For artist Winston Harris, time is of the essence.
“A couple of my mentors died and something just hit me,” said Harris, whose exhibit, “Winston Harris: Time Tradition and American-Made Series” is at the Sandy Spring Museum through April 1. “You’ve got to think about all the time that these guys spent with you, and the fact that you’ve got to show some type of homage to them. So, I started creating something to dedicate to them.”
There’s something to dedicate to the next generation, too, as part of the exhibit shows the work of art students at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, just down the road from the museum in Olney. Harris, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree in printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University, a master of fine arts in PP from Howard University and a career as an artist that reaches back beyond his undergraduate days, said that while he has worked with small groups of students before, this was his first experience with teenage printmakers.
“I normally would do residencies at printmaking institutions or universities where the chair would assign me to an instructor and the instructor would assign students, maybe 10,” he said. “College people, so you don’t have to look over them.”
This time, he found himself working with 24 students and Amanda Stortzum, the honors studio art teacher who is also assistant principal for academics at Good Counsel. “I was accepted to the guest artist program here at the Sandy Spring Museum,” Harris said, referring to a program funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. “I was asked to do a community outreach project, reach out to some of the local high schools.”
He admits he was “a little apprehensive,” but settled on Good Counsel when he saw that the school’s art program had three desk-sized printing presses. “I said, OK, this is a pretty unique school,” he recalled. “Then I looked at some of the students’ work. That was my first time working with high schoolers and I wanted students who were committed to making art.”
“Ms. Stortzum selected the class, and she couldn’t have picked anyone better. This was a great class—just phenomenal. They put all of my cares away.”
Stortzum says this kind of community outreach is something students at Good Counsel particularly enjoy, and that her class—young artists who prefer to “dabble at an advanced level” rather than committing to a particular medium—took up the challenge with enthusiasm. “The students were actually very excited,” she said. “Winston came in quite a few times to watch them work and answer questions; he wanted their projects to be connected to the museum, to time and to their own heritage.
While he led them in a workshop setting, the students also worked independently and with their teacher. And they took on Harris’s vision as their own. “I wanted them to go into their family heritage and see something that was passed down to them, something traditional,” he explained. “Then they could incorporate symbols and images that related their culture into their art.”
One student artist, he said, reimagined her Dutch and African American heritage into an image of a tea party that Harris described as “just beautiful, the way she arranged it on the table.” A butter churn from Italy, a Mexican sombrero, an Irish dancer facing a grandfather clock—Harris said he is proud to have the students’ work share gallery space with his own.
Of course, his own work is impressive. Harris’ prints and etchings are placed in different parts of the bright, airy museum, with its distinctive traditional architecture—a nod to Sandy Springs’ Society of Friends Heritage—and preserved historical artifacts from the once-agrarian area’s stores, schools, farms and homes.
The entire exhibit Harris said, is about capturing the moment. “It could be the present; it could be related to history,” he observed. “But the idea of using time as an event itself—some people don’t think about what’s going on with time. You can have something happen and time stops; this is that kind of conceptual look at time.”
Literally as well as figuratively: Throughout the exhibit, Harris uses clockwork and watch motifs, color and black and white, mixed media and manipulations that bring together different textures and moods into collages that examine not just time but also the march of history.
One featured event is the Million Man March. His work at the National Gallery of Art allowed Harris access to shoot the march from the vantage point of the building’s roof. “It gave me a big scope of the entire mall,” he recalled. “I was able to get some exclusive close-up photos and I kept them for years. I just wanted to have some historic documents.”
Similarly, Harris documented President Barack Obama’s inaugurations as well as the installation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. “I was blessed to get certain clearances and get behind the ropes,” he said. Once he had photos of King’s statue, “it seemed like the perfect time to put this all together. That was when I started the series.”
Taken together, the exhibit does speak to the passage of time, the power of memory and the use of cultural heritage as an artistic unifier. It also delivers a message that Harris particularly treasures, about reaching out and providing mentorship and inspiration.
“I was part of the pay-it-forward movement,” the artist explained. “When I came to VCU, it was called the Upward Bound program, and I was selected by the assistant dean of the art department. I worked directly with him in the foundation program.”
So many artists helped him along the way, their only requirement a promise to help someone else once he was able to do so. Harris said that has always stayed with him.
“I appreciate all of my mentors, all the people who took time to work with me,” Harris said. “Internships, fellowships, apprenticeships—all the opportunities I received.
“I feel very blessed.”
“Winston Harris: Time Tradition and American-Made Series,” featuring the work of student artists from Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, runs through April 1 at Sandy Spring Museum, 17091 Bentley Road, Sandy Spring. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is free for members, $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for ages 3 to 17. Call 301-774-0022 or visit www.SandySpringMuseum.org.