Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted on January 15, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of Maurine St. Gaudens. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue titled "Sam Hyde Harris 1889-1977: A Retrospective." Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Maurine St. Gaudens Studios at either this phone number or web address:



 

Who Was Sam Hyde Harris?

By Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick

 



The Smoke Still Rises!
 
"Do you really know your Fellow Artists? See if you can guess who this is. Ah, they say that youth has spunk humor, imagination, critical analysis, and a true love of people. Yes, this artist has carried these traits with him all his life -- commendable, yes! His father died[1] when he was three years old, and he was raised by his sisters. Oh, what a great choir boy he was! And in his younger years he smoked a pipe, but as time passed he gave up the pipe for bigger and better things -- a cigar. So you see the smoke still rises! He has designed some of the "logos" that are well known to many people in Southern California. His paintings have been reproduced in many magazines, one of the most recent being 'American Art Review.' The list of his awards could fill Santa's stockings..."
 
                                                              -- San Gabriel Fine Arts Association Newsletter, July 1975

 

Art critics and historians have used various adjectives to describe the work of Sam Hyde Harris, among them being poetic, lyrical, atmospheric, authentic, strong, spacious, and colorful. Some would describe his wonderful sculptured depictions of the eucalyptus, oak, sycamore, and smoke tree as "Sam Hyde Harris trees."  Expressive as they are of his paintings, however, their many depictions fail to delve into the question: Who Was Sam Hyde Harris, this multi-talented artist who was able to work at his chosen crafts as a commercial and as a fine art artist for over seventy years? What were his politics and did they play into his selection of subject matter, such as the working boats of San Pedro Harbor and the subtle inclusion of the oil rigs and industrial buildings that dotted the landscape near the harbor on Signal Hill? Was this a matter associated with his beginnings from an English working class family or social consciousness, or an affinity towards the fishermen and canneries that occupied the life of the harbor? With the rise of modernism encroaching upon the art aesthetics of Los Angeles, how did he remain true to his convictions toward his plein air style of painting?

Highly recognizable because of his six- foot-three stature and cigar, Sam Hyde Harris was known for his jovial personality and his love for his adopted California and her landscape. He was unaffected by his popularity or success as an artist, and was once described by a Los Angeles Times writer as "...the most 'unarty' painter around. He never goes off into aesthetic burbles about mysterious objectives. He is as 'depressed' about modern art as the next guy. And he works unaffectedly in a mechanic's smock with a dead cigar in his mouth."[2] The late Tom McNeil, an early collector of California Impressionists and an historian who was Harris' contemporary, recalled from a visit in 1972, "He is tall, slightly stooped, full head of white hair, sharp brown eyes, a strong, sometimes obscene sense of humor, modest of his accomplishments, and proud of his best oils." McNeil added that "He loves his martini at the El Poche Restaurant."[3] Among others on the Harris "bandwagon" were Earl McClannahan, who wrote in the BMAI Art Beacon, "To most of us Sam Hyde Harris IS Southern California, but though he never stops boosting our Southland, he paints with the best, jokes with the worst, is a sincere friend to all,"[4] and Los Angeles Examiner art editor, Howard Burke, who commented in 1960, "If popularity makes a painter, and art is a catalyst, then Sam Hyde Harris is one of the finest artists in the Southland.... His paintings are of a quality that classifies him among the choicest. This debonair artist has a sunny personality that is transmitted directly to his paintings, reflecting the light, atmosphere and cheerful California scene to the fullest."[5]  

