you get work?

I went to Ina Marks painting school and within two months I had plenty of work. I could figure it out and I kept trying convince people to do something else. I would convince them to do a mural. I kept trying to push what else could be done.
Actually Ina Marks threw me out of two classes because she said that I was copying the marble and not using the techniques of making it look like something similar to the marble, because I can paint that marble.

So you’re really good at copying.

I’m a good technician. I can do a lot of different styles. At one point if somebody wanted their Picasso to go on tour, then I could do the one that stayed over their fireplace and they couldn’t figure out which one was which.

So you can forge things?

[laughs] I do sign off on the back! But it’s fun!
Anne's bedroom, painted a warm yellow ochre, with an arabesque cutout cloth shade for privacy and patterned sunlight.
The cozy warm color brings Anne back to memories of Italy, where earth tones are truly appreciated.
"The results of living somewhere forty years and loving stuff," says Anne.
A painting by Anne of a gargoyle that looks, she says, "very much like one of my old boyfriends—delete the horns and facial hair."
More stuff that will be dealt with "later."
An Art Deco mirror-top desk given to Anne by Catherine Warren, an artist and friend who used to share her studio. The bamboo lamp is from Marika's on Shelter Island.
Three more Chinese roof tiles, Air, Earth, and Water.
On a dresser in the corner of Anne's bedroom, a Portuguese ceramic lamp and a metal monkey doorstop somehow find themselves side by side, along with more family photos.
A mirror hand-painted by Anne in a trompe l'oeil cartouche style, is now laden with trinkets and jewelry from her travels.
An atelier portrait of the male form and a new orange coat.
A ceramic flower-and-parrot chandelier bought at the Tepper Auction Gallery in the 70s and a magnifying mirror that "shocks me everyday".
A photograph from Café Luxembourg hangs near a ceramic parrot.
Another trompe l'oeil cartouche hand-painted mirror by Anne in her daughter, Miller's bedroom.
An abstract painting and hodgepodge of furniture left by her daughter's ex boyfriend.
Daughter Miller, who works in the fashion industry, prepares her outfit for work.
You’re making it sound so easy—it’s obviously not. And the scale, the way you have to scale everything up. How do you do that?

At one point I would grid but I … often … it’s just freehand.

Do you find there are physical limitations?

Yes. Someone just called me in Boston for a floor and it’s a ballroom! For one project—The Women’s Athletic Club of Chicago—it’s a fifteen-foot ceiling I’m going to have to structure something that rolls because I just can’t get up and down on scaffolding anymore. I’m just getting too old for it.
Anne in her Long Island City studio detailing a Hudson River grisaille tree-scape for a client in Ridgefield, CT.
Desperate last minute additions to the mural.
Two painting commissioned for designer Charlotte Moss.
After a furious night of working late to finish a piece for the Kips Bay 2017 Show House, Anne's studio looks like a tornado has momentarily touched down.
The finished product.
This is the start of a mural for Lichten Craig Architects + Interiors, "an insanely talented firm" that Anne has worked with for years.
A series of pelican paintings, a break from her commissioned work.
I see in some of the interiors, people just put stuff on top of the murals, other pictures, sconces and mirrors and so on. Do you mind that?

No, not at all. The Italians did that—I’m very casual about it. It’s background. I wish there was more of a tradition for painting on walls in America. In India people paint on the walls of their houses just because it looks pretty. It actually makes me sad that people are so particular or self-conscious about art here—they will say I can’t do it or I don’t do it and like, I have to say  “I’m a cousin of it” and so on.

Yes, there’s a reverence, and gatekeepers and you have to have gained admittance in some way.

And people have been made to feel like they don’t understand it. I don’t have the answer to it. All I know is that I fell into a weird place with it but I can’t tell you how happy I am to be able to draw from all over and not have to talk “artspeak” because a) I can’t, and b) I just look at people like, “You’ve got to be kidding.”