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'I enjoy painting. And if I didn't, I'd stop,' Ted Harrison

By Robert Amos October 6, 2002

} 'I enjoy painting. And if I didn't, I'd stop,'Ted Harrison When Ted Harrison graduated from art school in the north of England in the 1930's there wasn't much future for a painter. You could go into commercial art or become a teacher. Ted honed his comic timing in front of some of the most reluctant audiences possible, in classrooms all over the globe. He's now among Canada's most revered artists and was part of a glittering company during a May weekend called Painters at Painters, held annually at Painters' Lodge in Campbell River. Many of the other artists had interesting things to say but Harrison, a wee droll Geordie, had us rolling in the aisles. Nicky's Kindergarten Games Image courtesty of www.TedHarrison.com Here is how he answered a few of the questions from the floor. What was my best moment being an artist? I guess it was the moment when I realized that your art could be anything you wanted it to be. It could be a blue moose, or a pink dog. One day someone pointed out to me that there was a mistake in one of my paintings. What's the mistake, I asked him. Well, you painted two men carrying a dead moose. Any idiot (stress) knows that two men can't carry a dead moose. 'Yes,' I told him, 'but two men can carry a blue moose.' The room exploded in laughter, and when it subsided, Harrison continued. 'If it's a blue moose, you can wrap it up and put it in your pocket. And when you get it home you can dip it in the bath and it will come back as a full-sized moose.' The story is light but, for an audience of creative people, the message is profound. Where do I get my inspiration? Strangely enough, I get my finest ideas when I'm getting up early in the morning to go to the washroom. I get back into bed and I lie for half an hour thinking up a painting. And when I finally get up I have the idea in my head.' We all chuckled at the ordinariness of the inception of exceptional creations. It all seemed so easy. But, as Harrison concluded, 'then other things come into my head.' Do you dream in colours? What colours do you dream in? Harrison took on this apparently frivolous question in all seriousness. 'When I sleep I use a CPAP machine because I have sleep apnea. And now I have better dreams than I ever had before, because it keeps the oxygen going to your brain. I hadn't known that it wasn't reaching my brain before.' He paused so we could enjoy the idea of the dullness of a sleeping brain deprived of oxygen. 'Now,' he continued, 'my dreams are so colourful and entertaining that I'd be willing to pay an entertainment tax.' When the laughter subsided he concluded in his droll way, 'I won't divulge the content.' Walking Alone Image courtesty of www.TedHarrison.com What do you do with your time when you aren't painting? Since I lost my wife to Alzheimer's two years ago I've gone on the board of the Alzheimer's society, so that takes a lot of time. And I listen to CBC radio Ideas program every night at nine. And I like to watch the History Channel on Thursday evenings. I enjoy listening to the music of Beethoven and baking bread.' What type of bread do you bake? 'The best!' Do you ever paint abstract paintings? Me? I like to paint houses, people, dogs, birds... If I left those things out my paintings would be abstract paintings. I like watching abstract paintings. I don't like doing them. I grew up in Britain during the depression. It was a very humanistic place, where people really mattered. If I lived in New York, I'd be trying to keep away from people and I'd probably paint abstracts. But I think the world needs more humanism. What do you talk about over dinner when you're not talking about art? Oscar Wilde said when bankers get together they talk about art, and when artists get together they talk about money. 'I only talk about money with my accountant. Oscar Wilde said something else. When first coming to America he was asked at customs if he had anything to declare. 'I have nothing to declare but my genius,' he is reported to have said. I remember being stopped at the airport recently by a very severe-faced lady. 'Sir,' she asked me, 'are you carrying anything sharp?' and I answered, 'only my mind.' What is the connection between artists and their public? Artists live in a kind of dream world, and ordinary people live in the real world... artists provide an entrance into a different world which takes your mind away from mundane everyday life... But even Rembrandt had to wash the dishes, I guess. I remember the man who taught me to be imaginative. It was in East Africa and his name was Joseph Mukasa. He was from Uganda and spoke Luganda. I was a British Army sergeant and Joseph was a corporal in the King's African Rifles. (That was a long time ago.) Joseph came to me one day, with his belt hanging loose, and said 'Bwana, I want to go to the movies.' So I gave him two shillings and he went to the town. He ate some posho, which is an East African porridge made of maize meal and two hours later he came back. He was looking fat, and his belt was tight, his eyes large and filled with wonder Joseph knew I was about to be demobbed and he said to me, 'Bwana, I want to come to England with you.' 'Oh, horrors,' I thought. 'It's far too cold for you, Joseph,' I told him. 'But Bwana, I could wear a coat made of sheep's feathers like you. I want to go to England where they have the little mice that talk and...'. Here was the big one. '... and the elephants that fly.' Right then I knew he'd been to see Dumbo. I took out a piece of paper and drew an elephant. In fact I did nine drawings and told Joseph that these drawings could be photographed onto film and shown at 9 per second, and the elephant appears to flap his ears and fly. It was a long and tedious explanation and Joseph looked at me as if I was ridiculous. 'Bwana, you are wrong. I heard the little mice speak and I saw the elephant fly.' Years later I realized Joseph was right. That's why now I go out to look at things, and take photos. But when I'm back in the studio, I paint my own version of the world. 'So there!' he concluded. And stuck out his tongue to any in the audience who would doubt him, or the wisdom of Joseph Mutzza. 'Spppppppt!' Copyright © 2002 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com