Born in Brentford, Middlesex, England, on 9 February 1889, the fifth child of David Remnant Harris (1854-1919) and the eldest of his father's second wife, Eliza Hyde Harris (1859-1892), Harris, as a youth, found employment in the Artists Department of Andre and Sleigh, Limited, Photo-Engravers, Busbey, Herts, London. And as he said of himself, "I have made a living with pen, pencil, and brush since the age of fourteen."[6] Soon after leaving Andre and Sleigh, Harris and his entire family boarded The Cedric in Liverpool and sailed to America, landing on Ellis Island on 27 November 1903. The family then moved to Los Angeles, where his father and brothers established a slate tile and roofing business and he first gained employment in 1906 with Charles R. Mogel and Aaron E. Kilpatrick as a painter of, as he would say, "everything from signs, designing billboards and hand-lettering show cards." Among his assignments, he decorated walls of buildings sometimes six stories high with lettering six feet tall. In a short time, due largely to the quality of his work, that was of such a high standard that it gained notice from many in the commercial art field, particularly for skills shown in his calligraphy and exquisite lettering, he established his own commercial art business at 113 West 6th Street in Los Angeles. 

In the midst of his burgeoning career, on 15 January 1917, he married Phoebe Katherine Mulholland (1896-1978), the daughter of Hugh Patrick Mulholland (1857-1918) and Mahala Alice Bodine Mulholland (1864-1951). Hugh Mulholland was the younger brother of William Mulholland (1855-1935), the founder of the municipal water and power district of Los Angeles and "the man who brought water to Los Angeles." Soon there were three sons, Donald Hyde (1918-1997), Samuel Hugh (b. 1919), who is an artist of portraits and figures, and Bruce Richard (1921-1994), and, in 1919, the relocation of his commercial business, advertised as Sam H. Harris, Posters, Art Titles, Letterings, to the 6th floor of the Realty Board Building, 631 S. Spring Street.  There it would remain until a fire destroyed the structure in 1938.

Harris' commercial career received a tremendous boost when, in 1920, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company resumed its poster advertising, following the lifting of government control during WWI, and hired him to continue the work in Los Angeles.  [Santa Fe poster]It was a real "feather in his cap." The Santa Fe had a colorful history dating back to the 1830s. Its earliest posters, designed to provide announcements of destinations, schedules, and timetables,were of various sizes. By the late 1890s, the more decorative designs, using color lithography, measured 30" x 40", a size determined by the size of the lithography stone, "thereby creating a standard dimension and designation, the 'single sheet' poster."[7] The opening of the twentieth century saw the development of a growing middle class, an increase in leisure and vacation time and the rise in competition from the automobile, prompting the railroad to increase its network of ticket offices and to accelerate the marketing of its product, with the rallying cry, "Take the train."  

Harris' contributions to the railroad's advertising efforts were noteworthy. "He created colorful, beautifully balanced renditions of romantic Southwest scenes.... His posters of the line's emblematic Navajo weaver and Grand Canyon offer color perspectives...."[8] Continuing the traditions of earlier Santa Fe commercial artists, Louis Treviso (1888-1928) and Oscar Bryn (1883-1967), Harris developed a style and design distinctly his own by 1925, "which used brilliant red, blue and yellow highlights to dramatize the figure of the Indian flute player,"[9] that Santa Fe reproduced in its advertising booklets, posters, and newspaper ads. Speculation as to how Harris was chosen by Santa Fe involves itself around his association with Hanson Puthuff, who earlier was employed by the Santa Fe to paint background landscapes and the fact that his office on Spring Street was located only a few blocks away from Louis Treviso's.

As with the Santa Fe, Harris had a long involvement with Southern Pacific, which "By the late 1920s,... was spending over $1 million each year to promote its passenger trains. Local and national campaigns emphasized the many attractions along Southern Pacific's four primary routes,"[10] which had offices and agencies from California to New Orleans and a steamer line between New Orleans and New York City, writes Ellen Halteman, California State Railroad Museum librarian. The major portion of the advertising appeared in brochures, magazines, and newspapers, but local advertisements were in the form of billboards and hand-painted posters that appeared in department stores, banks, displays in windows, and bulletin boards in ticket offices and lobbies. Harris was responsible for the posters, many that are currently in the collection of the California State Railroad Museum, which in 1997, held an exhibition, Sam Hyde Harris: Railroad Advertising Artist. He continued his association with the Southern Pacific throughout World War II and "some of the most striking posters are those relating to Southern Pacific's wartime accomplishments."[11] One, for example, depicts a young soldier carrying a rifle with a backpack and the wording on the poster states, "Think before you travel. You can speed his visit home by giving up your summer train trips." 

