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The Way We Were

Posted On September 5, 2016

The late South Carolina artist Jim Harrison is perhaps best known as preserver of a bygone era

By Warren Hughes 

Photos by Larry Gleason

They’re still out there. Icons of a long-ago South Carolina where weathered barns and rusty fences frame the visitor’s journey to a time half-remembered.

Jim Harrison country: Those fading landscapes that the Bamberg County artist lovingly depicted in his paintings, many bearing faded Cola-Cola signs that served as a frequent inspiration. His fondness for the roadside ads ultimately led to a successful commercial relationship with
Coke and many of the bottler’s signs adorned his office, which itself could have inspired a Norman Rockwell painting.     

Now, like parts of our agrarian countryside, Harrison, too, is gone, at age 80, the victim of a fatal heart attack in June at his Denmark office and gallery, where he worked and socialized with visiting patrons. 

Harrison, who devoted the last half of his life to art, had a profound impact on South Carolina’s arts and letters scene. Columbia writer Tom Poland remembers him fondly. “One Sunday afternoon I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jim Harrison at a book signing in Charleston,” He reminisced. “Jim was there to sign The Palmetto and its South Carolina Home. We had met earlier when I stopped by his Denmark studio one Saturday. It’s not every day you sit by an artist whose work you’ve long admired. We talked about collaborating on a book, his images, my words. The fading South would be our mission. Somewhere down the road, I hoped, we would collaborate and chronicle a South that’s disappearing. That Sunday Jim and I bought each other’s book. He signed his, ‘Especially for Tom.’ We agreed to meet to make our collaboration a reality. At the end of our signing, we scattered like a covey of quail. I left thinking about how much I enjoyed talking with Jim.” 

“Anytime I was near Denmark I made a point to visit Jim. I admired his subject matter. He and I devoted our time and talent to a South that’s washing out as pastoral scenes and customs go. I loved his landscapes where cotton fields and old barns dwell. I loved his country stores and their Coca-Cola signs, and I admired his coastal landscapes. Working with him would be special, but life and work got in the way and now Jim is gone,” Poland said. 

“In the room across from my writing studio is print 2/50 of “Flowers on Fence,” which Jim signed to my mother. I gave it to her as a Mother Day’s gift because that print looks exactly as her yard did when she was alive and vibrant. She died March 26, 2015 and left the print to me. When I look at it I see Jim in his studio, much as you see him in a photograph I have of him,” he noted. 

To Dr. Deidre Martin, who handled marketing and public relations for Harrison, he was not only a great artist but also a best friend. "He was a talented artist who had the ability to truly capture the heart of rural America and that is what made his work so special to me and many others who love our rural heritage. However, Jim was also an amazing human being. He was kind, generous and one of my very best friends who loved the folks in his life unconditionally. I can't imagine South Carolina or Gamecock football without one of its favorite sons. He will be greatly missed." 

Aiken photographer Larry Gleason had a unique relationship with Harrison, who asked him to photograph all of his art for the gallery website and other purposes. He was also Harrison’s publicity photographer, travelling to book signings and other events. Harrison appreciated Gleason’s help in capturing in photograph the details of a subject he wanted to paint like cotton, marsh grass or an aging barn. 

Among scores, Gleason took an especially memorable photograph of Harrison working in his office, an image that has become a favorite for many.  Gleason’s fondest memories are when he and Harrison would just sit back and gab. “The best part was all the talks we had on almost any subject,” he said. “He always wanted to know how things worked and he always had new ideas for Denmark.”     

Emilie Nicholls, communications manager with Coca-Cola Consolidated in Charlotte, had a recent memorable visit with Harrison to discuss highlighting his Coca-Cola story. “Jim was a local legend, an incredible artist, and a valued member of the Coca-Cola family,” she said. Among other projects for Coke, Harrison produced art for an annual company calendar. 

A Georgia native, Harrison grew up in Denmark, an historic railroad town. His journey as an artist began with a summer job as an apprentice to sign painter J.J. Cornforth, whose office building would later become Harrison’s studio and gallery. 

One of Harrison’s first tasks for Cornforth was to help paint a Coca-Cola sign, thus beginning a life-long affection for the vintage logo depicted on barns and buildings across his beloved region. 

His mother encouraged him to develop his artistic talents beyond just painting, giving him his first art kit for what would become a lifetime of work. A graduate of the University of South Carolina, Harrison pursued a double major in both art and physical education. 

After graduation, he decided that art wasn’t a practical career option and chose coaching high school football instead. Things changed, though, in the 1960s, when he met Allendale art teacher Zita Mellon, who encouraged him to pursue art on a full-time basis. 

Harrison had scant knowledge of the art market back then, but with the encouragement of his wife, Margaret, in 1970 the couple set off for a sidewalk art show in New York City. He later laughingly recalled the cost of the trip far outweighed his meager sales, but he quickly mastered not only his craft but the marketing of it as well, with Margaret, always a source of stalwart support by his side throughout their 46-year marriage.  

In the early 1970s, he published his first print, "Coastal Dunes," and his work soon gained national attention.  He had more than 100 sold-out limited edition prints of his paintings with thousands of collectors of his work across the country. His work has been shown at Hammer Galleries in New York and the Conacher Gallery in San Francisco. His paintings have also been included in the annual shows at the National Academy Gallery in New York.

In 2008, Harrison was presented with the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by the Governor of South Carolina. He was also honored that same year by the S.C. House of Representatives for his many contributions to art and the state. In 2010, USC presented him with an honorary doctorate.

Besides his artwork, Harrison was the author or illustrator of several books, including "Pathway to a Southern Coast," "Country Stores," "American Christmas," "The Passing" and "Jim Harrison: His World Remembered." Over the years, Harrison shared his success with charitable organizations including the American Dietetic Association Foundation, USC Aiken and the Agricultural Heritage Center in Blackville.

“In art and writing, time and talent are the ultimate collaborators. Jim worked close to 40 years as a full-time artist, a Herculean effort. Gone but never to be forgotten, he lives on thanks to his body of work and vision of our Southland’s picture-perfect beauty. As some will say, ‘We’ll not see the likes of him again,’ and it is truer than true,” Poland concluded.

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The Jim Harrison Gallery is open on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 11am-5pm; Wednesday and Saturday from 11am-3pm.  Closed Sunday and Monday except by advance appointment.  For information, visit jimharrison.com.  

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