“Ideas will occur to me when I’m not really focused on trying to figure out the idea. “HARRELL FLETCHER
Creativity and manifestation go hand in hand but how exactly does the process happen from start to finish? I spoke with Harrell Fletcher, PSU Art + Social Practice MFA Founder/Co-Director, to discuss his personal relationship to manifesting his ideas into reality. Harrell is currently on sabbatical and spends most of his time at the Oregon coast. When he’s not there, you can find him working on an ongoing project with Lisa Jarrett, Co-Director of the A + SP program. Their collaborative project, the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), is a contemporary art museum and social practice art project inside and in partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, a Pre K – 5th grade public school in NE Portland, OR. During our conversation, we discuss the ways in which ideas come to life and the impact outer environments have on them.
Kiara Walls: How has your art practice transformed from when you first started to now?
Harrell Fletcher: Well, I guess it sort of depends on when I think of my practice starting. In some ways that would be when I was a kid. But I think for this purpose, I would think of it going back about 30 years. And so around 1992 is when I started working with Jon Rubin, in Oakland. We started doing work together that was collaborative and socially engaged, even though the term “social practice” hadn’t emerged yet, but that was the kind of work that we’re doing. And we were doing that work initially just in our own neighborhood in Oakland. I think, interestingly, back then, in the early 90s, when I was starting out, most of the work was self-initiated. We borrowed a vacant store building that was on College Avenue in Oakland, and asked if we could use it to do exhibitions in. The owners let us do that for free. We ended up using that space for about a year and a half. We did all of the exhibitions about people we met in the neighborhood. No one was paying us to do that work, there was no curator, or anybody else that had given us approval, we just formalized it by ourselves. We not only put the shows together, but we would do the press releases and all of those things too. We did everything ourselves.
Eventually we started doing commissioned projects at various places around the Bay Area and then Jon and I stopped working together after about six years and I started doing collaborations with lots of other people and traveled all over the world doing my work. It took five years of ramping up to that, 10 or 15 years of doing that work steadily and then five or 10 years of ramping back down. And as it ramped back down, I kind of moved back into the localized self-initiated model I’d started doing in the beginning. So for instance, doing KSMoCA with Lisa, or the project that happened at the prison at Columbia River Correctional Institution. Those weren’t commissions. Nobody was asking me to do a project in a grade school or a project in a prison, I was with my collaborators self-initiating those projects.
And so it’s kind of interesting that my work is bookended by the self-initiated projects that were taking the form of institutions. We created our own gallery and I created my own library in those very early days, and now I’ve collaborated on a museum at a grade school and a comedy program at a prison. Also both sets of work were really local— the early work in Oakland, and the recent work is based in Portland. In between was a period of traveling all over the place and doing projects internationally. All of that work in between was mostly commissioned, so it transformed, but then it came back to its origins. The difference, I guess, is that I didn’t have a teaching job in the early days, I didn’t have a house, I didn’t have a kid and any sort of responsibilities like that, and now I do. And so that’s changed my practice, but the work is kind of similar. It’s like it’s come back around full circle.
Kiara: I was just thinking that when you were describing that, it sounds like a cycle: a beginning to an end, or a birth and rebirth repeated over time. If you could describe your social practice in one word, what would it be?
Harrell: Maybe “Self-educational.” I think there’s that word “autodidactic,” which means something like self-educated, giving yourself an education – but we’ll go with self-educational. The whole experience has been very interesting and educational for me. I’ve always had a hard time with one word answers, as you can see.
Kiara: Yeah, I mean, it takes a lot of thought to put it all into one thing, so I understand. How do you go about manifesting your ideas into reality?
Harrell: Probably why I gravitated to being an artist person was because I just didn’t do well with writing academic papers, things like that. It just wasn’t my thing. I liked writing. I was able to find ways of fulfilling writing papers (for instance I would just write a letter to a friend about an assignment I had and then make a Xerox of that and turn it in).