Afterwards, from the 1920s to the 1940s, Harris' commercial business concerned itself mainly with assignments from major railroad companies. However, it also involved work for local entities, most significant among them, from a personal point of view, the Pacific Electric Railway, known nostalgically in Los Angeles as the "Big Red Cars."  The company, advertising itself as the "World's Greatest Electric Railway System and A Climb from Sea Level to Cloudland by Trolley Through America's Greatest Scenic Wonderland," traversed Southern California over one thousand miles of standard trolley lines and ran 2700 scheduled trains daily.[12]  Coincidentally, it was the Red Car that would provide Harris with the transportation that allowed him to have his commercial art studio in downtown Los Angeles and to live in San Marino, Sunset Beach, West Los Angeles, and Alhambra, for he never learned to drive a car. His daughter-in-law, Jean Harris, wife of Bruce R. Harris, remembers when they lived with him during the early 1940s, every morning he would get up and go to his office in downtown Los Angeles traveling on the Red Car.

Harris, himself, realized that his works had a great influence on those who viewed them. In an unidentified note, he wrote, "On Spring Street one forenoon, a Poster Artist, a member of the Tripolay Club, met an old friend, an architect, whom he had not seen for several years. After the usual greetings were exchanged, the architect said: 'Well, I finally married, and my wife and I are making a trip to New York, we are going by rail and steamer and I think you'll be interested to know just how that happened. I was glancing through an Art Magazine and came across a reproduction of an old poster of yours advertising --'One Hundred Golden Hours At Sea -- New Orleans to New York.' You remember that poster! It naturally made quite an impression upon my wife and I, and we decided after some discussion to take the trip. I've already purchased the tickets and we're leaving this week.' Just one of those very rare incidents, of course but an interesting example of a Poster -- years after it's original purpose had been served, still bringing returns to the advertiser."[13]

In addition to his work for the railroads, Harris' name is associated with one of the most recognizable logos in Los Angeles, the Van de Kamp Holland Dutch Bakers' Blue Windmills.  In the mid-teens, his office was located near the company's first store on Spring Street, when Lawrence Frank, co-owner of Van de Kamp's, approached him to design show cards for the windows of the store, which, at the time, produced Sarasota potato chips, S-shaped macaroons, and salted pretzels.  Harris came up with a design depicting a Dutch boy saying, "Ya, I luf dos pretzels!", with a windmill in the background. Thereafter the Blue Windmill was incorporated into the trademark of the company for use in store signs, stationery, packaging, truck identification, and general advertising. The first Windmill store designed by film art director, Harry Oliver (1898-1973), opened in 1921 on Western Avenue and Beverly Boulevard.  

Harris, a great believer that an artist never stops learning, early gave evidence where his great love lay. Not long after his arrival in Los Angeles, he began formal art training in evening classes taught by Hanson Puthuff (1875-1972), who would remain a life-long friend and painting companion, in his studio on Avenue 52. There, in 1906, Puthuff and Antony Anderson (1863-1939), Los Angeles Times art critic, established the Art Students League of Los Angeles, later moving it to a larger facility in Blanchard Music Hall on Hill Street in Los Angeles. He continued with the League until Puthuff's departure in early 1907, since its format fit perfectly into his schedule as a commercial artist -- stressing informal instruction and offering afternoon, evening, and Saturday classes to individuals unable to attend an academically structured school. Several years later, sometime between 1910 and 1913, he studied at the Henry W. Cannon Art School, which was also located in Blanchard Hall.  Then, in 1913, at age 24, he left for Europe with the intention of viewing and studying the works of the Great Masters in galleries and museums throughout England, France and Belgium, remaining abroad for five and a half months. Subsequently, his formal art training continued intermittently until the 1940s. His instructors during that span included Lawrence Murphy (1872-1947), F. Tolles Chamberlin (1873-1961), Will Foster, ANA. (1883-1953), and Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973). It was Macdonald-Wright who gave him valuable criticism, which allowed him to separate his professional work from his fine art paintings.  He said that Macdonald-Wright advised him to slow down and think and to make a sound composition and color in a small area rather than complete a canvas. Unlike his commercial work, where speed was essential, his easel work was created with Macdonald-Wright's words in mind.[14] 

