Ted Harrison: loved and snubbed

The National Gallery doesn't have a Ted Harrison in its collection. And it doesn't want one. "They told me, 'It didn't fit in their collection objectives,'" said Harrison's biographer Katherine Gibson on Tuesday.

The National Gallery doesn’t have a Ted Harrison in its collection.

And it doesn’t want one.

“They told me, ‘It didn’t fit in their collection objectives,’” said Harrison’s biographer Katherine Gibson on Tuesday.

“Actually, the National Gallery doesn’t have a single Yukon artist in its collection,” she said.

Canadian art is often overlooked, said Harrison, sitting in a friend’s living room in Takhini on Tuesday.

“The National Gallery seems to favour American art,” he said.

“It paid $3 million for an abstract American painting with a big red stripe down the centre.”

But Harrison doesn’t dismiss Voice of Fire, which actually cost the gallery $1.8 million.

“It’s better to fling money at art than fling it at bombs,” he said.

“And it taught me a lot, that painting. I found out what he’d done and used it in my paintings.”

Barnett Newman took a canvas and painted it all red, said Harrison, fiddling with his hearing aid. The battery had died.

“Then he painted cobalt blue over the red,” he said. “And it turned a deep dark colour which you can’t mix – really clever – so you have the dark colours on either side, and the red in the middle.”

Harrison copied Newman’s technique.

“What I did was I painted the hills red, and the lake red and then I just put the cobalt blue over the lake, and it went a beautiful dark colour,” he said. “Then I painted white swans on the dark lake.

“So I learned a bit from that painting.”

The wavy red and pink skies, flat yellow buildings, howling dogs, red lakes and two-dimensional ravens that are Harrison trademarks, did not emerge until the British art teacher moved north.

The style “came from heaven,” he said.

“I thought I’d simplify everything, because when I tried to paint the Yukon as is, it was too complicated and fiddly. So I said, ‘I’ll simplify it down – I’ll leave out the doorknobs.’”

After he found his niche, Harrison dropped his earlier style.

Colour took the forefront. “I realized I could do anything any colour I wished, so I just played with colour and then I grew really interested in colour,” he said.

“It’s not necessarily the colour you see, but you can feel it.”

The colours are from Malaya, said Gibson, after Harrison went to take a nap.

And the double spirals in the sky with the dark outlining are Maori, from Harrison’s time in New Zealand, she said.

Harrison started travelling after he joined the army on VJ Day.

“I thought I’d be going to the Far East to fight Japan,” he said. “But the war suddenly ended the day I joined.”

Instead, he ended up in India, with dysentery. “There are more germs there per square inch than anywhere else in the world, and I happened to pick them up,” said Harrison. “It nearly killed me.”

He went on to East Africa and Egypt, then as a civilian, got a job in Malaya, teaching art, social studies, British history, and religion.

“I taught my art students processes,” he said.

“If it was line or blocking printing, I taught them how to do that and then I let them loose. I said, ‘You can do any subject you like, in any media, but it has to be your choice and you’ve got to work at it and improve it,’ and that’s what they did.”

Art comes from within, said Harrison. “It should be their feelings, not the teacher’s feelings. Once you let them loose and they realize their creative ability, there’s no trouble.”

As an art student in England, Harrison wasn’t so lucky.

“I had a tough art teacher who hardly taught art,” he said. “He told you what you had to do, and left it at that – there was no leaving it to you, no freedom. But anyway, that didn’t affect me.”

When Harrison started making more money as an artist than an art teacher, he quit teaching.

But success was slow.

It wasn’t until he packed up his wife and three-year-old son and left his job in England for the Yukon that things began to change for the struggling artist.

“He was brave,” said Gibson’s husband Bob Unwin.

“He had his life, and family and friends laid out for him, and he walked away from that because he wanted to see Canada,” said Gibson.

In May 1969, Harrison held his first show at the Whitehorse Public Library.

“Nobody bought a painting for three weeks and the prices were ridiculously low,” he said.

Then Walter Grey, a visiting communications consultant for Indian and Northern Affairs, checked out the exhibit and bought three paintings.