I just feel more comfortable doing things in low-key casual kinds of ways. And that has worked for me for the most part. That’s how I’ve operated— by finding less formal systems where I can just talk to somebody directly or write a simple email to explain a project or something like that. I also avoid contracts and releases or anything like that in my work if I can. I just don’t like the way they look or how they make me feel so I have always avoided them. No paperwork if there is any way to avoid it. I just started making work, I’d come up with an idea and then I’d just do it.
I learned this early on about myself: if I say I was going to do something, when I was an undergrad in college at Humboldt State, before working with Jon Rubin and everything, I felt I had to do it. I got into performance art, first just learning about it, and then I wanted to experience it myself. So I started setting up these performances, weird things I got myself to do, endurance projects like Chris Burden. I would just tell a few people that I was going to do something and it was kind of like making a deadline or making a commitment for myself. Once I make a commitment, I have a really hard time breaking it. That’s part of the way I work. If I pitch an idea to someone, I’m making a commitment to them. I usually enjoy doing whatever it is once I start, but sometimes I’ll have a resistance, procrastination and not want to have to do it, but I’ll force myself to do it anyway.
Kiara: That makes me think about this idea of accountability partners: when you tell someone you’re going to do something and then they check in on you to make sure that you’re actually doing it. But it’s worth doing that with your projects.What type of impact has the pandemic had on your practice, if any?
Harrell: Well, if I think of my practice as including teaching and running the MFA program, that part was pretty fluid. Everything was able to shift over remotely because we already had an online component going in the program, it didn’t change that much. But for KSMoCA and the prison, those things really changed. For KSMoCA, we tried to make it work online, but it was pretty different than being there in-person all the time. And then with the prison, we just couldn’t go back into the prison at all. And so that ended everything with that project. I had been going there one or two times a week for almost three years. So it was a pretty big shift in my life. I’m still talking with the program manager and I have a proposal that I pitched to him to start back up, but it keeps getting delayed. I’d pretty much stopped traveling just before the pandemic started, and so that was convenient because there was not a lot to cancel or postpone, just a few things here and there. Most of my work prior to that meant traveling to places. But I’d finally gotten to the point where I wasn’t really traveling anymore. I had burnt out on that and was just instead focusing on Portland projects. But then because the pandemic meant not being able to go to the grade school in person and at the prison we couldn’t go in at all and there wasn’t an online option there.
And so it just suddenly gave me a lot of time on my hands that I hadn’t had in a really long time and it allowed me to start to think about some other things I wanted to do. So I’ve been writing. I’d like to write more, but I’ve been writing a bit and taking photographs and things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time but haven’t. It wound up being a good time for me to be forced to take a break and reassess and get back into some stuff that I was doing before I was really doing socially engaged work. What Alyse Emdur called “anti-social practice” where I could just do work by myself. And that’s been nice. It hasn’t really turned into much but it’s still been good to just sort of be more in touch with that.
Kiara: What does your environment look like when you have an “aha” moment?
Harrell: I don’t know if there’s just a single environment for that. Because a lot of times when I’m having that kind of experience, I’ve been walking. Ideas will occur to me when I’m not really focused on trying to figure out the idea. I’ve always liked walking in general, but for idea generation, it’s been really useful for me because the projects are just in the back of my head. I try to intentionally think, “Okay, I need to figure out what I’m gonna do for this place somewhere. And I would think, “Okay, I’m just going to go for a walk.” And I think about it before I start walking. And then I stop thinking about it as I walk, and it would just come to me while I was walking while I was not trying— kind of like that thing where you’re trying to remember the name of a song that you have in your head, but you can’t, so you say “Forget it, I’m not gonna bother,” and then it just pops into your head. That is the technique that I either consciously or unconsciously use to come up with ideas that seem to just spring into my head. I’ve laid the groundwork for them. But they happen when I’m not trying, while walking, swimming, or doing something else.
Kiara: Oh, that’s interesting. I can definitely relate to that process. Sometimes I’ll get ideas when I’m just waking up out of a nap or from a night’s slumber, and I’ll actually say it out loud when I wake up. I wasn’t thinking about it at all before, but it just comes out and then I text myself the idea. I have a text thread in my phone with all of the thoughts that just come to my mind.
