Lightning Rod: Hilary Harkness

Hilary Harkness is a painter represented by Mary Boone Gallery in NYC. She draws inspiration from multi-disciplinary sources - history (including WWII), literature (such as the work of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein), and women's studies (focused on issues of inclusion and historical representation). One strategy she has employed to interrogate the historical narrative has been re-casting WWII events with all-female characters, allowing her to explore universals (e.g., power struggles, chains of command, the sheer exertion of will and desire) without the distraction of gender-biases. Her upcoming show at Mary Boone Gallery opens May 5th, 2011.

What was your greatest artistic "eureka moment," and what were you doing just prior to having it?


  1. Common guys, now's your chance to brag!

  2. My biggest eureka moment came after having a passionate conversation with my childhood growing up. My life in art hasn't been the same since and I refuse to let my paint brushes dry. Before that I was having a conversation with an amazingly attractive girl named Brianna Guishard.

  3. Lost in the desert a few weeks, I stumbled upon an abandoned artist's studio. I sat down to paint a humble still life of rocks and twigs decorously arranged. Midway through I heard a thunderous voice urging me to separate the Darkness from the Light...and realized the tonal separations were indeed too subtle. :D
    Seriously, I have been thinking of your Q--especially in terms of living in Rome. But one memorable moment was when, in Barry Schachtman's great Figure Structure class at Wash. U., I had a sudden understanding, after weeks of struggling to render form, of just where the plane changes should occur on the skeleton's rib cage. My drawing improved dramatically; one of those sudden leaps in intuition, where knowledge and feeling unite.

  4. I was working on a piece I later titled "Voice of a Sinking Ship" which was based on this billboard for Seagram's at the end of my block. It had a floating liquor bottle and ice cubes and limes in what looked like giant oceanic waves. I though, "well, I'll just replace the bottle with a ship and the ice cubes and limes with drowning people" (As a kid my favorite song was Pete Seeger singing about the Titanic disaster.)

    So the top part of the piece was based on the billboard and the bottom was this sunken woman and in the drawing she was a very boring and static image...not dynamic or interesting compositionally AT ALL.

    So, one day, I was innocently (or maybe guiltily) sitting around looking at the drawings on my wall when I realized I had one of a woman in an upside down crucifixion pose and that she looked............wait for it............just like an ANCHOR!
    Perfect for "Voice".

    This was so damned exciting I had to take a walk. Shameless plug division: you can see voice of a sinking ship here if you are interested (scroll down--its on the left)

  5. It was when I suddenly realized there was no pot of gold, heavenly rewards, or prize at the end of the race, and because of this I might as well do exactly what I wanted, while I might. My work was instantly transformed.
    Just prior to this I was wearing a hair- shirt and beating myself with various scratchy things.

  6. Yes, gotta love taking off the hair-shirt and throwing it in the fire.

    ewww, what about hair-'foundation under-garments'? Off to buy some now, see you at Bergdorf Goodman!

  7. Margaret, you had me going completely - I was about to pack the car and drive to Death Valley for a reenactment. Excellent art writing, also, a nice shout-out to the most deserving Barry Schachtman.

  8. my biggest artistic moment when i was painting is when i realized i would starve if i didnt go eat some food.

  9. It was 1980 and I was living in a little pit of an apartment on Delancey between Clinton and Attorney and I was doing some black and white India ink drawings and had run out of white ink. I was so pissed off because I was too broke to buy any more so I started to sand into the Black ink and not only did it erase the image, but it created a surface that looked like a frescoed wall. It was a process and a metaphor all wrapped up in a cheap way to make art.

  10. (A few watershed moments are building up to a Eureka moment because these moments keep confirming the same thing...)
    * when a guest critic used the 20 minutes to stare - with nothing to say - at my work
    * when my work was called "banal"
    * when the first words out of established painter's mouth were, "What have they done to you?" as he critiqued the last piece in an exploratory series I had been developing
    * when another artist implied that I wasn't being honest with myself
    * when I realized that I didn't want a painting to go out of my studio because that meant I was no longer able to spend time with it, to paint on it
    * when I realized my best subject matter was carried with me all along

  11. I had been truly fumbling around in the locked room of expression I found myself in. I was working mostly two-dimensionally and just wasn't getting anywhere. Blocked by media, I was looking for a way of expression that was more immediate, and more unrefined. One day a friend gave me a chainsaw and some wood, and I suddenly started making leaps into places I had never been able to go with my work. It was rough, it was physical, the tools made me feel more masculine than I ever had before, I could paint on sculpture with reckless abandon, the increased scale put my carvings into my world as printmaking and drawing never did, and I felt like my artwork was truly born of "work." I was satisfied with accomplishment at the end of a day. That was the first Eureka moment.

