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5 Questions with Terri Harris

Follow Terri Harris on Instagram at @terriharrisart.

PAINTER Terri Harris is a recent SCAD graduate whose work is informed by her experience with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The colors she uses are representative of meanings she assigned to those colors when she was younger. She’s also currently working on a body of work in response to the pandemic, as those collective feelings of fear and panic begin to be experienced by more people.

We talked with Harris last week.

1. What was your experience at school like?

I’ve always been really invested in art since I was a little kid; it’s been my primary interest. I’ve always wanted to be a studio practice artist, so SCAD just made sense to me.

My last quarter was fall of last year, so as of now, I’ve graduated. I feel really grateful but also a little bit guilty. We were able to do our showcase when we did because so many other peers are taking exhibition design this quarter and they’re facing a lot of challenges with conducting shows alternatively through digital platforms.

2. How has your art practice evolved over the years?

I’ve undergone a pretty huge transformation with that. As a little girl, I romanticized the idea of being a painter. When I got to my adolescence, I thought that comic work and sequential was going to be more of the field I was interested in because storytelling was so important to me.

Photo by Selena Amor
Photo by Selena Amor

But when I came to SCAD, I started doing a lot of internal reflection and investigation that kind of led me into this idea of confrontation. In 2017 I started this confessional body of work that detailed my experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder and the ways in which it affects your relationship with cause and effect. A lot of these fears that people experience are very much based in reality. OCD affects your ability to see your real proximity to worst-case scenarios and how much space these intrusive thoughts really take up in your mind.

In particular, scrupolosity has been the primary way OCD has manifested in my own experience. It’s essentially obsession surrounding one’s adherence to a moral code. It’s often referred to as religious OCD since it’s commonly been observed as aversion to sin, but it doesn’t exclusively affect those with a religious practice.

I attended Christian schools growing up, so these existential discussions surrounding the ramifications of sin, afterlife and relationship with the divine were a huge part of my formative years. I developed magical thinking surrounding divine punishment that devolved into this paranoia of bringing harm to myself or others if I fell out of line with the behavior expected of being a good Christian, so I developed compulsive rituals centered around prayer.

It’s a part of the human experience to be in situations where you feel small compared to something out of your control. I’m trying to relate these very specific experiences with ones that I think are more commonly shared, especially in the face of a pandemic.

3. What media do you work in besides painting?

When it comes to time-based media, if I’m being really transparent, that was just a requirement of one of the classes I took. But once I got into it, I realized that video just offers a completely different way of investigating the themes. With the kind of work I’m making, it’s easier to translate the experiences using something time-based. You can see movement, and that helps with these ideas of repetition and compulsion.

With sculpture, when Monica Cook came to SCAD, I wanted to get physical with my approach to creating. Doing these kind of human sculpture works is a really satisfying way [of creating]. I already liked having gritty surfaces with my work, a subtractive and additive process, and it just felt more gratifying to to do it on an object.

4.Tell me about the color you use in your work.

The red and white in my work are the most significant of them. The way my brain works through OCD is that it’s decided red is representation of sanguine, of death and violence, things to be avoided.

One of my things growing up was, I was very afraid to step on red surfaces and make contact with them, because I felt like if I stepped on this thing that was red for too long, I’m going to get cancer. I had to do a lot of exposure therapy on standing on red surfaces.

I have this process in my video work and some of my paintings where it’s applying red to the skin and washing it away. This way of illustrating the nonlinear process, how there’ll be days when you feel empowered and comfortable being immersed in a thing and it’s lost its power, but then there’ll be times that during seasons of life there are more challenging or stressful where you just don’t have the same tolerance for these very irrational things.

The green I integrate in my work is a way of signaling, the same way you’d look at a stoplight: green means go, green is the good and safe color. It’s this way of illustrating utopian states of mind, feelings of conquering.

In terms of contemporary artists, I’m looking a lot at Emilio Villalba and his environmental paintings and his Paintings from Home series he’s been doing lately. The application and his space and color is something I’m looking at and want to find ways of incorporating into my own work.

Edvard Munch has been thematically the artist that continues to inspire me the most.

5. It seems hard to say right now, but what’s next for you?

It’s definitely hard to say! My goals before everything was to stay in town and continue this body of work I’ve been developing. It’s kind of shifted gears now; I’m still interested in our relationship with the fear and confrontation, but looking at the global landscape of everybody’s response to that in the face of the pandemic is changing. The duality of everybody’s response is something I want to build as a body of work.

It’s interesting how our fear is acting as this survival response. It’s being incentivized to keep us away from each other and safe to prevent spread, but at the same time, I see this irrational fear from people like the protestors who think their civil rights are being usurped, how that’s becoming the self-sabotaging thing.

I changed my mediums a little bit, but I’m starting to do more watercolor work and going back to the small scale.

I want to move west as soon as I get the opportunity to. Everything’s so up in the air now, I’m taking it one day at a time.