Bill Harris

Interview by Seth Casana
Issue 31 • September 2015 • Fredericksburg

Organizing a day of guerrilla-style art-making is the best way this painter has found to connect with his fellow artists and the city at large.

"I don't think I'm a great painter,” Bill Harris tells me as we chat in his studio at LibertyTown Arts Workshop. Given that he’s been making a living for the past couple decades selling fine art paintings, teaches classes on the subject, and is one of the more recognizable artists in Fredericksburg, that’s quite a modest assessment of his abilities. However, there’s an important follow-up thought: “I think I'm an average painter who has some creative ideas." To make a musical comparison, he’s similar to Kris Kristofferson, an artist who may not have impeccable technique, but succeeds on the merit of the ideas and emotions expressed in his work.

Throughout twenty years of painting, Bill’s signature style has remained remarkably consistent. He specializes in finding the slightly absurd in everyday life, those small moments when things come together and stop you in your tracks. The people who inhabit his painted worlds are seen at their most pensive, thick with mood. His results are sometimes dark, often beautiful, occasionally humorous, but always rendered with captivating composition and a deliberate realism.

Bill’s inventiveness doesn’t stop at the canvas, either. He’s always exploring new ways to apply his skills. He’s designed album covers and posters for many a band, beer labels for Adventure Brewing Company, illustrated a children’s book for musician Keller Williams, and has quite a few commissioned murals under his belt. You can still see his first mural of a Satchmo-inspired jazz band from 1998 in the far rear corner of The Colonial Tavern (formerly known as Orbitz). More recently, he finished two new Fredericksburg murals this summer, one for Downtown Greens community garden and the other in Spencer Devon Brewery’s entrance foyer. Though he doesn’t consider it his primary medium, he does enjoy solving problems that only present themselves when working on building scale. “You're given a set of parameters to work in, so it's sort of a challenge, unlike my day job where I can do whatever I want."

Of all Bill’s projects, though, perhaps his grandest public gesture has been the co-founding of Art Attack. Back in 2012, he teamed up with Gabriel Pons, owner of Ponshop, to organize a day-long celebration of the Fredericksburg arts community. "Art Attack is a really simple idea,” he explains, “On any given Saturday, an artist could set up his easel on Caroline Street and paint, but what if hundreds of us all did it on the same day?" It was one of those ideas that seemed too good to not try, so they spread the word, rallied the “troops,” and picked a weekend in September to invade downtown. That first day went so well that Art Attack has come to be an annual tradition with over 100 artists expected to participate at this year’s event on September 19.

For the average person, the act of making art can be somewhat mysterious. Art Attack is designed to draw back the curtain and let the public experience the creative process firsthand. Bill jokes, "It lets people meet us and talk to us and realize, yeah, artists are crazy, but they're not all that crazy." There’s also a strong solidarity component to the event. Artists are frequently called upon to donate their time and efforts to other fundraising campaigns, but before Art Attack, there wasn’t an event to highlight all artists in the community, regardless of medium or gallery affiliation. The fact that it doesn’t cost any money to participate or attend keeps the whole day collegial, too. Bill says, "If you can get your stuff on the street, you can be in Art Attack.”

Networking has become another major theme of the day. "When we first started the event,” Bill recalls, “we figured that most of the participants would know each other, but we were totally wrong." Seasoned professionals and neophytes alike make up the ranks of Art Attack, so it’s a great way to meet like-minded creators. "Some of the artists weren't that confident about their own work and so were unsure about participating. But once you're set up, you get such a positive reaction from the public, it's really encouraging." There’s always an official after party so folks can share their experiences from the day, but this is the first year that the after party will be open to the public, not just participants.

On the day of the event, artists can set up anywhere they want, but typically congregate on Caroline and William Streets, the main throughways of downtown Fredericksburg. Some stay put the whole time, some bounce around to catch better light as the day progresses. "We don't want to over regulate it,” Bill says, “You can really make the day your own." Where will Bill be this time? “I tend to go where there's an empty space, often times that ends up being across the street from Goolrick's.”

As we’ve been talking, Bill has been sitting in front of a fresh canvas sporting the rough sketch of a scene to be painted. He tells me that it’s the first personal work he’s started since November of last year. Not that he hasn’t been busy, but it’s been a continual stream of commissions and works-for-hire, something that can be lucrative but draining. He’s been happy to have the work, but he’s even more excited to get back to his own muse, saying, "When I teach, it's the number one thing I tell my students not to do: don't take commissions." In his opinion, painting for a paycheck and nothing else is the fastest way to take the fun out of the process. It’s events like Art Attack, with its immediate on-the-street interaction, that really put things back in perspective for Bill, saying, "It's hard to gauge how good your are as an artist just by yourself. The reaction I get from people is the only way I can tell if I'm doing it right."

This year’s Art Attack happens on Saturday, September 19 from 10 AM to 4 PM. An after party that is open to the public will also be held at LibertyTown Arts Workshop from 4:30-8:00 PM. To participate, register online at artattackfred.com.

Photography by Seth Casana

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