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Layers upon layers
Barbara Harman is a printer, a writer and a poet, a maker of artist books, and these days, primarily a painter.
Photos courtesy of Barbara Harman

"You never know where it's going to lead. That's the astonishing thing about being creative. It teaches you about who you are in relation to the world. Whatever horrible things you might have gone through - and I've been through some pretty horrible things - they are all fodder. They are all things that will feed you as an artist."
- Barbara Harman

by Norma Smith Olson

"Printmakers think in layers," Barbara Harman said. "You have to think what's underneath everything."

She has a preference for monotypes - one-of-a-kind prints - rather than traditional printmaking forms. "I don't have any interest in having 25 or 50 of the same image in a box underneath my bed."

"You get what you get. It's a one-shot deal," Harman said. "There's not a whole lot you can do to it - except add more."

For her monotype process, she cuts different shapes out of Mylar to use as stencils. She inks the shapes separately, using highly saturated lithographic inks, and then combines the stencils on a plate. "It's really strong color and transparent, which is what I need for lots of layers. I'm really a colorist."

Trees and family

Nature imagery, stenciled images and multiple layers of color tend to show up in whatever medium she's working in.

"Grace" - the acrylic painting on this month's cover - is small, about 10 by 11 inches. Like her monotype prints, it's built in layers. On a yellowish-green layer, with bits of brown, she laid a tree stencil and used foam rollers to apply darker greens. She used maple leaf stamps across what could be the chest of a woman standing, another faint leaf over the division of the legs.

The painting reminds Harman of Daphne, who in Greek legend is transformed into a laurel tree to escape the god Apollo.

"I guess you could think that the gods saving you from a fate worse than death is an act of grace," said Harman, who usually names her artwork after the piece is created.

Trees symbolize both strength and vulnerability to Harman.

"Trees are in my work a lot. It took me a long time to figure out what that was about," she said. "I come from a line of very strong women. Some made some really bad mistakes, particularly in relation to men.

"My sister and I are both very strong women. My daughter is very strong and my granddaughters are turning out to be very strong," she laughs as she mentions the early teen and pre-teenager. "They know what they want. I think it's a really good thing to know what you want, particularly as a woman."

Harman said that for her, trees "are my connection to all the women in my life. I see them as representing our ability to survive, transcend and grow."


Teacher and mentor

Even though Harman had an affinity for art as a young person, she was discouraged from taking art classes by school counselors because she was "college bound."

In the late 1960s, Harman was living in Cincinnati, - a young mother in her 20s with a daughter, on the edge of her first divorce. She enrolled in a beginning drawing evening class at the University of Cincinnati. Amy Burton, the artist who taught the course, became a mentor for Harman.

"She saw something in my work," Harman said. "I didn't know what I was doing; I just did the assignments."

In 1969, during race riots in Cincinnati when the university was closed, Burton invited Harman to her house to continue her art classes. On Saturday mornings they would sit at Burton's kitchen table. "She would work alongside of me," Harman said. "It's a method I have always used when I'm teaching."

In fact, Harman has been teaching art since the mid-1970s. She was a mentor with WARM (Women's Art Resources of Minnesota) for 10 years.

"When I'm teaching, I'm doing whatever my students are doing," she said. "I talk with them about what I'm doing. I show them how to use the techniques I'm using - whether I'm doing printmaking, painting or artist books."

The Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) brought Harman to the Twin Cities. Around 1990, she was living in St. Louis, developing a following by creating one-of-a-kind "concertina" artist books.

"I had a press to move," Harman said. "I was looking for a place that would welcome me."

MCBA was that place. The center invited her to be an artist in residence for two years, and she taught printmaking classes there for 10 years, including an artist workshop called "Unbinding the Book" - her specialty, creating accordion-style artist books.

Mentoring women artists is something Harman enjoyed, but found to be a huge commitment. By the early 2000s, her health became an issue with both chronic fatique syndrome and fibromyaligia. "I have to be careful not to overdo it. But I don't give up easily," Harman said.

Yet at 67, she continues to teach workshops and individual students, and she has no plans to stop.

"Artists don't retire," Harman said. "It would be like dying. I have to be doing something creative.

"I've been writing since I was 16, making art since I was 26. That's 41 years of making art. 51 years of writing. So I will be doing something until I croak."

To see more of Barbara Harman's artwork: www.barbaraharman.com For information about upcoming workshops and classes see Barbara Harman Paperworks on Facebook And her blog: www.barbaraharman.wordpress.com

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