“Coral Head” by Helen A. Harrison
By Helen A. Harrison
Ever since enterprising wreckers began luring merchant vessels onto the treacherous reefs around Key West, the so-called Conch Republic has been a magnet for creative thinkers. The island is best known for its colorful literary characters, from Ernest Hemmingway, Elizabeth Bishop and Tennessee Williams back in the day to contemporaries like Judy Blume, Alison Lurie and Joe Pintauro. It’s less renowned for its visual artists, although they’ve been drawn to its tropical climate and welcoming hospitality since 1832, when John James Audubon stopped at the Geiger house on Whitehead Street and fleshed out his “Birds of America” portfolio with novel specimens he spotted in the Geigers’ garden.
Today there’s a lively art scene and several commercial galleries, including Key West’s own Guild Hall, a co-op on the main drag, Duval Street. The former Custom House on Front Street is now a museum that shows both contemporary and historical art. At The Studios of Key West, in the old armory building, there’s a full program of residencies, classes, lectures, exhibitions and performances. Sculpture Key West, which began in 1995 as an informal outdoor exhibition for local artists in Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, has become an annual public art showcase that attracts entrants from around the country and even overseas.
Among the outstanding resident artists is Helen A. Harrison. No, I’m not boasting, because although I’ve been spending time in the Conch Republic for more than 20 years, it’s not me I’m talking about.
My husband and I have returned several times since our first visit in 1989, when we stayed at a charming Victorian guesthouse, The Palms, on White Street. Almost directly across the way, in a modest storefront at the corner of Olivia, I spotted the Harrison Gallery. Peeking through its big picture window, I saw some things that made me want to take a closer look. It turned out to be one of the best showcases for contemporary art in a town that’s burdened with more than its share of schlock houses and tourist traps. A bell tinkled as I opened the door, and a slim, attractive woman came out of the back room. I asked if she was the eponymous owner, and she said she was. I said, I’m a Harrison too, Helen Harrison. “So am I,” she said, “Helen A. Harrison.” Well, I’ll be jiggered. “And so am I,” I told her.
Piling one coincidence on another, the other HAH is a sculptor, which is what I was before going into museum work. In addition to carving wood, she uses natural materials like Cohuna Palm fronds and Royal Poinciana seed pods that she manipulates in ways that both enhance and disguise their botanical character. She might build up contours with metal mesh or fiberglass, cover the surfaces with glossy enamel paint and gold leaf, and add geometric stone or wood elements as counterpoints to the organic undulations. She respects the inherent quality of the material, but isn’t intimidated by it, and often pushes it beyond its apparent limits. Her shoe-shaped carvings turn functional forms into works of art, while her vessels and furniture are as useful as they are sculptural.
Helen and her husband Ben, a musician and author, arrived in Key West in the mid 1980s. After nearly a decade of living aboard their 38-foot sailboat, La Dulce Mujer, they docked at the old Navy pier and decided it was time to become landlubbers again. This was not simply a practical matter — two kids and a sculpture studio were more than the boat could hold — but an emotional transition as well, because they had built La Dulce Mujer with their own hands.
“Sailing Down the Mountain,” Ben’s account of their sojourn in the Costa Rican highlands, where the boat took shape over three-and-a-half-years, is about to be published, and it promises to be both an excellent adventure and a cautionary tale. In a short version that appeared in Boatbuilder magazine ten years ago, Ben admitted that the project, “when looked on objectively, lacked any element of common sense.” But they did it anyway. As much as Helen and I have in common, that’s more than I would have been willing to take on, even in my most daring days. So when I tell you that Helen A. Harrison is an artist, a creative thinker and a risk-taker, I’m not tooting my own horn.