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|July 5, 2012||| Christine Lim||Tweet|
Anne Harris loves to paint. So much so she surrounds herself with it.
The upper East Side-based artist has been painting the inside of people’s homes for more than 30 years. But not in the way you think.
Harris doesn’t paint things that go in frames. She paints things that engulf people, transport them and move around them like surround sound or an IMAX movie.
A muralist, Harris paints full-size rooms in homes in New York City and all over the country. Hired mostly by interior designers, decorators and people who love art, she has done work on Fifth Ave., Central Park West, in a downtown bar, the hallway of a private school, in the homes of sailors and in the townhouse elevator of one of the finest designers in the world.
“I just never got into the gallery thing,” says Harris, sitting in the 75th St. apartment she has rented for most of her time in New York City. “I never understood the concept of sharing half of the sale for work I did with someone and playing the art world game.”
So Harris worked for a congressman, did a stint at Christie’s auction house to support herself and traveled to Europe.
“I was amazed by the paintings that went from floor to ceiling and covered the entire room,” she says passionately and in wonder. “I mean it was magical. Like nothing I had ever experienced before. It might have been over the top, but it was an incredible feeling. I was enthralled. My husband looked at me and said, ‘You can do this.’?”
Her first job was for the designer Charlotte Moss. Harris painted the entire foyer in Moss’ upper East Side apartment.
“That was one of the first and last times I painted on someone’s actual wall,” says Harris. “You just have to spend way too much time in someone’s house. It feels intrusive, and it’s hard to create. Painting on canvas meant I could do it alone.”
Finding studio space in the East 80s in an artist building, Harris picked up all kinds of work through the 1990s. One of her biggest clients, who kept her busy for several years straight, was the world-renowned designer Juan Pablo Molyneux. Harris worked on ceiling murals for Molyneux at the Kips Bay Show House. She painted an incredible Renaissance scene on the ceiling in a client’s dining room for him. She also covered the designer’s elevator. In one decadent 1630s scene, a playful Harris sneaked in an image in the mural of the designer’s head on a plate.
“I always try to have some fun,” she says. “With Juan Pablo, I would place him somewhere in the painting and not tell him. In another, I placed an image of the client in a reflection of a silver bowl in period dress. I love what I do. This is a very fun thing.”
It’s also a very serious thing. When you paint the four walls of an entire room or ceiling, you instantly become part of someone’s life, for a long time.
“It’s a big decision for someone in New York or America to want an entire room painted,” says Harris. “In Europe, it’s much more common. The selection process can take a very long time. It’s funny though. When designers hire me, I rarely meet the client or get to visit the painting. Then if I do meet them, they feel they know me intimately. They do live with my work every day, and they tell the story of the mural or the artwork whenever someone visits. These are very noticeable pieces of art.”
A trained decorative artist, Harris can paint just about anything. Maritime scenes, map scenes, Caravaggio-inspired work or even a smoky burlesque scene of a Parisian bar painted on the wall of the iconic SoHo music club Don Hill’s. It stood for years before it crumbled as owners tried to move the mural.
“I walked in there once, and this old guy at the bar told me that all the European liquor companies shot advertisements in front of it,” says Harris, laughing. “Things like that make me smile.”
A landscape in a salon.
Harris works out of a studio in Long Island City. She rides her bike, across the 59th St. Bridge daily, lost in the lights of New York at night. The recession has hurt the high-end home mural business. Murals typically cost $20,000 to $150,000 depending on the size and the amount of detail required. For scenic landscapes with less busy backgrounds, the cost goes down. They can take up to six months to paint.
“I just want to work,” says Harris, who recently picked up a job in West Palm Beach. “I’d love to do simple Asian scenes or light florals for much less, especially if the job is interesting.”
At her home, filled with realist paintings picked up at auctions or antique shops and small objects like bronze sculpture and miniature busts, Harris has a well-lit study filled with art books and obscure magazines with images she has collected for three decades. Clients will come to her home and look through the books, deciding on a motif, scene or color set. Then Harris will go to work at her studio. When complete, after the paint has dried, she rolls up the canvas to install on site.
“That can be complicated,” says Harris. “You have to match the work to the wall exactly and ensure the pieces of canvas match up at the corners. Ceilings and round rooms are even tougher.”
In a dining room on the upper West Side, Harris painted a dark, soothing cornucopia of fruits, such as oranges, grapes and lemons. The room is the most dramatic in the home, even more so than a living room with Central Park views. For the first few moments, it’s like living in the 16th century, as if Henry VIII might walk in.
“It really does feel like you’re living inside a painting,” says Harris. “There’s something magical. Your mouth drops. It’s so much more than just a picture on a wall.”
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