Harrell: Yeah, I definitely have a notebook and I write down my ideas in there, I put an asterisk next to the ideas, so I can find them. I like the idea of dreaming ideas too. I think I did dream one once. I can’t remember what it was now but I woke up and thought, “That’s actually pretty good,” and wrote it down. Sometimes I’ve thought I had a good idea during a dream and then I think, “That’s a terrible idea,” when I wake up. But I know that one time it actually worked and it was a solid idea but I can’t remember which one it was now. But I really sleep with ideas, especially napping, which more than just regular sleep at night is potentially conducive to idea generation. I’m trying to explore that more these days.
Kiara: I heard 30 minute naps are very effective. I’ve been listening to different podcasts about how the brain works and they were talking about how sleep helps us process things. For example, when we’ve gone through something traumatic or stressful, going to sleep actually lets you process the emotions and feelings. Then you wake up feeling lighter because your brain was doing all of that work to cope with the trauma and stress.
Harrell: I’ve actually heard it described as “cleaning your brain.” I don’t know if that’s exactly right. But I like that idea, it’s always nice to have a little brain cleaning.
Kiara: Do you feel that your environment affects your creativity, or that your creativity affects your environment?
Harrell: I definitely am affected by my environment. I think I’ve gravitated away from office jobs because I usually don’t feel good inside of offices, especially if there’s no windows. So windowless places aren’t good for my creativity or me in general. I don’t have to be in nature to feel creative. I do go to the coast a lot and spend time in this pretty dramatic, beautiful nature, but I don’t feel particularly creative there really— it’s almost a little bit too beautiful. There’s something nice about a low key neighborhood environment, because there’s nothing too dramatic about it. But it’s nice, there are trees, birds, and parks, but nothing too distracting. I think of a place where I’m not anxious. I’ve done work in New York or London, and I battle urban anxiety. So super urban places don’t work well for me, but maybe nature isn’t quite right either. I have been here now living in this house[in Portland, Oregon] for 21 years, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my life. I’ve done a lot of my work while living here. I have those associations with this neighborhood, just walking around getting ideas and all that. I came here to this house and neighborhood because of a project I did for PICA in 2001. I guess my creativity created this environment for me here in this neighborhood in Northeast Portland, and this environment has enabled my creativity.
Kiara: It seems there’s a sense of balance with the relationship between your environment and your creativity and it feeds into one another.
Harrell: Since the pandemic, and not being able to do as many of the other kinds of projects that I was doing before, I have been walking a lot more than I had been even before. I also have been taking a lot of photographs with my phone as I walk around. When I was younger, and started taking photographs with a 35 millimeter camera, I would walk around with the camera too. I remember in Arcata in Humboldt County, going for walks and just by having the camera with me it put me in this mindset that was my zone, where I was very sensitive to whatever I was seeing. I would sort of blur out, go into a spacey mindset, and suddenly the world would look different to me. I could see everything in a new light because I could use the camera to point to things and say, Tthis looks interesting to me.” I would feel very relaxed, and I would start to see things that I couldn’t see when I wasn’t in that zone. I would just walk around by myself looking around. And I’ve been doing that again recently. Those two places, here in NE Portland and back in Arcata, kind of have similar neighborhood vibes. There’s nothing all that spectacular about either place, but I can start seeing these compositions in that brain zone. It has something to do with walking and thinking that I might take a photograph that puts me in that tripped out space. It feels meditative. It’s very relaxing, kind of like a walking nap with dreams that are just variations on reality.
Kiara Walls (she/her) is a multi-disciplinary arts educator and restorative justice practitioner currently working out of Portland, OR. Her practice explores the relationship between trauma and repair as a pathway to healing. This work is manifested through a lens of reparation resulting in site-specific installations, conflict resolution and conversations. Walls currently serves as the Dean of Students at Northwest Academy where she combines her disciplines to navigate and cultivate community amongst students and teachers.
Harrell Fletcher is an interdisciplinary artist. He is the founder and co-director of the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
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