He took them back home to Toronto and tried to arrange an exhibit for Harrison, but the gallery went belly up.

“So he got me my first exhibition in Ottawa, and I sold every painting,” said Harrison. “I’ve done well ever since.”

There’s more to Harrison than people realize, said Gibson.

“When they think of him, they think of his Yukon work, but they don’t realize what he did for 40 years prior.

“And if he’d missed any of those stages, we wouldn’t have the art we do today.”

Early Harrison works have more in common with Toulouse Lautrec and Edvard Munch than the colourful, childish landscapes that took over his later canvases.

But after finding success in the simplified Yukon tableaus, Harrison hunkered down.

“I enjoy painting in that manner,” he said. “It suits me.”

Now in Victoria, where he and his late wife Nicky moved when she was struggling with Alzheimer’s, Harrison has added whales to the mix.

“I paint whales under the water now; that’s a change,” he said.

Harrison, who turns 83 on Friday, can’t paint with the “zest and energy” he used to have.

“In the past, I painted for hours every day,” he said.

“I never looked upon it as a struggle. I was painting for the sake of art and it became accepted.”

It helps that his works are viewer-friendly and apolitical.

“I don’t usually make political statements,” he said.

“Because I might change my politics tomorrow.”

Harrison, pictured in Gibson’s biography smoking a cigar with Jean Chretien, has a way with politicians. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Pierre Trudeau and Ronald Reagan all have had works by Harrison.

A handwritten card from Reagan thanks Harrison for his work: “I’m happy because of your paintings,” he wrote.

“I’ve done all right with the prime ministers,” said Harrison.

But his career was not hinged on success.

“I painted when I didn’t sell them and I painted when I did,” he said.

And Harrison’s still painting.

“A Guinness helps,” he said.

So does a visit to the Yukon. “It’s like returning to the Fountain of Youth,” said Harrison. “I always feel better coming up here.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Harrison had just returned from lunch at McRae’s Chinese restaurant.

He’s so fond of the stuff, his friend was bringing over even more Chinese food for dinner.

And a Chinese family who owns a restaurant in Victoria has named their son after Harrison.

Gibson first met Harrison in 2005, while writing a feature on him for Focus magazine. After the interview, Harrison called her up.

“He said, ‘I’ve been trying to write my autobiography but it’s just too difficult – would you be interested?’” said Gibson.

After some deliberation, Gibson agreed, but under one condition: it would be an independent project, and Harrison wouldn’t see the manuscript until it was finished.

“He’s an important Canadian, and because of his stature it needed to be objective,” said Gibson.

“I didn’t want to compromise my journalistic integrity.”

Over the next four years, Gibson poured over old correspondence, visited Harrison’s hometown of Wingate, England, and talked with friends and relatives.

“Right from the start Ted was completely transparent; he gave me his unpublished letters, and papers and photos – he held nothing back,” she said.

“And I knew how much Ted was loved because people were so helpful and generous.”

During her research, Gibson was surprised how little had been written on Harrison.

“There were news clips of interviews, but this was the first piece of research on Ted,” she said.

Finally, Gibson handed the manuscript over to Harrison so he could check the facts.

“It’s funny, because the whole time I was working on the book, I never thought, ‘Will Ted like it or not?’” she said.

“I wanted it to be as objective as possible. I wasn’t writing for his approval.”

But after handing the manuscript over, Gibson had “a moment of crisis.”

“I suddenly thought, ‘What if he doesn’t like it?’” she said.

“If I had thought of it earlier, it would have affected the editing, because I would have changed it for his approval.

“But I wrote it the way Ted paints – honestly.”

Ted Harrison, Painting Paradise will be available at a book signing with Harrison at the Yukon Arts Centre tonight at 5 p.m.

There is a free barbecue at 6 p.m.

Soft cover copies of the book are $75.95.

A limited edition hardcover version, complete with a signed print is also available at www.crownpub.bc.ca. There are only 750 copies and each is selling for $295.

“Half of them have already sold,” said Gibson.

Contact Genesee Keevil at