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The whimsical world of Henrietta Harris

02 Mar 2019
Henrietta’s work has been gaining attention worldwide and her new exhibition ‘Hidden People’ sold out almost immediately. Here, she shares where she found the inspiration for these paintings.

Skagaströnd is a tiny village on the northwest coast of Iceland with a population of 508. Last year, for about a month over the summer, its population increased by one when New Zealand artist Henrietta Harris was offered a residency there.

The area’s stunning landscapes and the village’s isolation (it’s a four hour drive from Reykjavík) is the perfect setting to spark inspiration and work on one’s art free from distraction.

The residency she won, NES Artist Residency, it’s fair to assume, is an artist’s dream. There is no pressure to create anything specific; instead artists are encouraged to “craft their experience as they wish”, and invest the freedom of time and space into their art the best way they know how, whether through research, development, experimentation, or pure creation.

An exhibition of Harris’ work that had its genesis at the residency is currently on display at the Melanie Roger Gallery. Called Hidden People, the show features work with snow-tipped mountains, low-hanging mist and fluffy pink clouds that look ready to be eaten.

Many of the works sold on the night of the opening earlier this week, something that has become a regular occurrence for Harris, and a reflection of her popularity and the engaging nature of her work.

The name of the show, as she tells us in the below interview, is a reference to her signature portraiture work in which faces are either blank, or smeared with pink paint, as in her Fix It series. The people of Skagaströnd are absent in Hidden People, though signs of life are present in the form of roads and walking tracks across mountains

Harris has kindly shared with us some of the photographs she took during her time in Iceland, and some of the sketches that served as a starting point for the work currently on display. She shares the highs and lows of her residency and the setting that inspired the atmospheric work of ‘Hidden People’.

Tell us about the residency you applied for. What made you apply for it?

I hadn't had any work for ages and had no direction so had been applying to a few residencies because it seemed like the thing to do. Iceland had always appealed, and I definitely wanted to go somewhere new.

Before you arrived, what were you hoping to get out of the residency or produce while you were there?

I had absolutely no idea. I'd started an 'inspiration' folder on my computer but scrapped it when I realised I didn't want any to have any subconscious expectations or to guide myself in a particular direction because there was no need.

What did you end up making or exploring there?

I walked around in tech gear, went to the spa, painted with watercolour, and took photos of clouds.

What were some of the highlights and lowlights of your time in Iceland?

The only lowlight was how expensive it is which I talked about constantly. Highlights - obviously the landscape, the people I met, the block of time given to me to think about nothing but my practice.

What was the most surprising thing you learnt/realised while you were there?

That I do actually enjoy having a spa.

Tell us about your exhibition. What is the meaning behind the title?

It's the English translation of 'huldufólk', which are elves in Icelandic folklore. It also stems from the fact that I usually focus on portraiture but have left the people out of these pieces- or perhaps just hidden them.

How is Iceland and your residency there present in the work?

It's quite loose actually, the pieces I made there and the reference photos I took were more of a starting point. It's been more of an opportunity to focus on painting something other than portraiture which has been harder than I thought it would be, when it's not just a quick fun drawing or painting in a sketchbook.

Do you have any advice you can share for other New Zealand artists who are thinking of applying for international residencies?

Absolutely do it! Mine wasn't funded but if you can get a funded opportunity, even better. It's invaluable to one’s practice I reckon.

Hidden People is on display at Melanie Roger Gallery, Feb 27- March 23, 2019.

All photographs and paintings courtesy of Henrietta Harris. Portrait of Henrietta by Greta van der Star.