    The second was when I realized how much content could be placed, built and layered within the work. That all of the things I thought and experienced and read could find its way out of me and reside somewhere that others could see and think about. It was the intellectual stuff of life that I needed that could be just as important or more important as the work stuff I needed. True engagement of mind and body.

  12. Hello,
    Thank you for your contributions so far. I see this is a very materials and process oriented academy, right down to the importance of eating properly. Personally, I like to paint within 30 feet of a refrigerator so there is no temptation to go outside and accidentally begin a very happy afternoon in a park.

    Let's backtrack to comment #1 by Eric Tellfort. He mentions a "passionate conversation" followed by a "conversation" with an attractive girl [nice shout-out to Brianna Guishard!]. While these conversations do indeed seem inspiring, the post in no way suggests that our #1 got lucky. Though perhaps he did soon after.

    This brings me to Salvador Dali. He believed in having no sex whatsoever while planning a painting. Then, in the process of executing the painting, he would make love to his wife every day after lunch to keep his artistic flow happening. To me, this points out the importance for an artist to be happily married, and as the Art Industry is big in NYS, the state should consider legalizing gay marriage to protect this commerce.

    However, i do have three other questions based on Salvador Dali's beliefs:

    1) Do you agree with Dali, or does sex cause you to wander off for a long happy day in bed?

    2) Might this process be the opposite for women?

    3) What does this mean for abstract painters?

    Thank you for your consideration,

  13. There were two.

    1) April of my senior year in college, drawing a picture of a filing cabinet, determined once and for all to draw something accurately from life--something my instructors had avoided teaching me how to do--after months of struggle. When the shapes were all the right size and all the lines met up, I thought "Ah! That's what they mean!"

    2) My first day at the Art Students League, when the instructor said "The most important thing in drawing the figure from life is the relationship between the ribcage and the pelvis."

  14. HI, Hilary

    here are my answers

    1. Nabokov once said that "is sex is the serenade of art, then love is the lady of that tower" I think THis might mean that desire is the instigator of all creative process. And I say YES to it, since love is so costly and we need to paint to make money

    2. can't answer

    3. there have been writings that even such artists as Modrian expresses sexuality in his art. And I think that abstract painting is a expression of pure feeling.

    thank you

  15. I just started at 35 to practice my drawing sketching and conceptual sensibility for the first time. I am getting really sharp at being conceptual maybe for the first time in my life. I know I will go back to the tedium of drawing more realistically and more from life. But for now having fun and practicing exercising this part of my brain really suites me.

  16. One of my biggest moments was over the summer when I was at the academy; I spent the entire summer agonizing over what I was going to do for my degree project and placed a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to make sure that I was engaged by the content and subject matter. Everything I came up with as a potential idea sounded either pretentious or contrived. I tried to convince myself that I could work with those ideas but I knew deep down that none of it was authentic or genuinely something that I cared about. That moment was when I realized that I needed to make a project about what I had been torturing myself about: the idea that I knew that I needed to find something, but that I didn't know what I was trying to find or even what it was that I was searching for. The project ended up being one of the most important bodies of work in that it established a base line for all of the work I've been doing for the past several years.

  17. I have had a number of eureka moments in my 57 years. One of the biggest for me was reading a life changing book The Artist Way, by Julie Cameron. I was not, prior to reading this book, on a clear creative path in my life as a person or as an artist. After reading this book I took responsibility for my own happiness, living a conscious creative lifestyle and now could really dig into applying the principles of this book, that clarified and reaffirmed what I intuitively thought and believed in my gut, but didn't understand before how to actualize these principles.

    The other, was realizing that one of the instructors at NSCAD that a had contempt for would later in life become an artistic mentor, who was a teacher at the N.Y. Academy.