Harris held the opinion that "natural talent is highly overrated. The maxim in painting is correct training and a heck of a lot of application. A person can dig it out for himself, but if he does he'll waste a lot of valuable time learning the preliminary mechanics. You've got to study before you go on your own, that's very important."[15] Throughout much of his career, he maintained a close association with teaching. In 1935 he taught at the Chouinard School of Art and, in later years, led classes for private organizations, such as the Ebell Club of Los Angeles, the Spectrum Club of Long Beach, the Friday Morning Club of Los Angeles, and the Tuesday Morning Club of Glendale. In addition, he had a long, sustaining association with the Business Men's Art Institute where he taught landscape painting, along with Christian von Schenideau (1893-1976)  William J. Harrison, and Will Foster, ANA. BMAI was located at 905 S. Beacon Avenue in Los Angeles and was organized to provide cultural relaxation for active and retired businessmen of that area, its membership included bankers, movie stars, merchants, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and men of other professions. Its motto was "Paint Your Way to Health and Happiness." It was as part of this group that Harris found a rich and rewarding experience that was equally beneficial to his students. 

According to his son, Sam Hugh, Harris would work all week at his office and spend every weekend out sketching and painting. He recalls that his father had little time to spend "playing catch" with his three sons. With this strong work ethic, he was able to maintain both his commercial and fine art careers at the highest level. In 1920, he served as president of the Commercial Artists' Association of Southern California. In the same year, he joined the California Art Club, gaining membership at the same time as Conrad Buff (1886-1975), Alson S. Clark (1876-1949), J. Bond Francisco (1863-1931), John Frost (1890-1937), Paul Lauritz (1990-1975), and DeWitt Parshall (1864-1956). Subsequently he held membership in other art groups, among them the Artists of the Southwest, Mid-Valley Artists' Guild, San Gabriel Fine Arts Association, Glendale Art Association, Valley Art Guild, and San Fernando Art Association, and served as president of the San Gabriel Artists' Guild, Laguna Art Association, and Whittier Art Association. His honors included recognition as a fellow of the American Institute of Fine Arts and life membership in the California Art Club. 

As early as 1920, Harris began exhibiting his art, hanging Sand Dunes at the California Art Club's 11th Annual event at the Los Angeles Museum of Science, History, and Art. He continued to do so for the next fifty-plus years, winning countless awards in hundreds of exhibitions throughout Southern and Northern California. His last showing, a one-man retrospective exhibition at the Alhambra Community Hospital, opened twelve days before his death. 

Harris preferred painting en plein air to the studio, saying "I love the outdoors. I don't belong to any church, but I approach my work with reverence. You have to want to paint landscapes, you must love the outdoors and you have to be willing to sweat."  He was faithful to the elements of a successful landscape: composition, drawing, values, color, and feeling.  He taught his students that composition was the most important factor in the development of a painting, what he referred to as the "backbone of art" and also often quoted one of his teachers, Lawrence Murphy, "[Composition is] the intelligent breaking up of space." He always maintained that selection is "not how much, but how little and at all times in the back of our head is the warning, 'Keep it simple,'" while creating an atmosphere with the subtleness and misty haze so identifiable with the Southern California landscape.  Los Angeles Times art critic, Arthur Millier, in a review of his solo exhibition at Arm and Duvannes Galleries in 1941, wrote, "Harris' finest piece is Rain, a scene of hills under cloud and sun. It achieves dignity through fine space composition and variety through color and atmosphere. This Southland painter knows trees as the poetic The Grove and Arcadia testify. His best pictures present broad effects. When he overcrowds with details the results are less distinguished. Harbor and city provide subjects which he paints descriptively and poetically."[16]

