Peter Harrington’s drive to find his perfect symbolic expression through combining geometric forms with organic elements in totemic ways motivates this Jemez Springs painter every time he enters his studio.
“I began this series of paintings about 25 years ago,” explains Harrington, who shows some of his latest pieces during a two-artist show at Ellsworth Gallery that opens on October 5. “Up in My Grill: Explorations in Sublime Irreverence” features Harrington’s paintings and ceramic sculptures by Gena Fowler.
Harrington’s background as a practitioner of Buddhism informs his work. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who also studied art in a master’s program at Purdue University, Harrington spent five years living in Zen monasteries.
It was during a two-month-long solitary meditation retreat in Maine, when Harrington was in his mid 20s, that he went through a transformative experience that has had a lasting impact on his art. He lived in a cabin with no electricity. A nearby stream provided fresh water.
“I was doing specific sitting and walking meditations that were all about being present in the moment,” he says. “Honestly, I got extremely lonely. I didn’t see other humans for several months. But out of this experience I felt intimately connected with nature. I would walk through the forest around me and feel deeply moved by the smell of the surrounding pine trees.”
Harrington worked in an abstract style while he was in school. Realizing years ago that he really wanted to paint in a representative style, he started building his body of work based on forms that have meaning for him.
The cholla cactus is one of his special images. Harrington has developed a series of paintings he calls “aerocactus” because a cactus is transformed into an airplane.
He also likes to use the image of a pagoda in different pieces and pair it with disparate objects. One of his paintings, “Pagoda Hairdo,” came about when he was thinking of the beehive hairdos of the 1950s and how they can be almost pagoda-like in nature. Sometimes, pagodas are paired with pine cones.
“My paintings are a kind of Kabuki of forms and often have a totemic, iconic expression,” Harrington adds. “An unlikely, but inevitable, intersection of elements from primitive nature and the human presence toward a philosophical whole.”