September 29, 1997
Volume 50, No. 6
Most people on campus are familiar with Elyse Harrison's work, even if they don't know it.
An environmental graphic designer for Emory Publications, Harrison is responsible for much of the exterior signage around campus including most of the banners that hang from the gates outside Glenn Church on North Decatur Road. She also designs the plaques that commemorate the namesakes of buildings such as Tarbutton and MacMillan Law Library.
But Harrison's artistic passion lies in something else that's hanging in the law library, not the bas relief plaque of its benefactor. Spread out on three floors of the library are five of her paintings, part of a five-artist exhibit called "Volta" that's showing through Oct. 31.
A graduate of the University of Georgia's graphic design program and the Atlanta College of Art, Harrison's been painting since she was a child. "I couldn't think of what to paint when I was 10, so my dad said, 'Paint one of your ancestors.' I ended up painting a horse thief because he always joked that our ancestors were a bunch of horse thieves."
"Volta" is Harrison's first exhibit of multiple paintings. She did have two pieces hanging a couple years ago at the now-defunct Liberal Arts Gallery at Tula, but this show represents the first body of her work on display to the public.
"I've had so many people who've said, 'You know, you really should show,'" Harrison explained. "I've got so much work, most of which is rolled up in my living room or hanging in my husband's office, and I felt like it was just time."
So she got together with four friends-Carmela Aliffi, Chantal Gadd, Mary Callaway Logan and Callahan McDonough-who were part of her critiquing group and put the show together. "Volta" is an Italian term referring to the break between stanzas in a Petrarchan sonnet: "the integral space in which thought necessary for resolution occurs."
Harrison's integral space is the screened-in porch to her house that serves as her studio. On painting days, she said, her family gets kicked out; she needs absolute solitude. "I don't like anybody else around, even if they're in the other end of the house," she said. "I go in there and lose myself. I sit in my studio and write in my journal. It's a real cathartic experience. I listen to music loud, dance around, paint. It's a real freeing experience."
It also allows her to express herself more freely than does her design work at Emory. She signs her paintings simply "Elyse," and they give form to her innermost expressions of emotion. One of the paintings looks the victim of a furious onslaught of reds, browns and greens, the canvas glued onto a massive piece of black plywood and hanging from a tree limb by hangman's nooses. The title of the piece? "Rage."
"A friend of mine says, 'You're so naked with these paintings,'" Harrison said. "Because my outward persona is kind of sweet and demure, but you go over there, and you're like, 'Wow. Where does all this come from?'"
Though there is the occasional literal image thrown in, Harrison's paintings in "Volta" are all abstract. She prefers to not explain her work but to let viewers arrive at personal interpretations based on their own experiences and feelings. Still, one painting does hold specific, personal meaning for its creator.
"There's one of my daughter called 'Wisteria.' She'd gotten this beautiful, white, chiffon prom dress from the '50s, and she looked like such an angel," Harrison said. "The painting is me looking at her and seeing this innocent little being and the ugliness of the world that she's going to learn about. The painting shows her on the left, and then on the right side the ugliness, the darkness juxtaposed with the light. That's probably the most literal [of the show].
"Another one, a painting called 'Longing,' my mother loved," Harrison said. "I was shocked that she would like it." One friend was so frightened by the piece that he wouldn't go near it, Harrison recounted. "It was 20 feet away, and he stopped and said, 'That's too scary for me.'"
Not quite scary, but perhaps intimidating, is the prospect of finding a gallery to continue showing after "Volta" comes down. Harrison plans to do just that and possibly sell some of her work, if only to recoup the expenses involved in mounting the canvases. Potential customers should have a large wall and a large room ready to accommodate the paintings: "I would love for some large corporation to buy them because it's going to take a building that's pretty big."
Indeed, hanging on the wall of her small office is one of the works she displayed at Tula. It is a beautiful, untitled piece of curved green lines on a black background, suggesting a female form. The work dominates the tiny room, serving literally as a black hole of attention that drowns out the smaller items on display.
"I was so struck by the movie 'The Piano,'" she said. "At the end, when she's caught up by the rope with the piano going down in the water, I was affected by the most beautiful cinematography with the green water surrounding her as she and the piano sunk into the darkness. That's what that painting is about.
"It's been really interesting to see what people have liked. I've been very surprised at the response."
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