Throughout his long career he withstood many economic changes, including the Great Depression. Although his business suffered some setbacks, he was able to keep his office in Los Angeles, but finding it necessary to leave San Marino, he moved his family to Sunset Beach. Economically it was easier to survive in the beach community and the Red Car line enabled him to continue to keep his downtown office.  The thirties not only brought about some financial changes in his life, but also his concerns with the encroachment of modernist trends in art and its influence on the art community and exhibitions.  He observed the changes in the art world toward modernism as more and more modernist were included in exhibitions. "The modernists rule the roost now," he once said. "I won't even enter some of my paintings in their contests. I've seen some I liked, but most of it is non-understandable. There are three criteria for judging a painting. What did the artist have to say, did he say it and was it worth saying. If an artist can answer those three questions then he has a work of art." [17]

By the early 1940s, his marriage to Phoebe was in a state of deterioration, due to their strong personalities and continual disagreements. They parted and soon Phoebe remarried to Reuel Kennicott (1892-1973), later moving to Carmel Valley. Eventually their three sons chose to leave Los Angeles and relocated to the Monterey Peninsula.  Harris' contact with his family became estranged. His granddaughter, Judi Leavelle Harris King, recalls that she rarely saw him and only remembers him as "Grandpa Peanuts." Later in her life, she re-connected with her grandfather and after his death, she and Marion, his second wife, visited often. They maintained a warm friendship and mutual love of animals.[18]

It was also during the 1940s that he met and became friends with Jimmy Swinnerton (1875-1974), who had gained notoriety as a Hearst newspaper comic strip artist for "Little Jimmy," "Little Tiger," and "Canyon Kiddies," and as a pre-eminent painter of the desert. The effervescent Swinnerton had gone to the California desert in 1903 to recuperate from tuberculosis and never left. Gaining renown as the premier desert painter, Swinnerton had a great influence on Harris.  Soon Harris spent much of his time in the area around Palm Springs and La Quinta, painting and sketching with Swinnerton. He admired Swinnerton and described him as "a poet, philosopher, and painter." Of Swinnerton, Arthur Millier wrote, "Swinnerton has lived his Grand Canyon, his Arizona desert, his California mountains. He has the right to paint them. Downright realism marks his work. He paints things as they are. If you are incredulous in the presence of these paintings it is because you have never climbed to the viewpoints, have never attended these pageants of natural architecture, these incredible sunburnt distances.... Moran saw the West as a magnificent fairyland. This man sees it as the hard, glorious country it is." [19]

Harris, too, soon found that his desert paintings were gathering the admiration of many critics, one commenting that, "Harris manages to capture the magic of sun, sand, and stone in a degree of beauty and realism that is rare in the profession."[20] After retirement, Harris was known to be in one of two places, either in his studio on Champion Place or in the desert. He and Marion shared the love of the desert and they spent much of their time there.

After World War II, even though the art community in Los Angeles began to embrace modernism, he remained faithful to the traditional styles and continued to enter and jury exhibitions in Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley. During the forties and early fifties most juried exhibitions were judged in two categories, modern and traditional. He was strongly aligned with the Society for Sanity in Art and formed a branch in Southern California, later to be renamed Artists of the Southwest. The Society for Sanity in Art was founded in Chicago by Josephine Hancock Logan in 1936. It was opposed to all forms of modernism, including cubism, abstract expressionism, surrealism, fauvism and other art movements that were popular at that time. Branches of the group established themselves all around the country. In 1939, a western branch of the Society changed its name to the Society of Artists, and later to the Society of Western Artists, which resulted in the largest representational art society west of the Mississippi. 

 

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