Nate Harris

Illustrator, sculptor and printmaker Nate Harris explores the interaction of forms and the relationship between two- and three-dimensional space in his striking, characterful work…

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What first made you realise you wanted to pursue a career in visual art?
As a kid, I used to draw cartoons and things to entertain my friends. I’d always draw these completely unrealistic skateparks—with 20ft transitions and curvy rails and boxes, they went on forever, and they were surprisingly accurate in perspective. I then put down drawing and picked up music for a while. Later in high school, I became interested in the computer graphics courses which led me to study graphic design in college. My teacher used to boast about graphic artists she knew who made seven-figure incomes, which isn’t something I can’t relate to, but I still don’t regret my decision.

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What are your influences, and where do you look for inspiration?
Each project draws on different sources of inspiration, but my most reliable source comes from sitting down and working everyday. I get a lot of energy from the momentum of working; my friends working; the creativity of others; ingenuity; imagination; people who can express themselves through fashion or in other ways that I can’t. The influences always evolve, but mostly I dig into 60s psychedelic illustration and enjoy the Bauhaus aesthetic. I always like to ask myself whether I would have liked this ten years ago, and the answer is mostly ‘no’. I’m not sure what that means, but I think the more you’re exposed to great work the more jaded and sometimes more confined you become. So, I try to keep an open mind and love all things for what they are.

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How did your wood-block printed work develop, and what drew you to this particular process?
My interest in woodworking developed in a similar way to my interest in drawing. I used to build skate ramps. We would wander around town at night, taking wood, and the next thing you knew there would be a 4ft mini ramp in someone’s backyard. Growing up, I was always able to knock around in the garage and when I moved to the city I lost that opportunity. A few years later, I left my agency job and decided it was time to get my hands dirty again. I approached a local wood shop and I proposed that I do design consultancy work for them in exchange for a membership. They were into it, and so I was back in a shop.

Shortly thereafter, I found a book in a cafe called Arts of the Eskimo. It was a collection of stone-cut relief prints from Eskimo tribes of different regions and explored what each image represented. I remember seeing the cover from across the room. It was a big red sun on a white background, with simple type. It was so alluring; just so insanely simple and full of interest at the same time. I think that book changed a bit of my aesthetic trajectory. I became more and more interested in minimalism, and so, the woodcut process felt like a necessary next step in achieving this simplicity that I am now chasing after.

Since then, I’ve become interested in the use of modern tools as a way to make an image. For instance, by using a table saw, I can achieve perfectly straight lines. The drill press allows for perfect circles, while a scroll saw or router can be very organic. I do not use traditional carving tools. This process lends itself to a lot of confinements, which in turn lends itself to simplicity.

Working with wood also recycles itself in a way that I really enjoy. I don’t throw anything away because the scraps are sometimes more interesting than the image I intended to make. It becomes a way to achieve spontaneity.

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You work in both two- and three-dimensions; how do your thought processes and the development of your ideas differ, depending on the format in which you're working?
Sometimes I’ll base sculptures off of drawings and drawings off of sculptures. With drawing, nothing exists until you put pencil to paper. That is a big challenge for me sometimes. Working in sculpture, you already have all of this material and it's a matter of reducing it or building upon it. Sometimes, a piece of wood has a grain that indicates a pattern or has a shape that resembles a figure already. So, when I am stuck, I try to shift disciplines to reignite my thinking.

What sort of briefs do you like working on, and what would be your dream project?
I prefer when a brief has a specific problem to be solved and isn’t too open-ended. When the client has a clear goal, I am able to distinguish my art practice from my design practice. I think a project that allows me to travel would be pretty dreamy.

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What are your tools of the trade?
Every project is different. I use the computer just as much as I draw and work with wood.

Tell us about a recent project you're particularly proud of...
Last year I collaborated with Target to design a mural inside their new Philadelphia store. I am proud of this project because I managed to inject much of what I love about Philadelphia into it. The project also developed into something much more artistic than what I had initially expected. Initially, the brief felt very editorial, and by the end of it, we were able to bring it out of that realm a bit.

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What are you working on right now, and what's next for you?
Currently, I’m working on a skateboard graphic for a local board company where I am taking a stack of old skateboards, cutting them up, and recomposing the pieces to make a new image. The pieces will then be printed on a relief press in which the final print will be used for the graphic. I’m really stoked on it, we’re making a film about the process and everything. Additionally, I am working with the Philadelphia Museum of Art to help develop a bank of illustrations for their new Friday Night Series campaign. I’m just taking things project by project, but I’ve got a few good ones in the pipeline for spring and can’t wait to share them!

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Photograph by Steve Weinik