Harriett DeLong: Beyond the canvas

Artist talks about her own work and that of her late husband

Harriett DeLong’s butter–colored home is tucked away on the edge of a Savannah square. A steep white staircase leads to the main entrance on the second floor, which opens into a studio bursting with papers, paints, and papier–mache animals.

Although the house reaches a full three floors, the walls jut forward insolently, the banisters rise up and knock unwary elbows. But after the initial bout of dizziness upon entering, visitors are charmed by the warm, inviting aura of the residence.

Weathered, well–loved books rest on every surface. Bristly brushes sprout out of half–empty paint cans, and sunlight streams in the windows.

Harriett walks airily across the wooden floor, a vision in white.

She leans into a chair, pulls back her thin, translucent white hair, and fixes her blue eyes onto a painting of a motorcyclist. Harriett’s animal sculptures and drawings are scattered throughout the room, while her late husband David’s paintings stare down from the high walls.

With a soft breath she says, “I always liked art, and growing up I liked dance, but my mom didn’t want me to be a ballerina.”

She pauses, smiling. “She didn’t want me to go to art school, either.  I went to art school anyway. She was displeased. Then I met a motorcycle–racing artist and it was even worse.”

The wrinkles in her face reach up and stretch when she smiles, an easy, close–mouthed grin. She wears no make–up or jewelry, except a silver wedding ring and a pair of polished blue–glass earrings to match her eyes. Harriett flutters through her space like a hummingbird and glides downstairs, her feet barely making a sound.

When she reaches her husband’s studio she looks up wide–eyed at the paintings. “When I first met David, I was drawing the Discus Thrower, struggling,” she giggles, “and he came along and he worked on my sketch, made some very sure lines over my feathery scratches.”

She smiles at the memory, then a look of serious admiration crosses her face.

“He could draw beautifully; the classical line and shading, hatching, cross–hatching, and he could just take a pen and look at your head,” she extends an imaginary pencil, “cross the top of your head, take it away, look again, put in the eye, another eye — merely lines, you see — locate the mouth, then...”

Her hand wobbles slightly then drops back to her lap. She clasps her fingers and gazes into the distance. The faint smell of lemon tea hangs in the air, and for a moment the only sounds are light echoes of traffic and her dog, Zoey, shifting on the floor.

She looks up suddenly with a sympathetic grin. “People say, ‘Harriett is an artist,’ and I say, ‘I’m a small ‘a.’ David’s a capital ‘A’ Artist, because I mean, mine by comparison are naive.  Lack gravitas, you know.”

It’s true that the difference between their works is palpable. David’s paintings, which dominate the lofty walls, are dark, with thick, rough strokes creating no clear form but that of the brush that molded them. The rusted orange, burned crimson, and deep black seem to create holes of mystery, much like looking down a pit, shivering, then stepping carefully away from the edge.

Turning from them to Harriett’s work is like a sip of cool water on a summer day. One can’t help but smile at the chubby, woolly bunnies serving tea and gardening with friends.

Harriett has made sculptures of mice, turtles, donkeys, bunnies, bats, camels, frogs and vultures, and each animal has a distinct attitude and personality. They seem imbedded in a context–they’ve been somewhere, they’re going somewhere, and there’s a sense of possibility of infinite stories abounding in her world.

The vast brown eyes of her creatures twinkle with mischief, gaze in curiosity, or blink in wonder. The light pastels recall a blush, a teal seashell, and a periwinkle flower in bloom. Harriett’s thin black pen outlines the forms and creates texture in the fur, intricacies of expression.

She opens her portfolio to a picture of a papier–mache mouse riding a camel in nomad garb. The piece plays happily in contrast — juxtaposing the familiar mouse with an exotic setting, as if it’s about to head off across the desert sands of Saudi Arabia.

And that’s the magic of Harriett’s work; she takes something familiar and makes us see it in a different light.

Harriett glances across her square workroom, over the colorful paint palettes, coffee cups filled with brushes, and tubs of colored pencils.

“I spend so much time on these ridiculous things. Should they be dressed? Should they be in their little fur coats? Should they be more in their little environment? And instead of a golf club, should they just have a stick that looks like a golf club?”

She speaks slowly, turning the words over in her mouth. “People always ask how long does it take, and it takes your whole life in a way. What you have done, what you haven’t done. What you’ve learned, what you haven’t learned.”

Her lyrical voice slips to a whisper, and the last words of her sentence flicker like a candle flame.

Harriett’s artistic career began implausibly. After office work at an electronics concern, the Asheville, N.C. native began cataloging art and interviewing artists for an interdisciplinary project called Engineering in Art and Technology.  It was through EAT that she worked with such influential artists as Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage.

Although Harriett loved the challenge and excitement of working within this group she needed to make money. So when a teaching position opened up in Washington, Harriett, David, and their newborn son, Mark, moved there to start afresh.

Harriett had her doubts at first. “I don’t think I could have done it, or wouldn’t have approached it the way I did if I hadn’t had a child, had Mark, and seen that a child coming into the world has never seen anything, is seeing everything for the first time as he notices it, as he reacts to it. So I said, well, that would be kind of like art, because the kids have to learn what they’re seeing and what they’re focusing on, not what I see or how I see it.”

Harriet’s quietly determined spirit rebelled at the conventions of the teaching world. At her school the boys went to wood shop while the girls went to art.

As she laughingly explains, “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I want both the girls and the boys to go to art and both the girls and the boys to go to wood shop.’  So they changed it. And we could coordinate projects, it was great.” She beams, pleased with herself.

Harriet carries the same soft humor into her sculptures, three or four foot papier–mache animals wearing rainboots, playing trumpets, reading magazines.

Picking up a small package of long black wisps, she says, “They have eyelashes — I don’t know if you noticed. People look at me in the drugstore when I walk out with four packages of fake eyelashes. You know, I give the animals temporary paper eyes before the permanent ones, so they can see what’s going on as I work.”

Still the educator, Harriett is avid about her work with younger artists in the area, including SCAD student interns who come by daily to learn how to make lithographs and prints. When she’s not working on her own projects or helping others, she catalogs and sorts David’s work.

Her current undertaking is the “Figuratively Speaking” exhibit at Indigo Sky Community Gallery, where about 25 of David’s drawings and paintings are on display.

The collection focuses on the human form, catching glimpses of David’s work from 1955 to the early 1970s, outlining his progression from more detailed, realistic renderings to looser, more gestural forms. Though the focus is certainly on David’s work, three of Harriett’s sculptures sit cheerfully by the entrance of the gallery, greeting visitors upon their arrival.

While Harriett has already established herself as an integral part of the artistic community, the struggle for artistic excellence is ongoing.

She muses, “I’m striving to get a capital ‘A’ like what’s her name — Hester — in The Scarlet Letter, but I want mine to be ‘A’ for ‘Artist.’”

Figuratively Speaking

Drawings and paintings of David DeLong at Indigo Sky Community Gallery, 915 Waters Ave.

Artist Talk with Harriett DeLong on Sunday May 20 from 3-5 p.m.


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