The Harrison Studio

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The Harrison Studio consists of Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018) and Newton Harrison (b. 1932) who are among the earliest and the best known social and environmental artists.[1] Often simply referred to as “The Harrisons”, Helen and Newton have produced work across a vast range of disciplines. They work in collaboration with biologists, ecologists, historians, activists, architects, urban planners and fellow artists to initiate dialogues and create works exploring biodiversity and community development. Helen and Newton Harrison are both Professors Emeriti at University of California, Santa Cruz, and University of California, San Diego. They have had numerous international solo exhibitions, and their work is in the collections of many public institutions, including the Pompidou Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Nevada Museum of Art, and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2013, the Harrisons became the first recipients of the Corlis Benefideo Award for Imaginative Cartography.

Early life and education[edit]

Helen Mayer was a gifted student born on July 1, 1927, in New York City in the city's easternmost borough of Queens. There, her parents worked as schoolteachers.[2] Graduating from Forest Hills High School in 1943 at sixteen years old, she earned a full tuition scholarship to attend Cornell University. She enrolled at Cornell and majored in Psychology for two years, but ultimately returned home to earn her bachelor's degree in English from Queens College in 1948. She also earned a master's degree in the philosophy of education from New York University (NYU) in 1952.

Newton Abner Harrison was born on October 20, 1932 in New York City in the borough of Brooklyn and then raised in the nearby suburb of New Rochelle. Newton's grandfather Simon W. Farber was an enterprising tinsmith from Russia who immigrated to America in the late 19th century and established a small business for manufacturing kitchen utensils in downtown Manhattan. His initial idea in 1897 was to set up a shop on the Lower East Side to make brassware and ornamental objects for nearby families because it had been customary to import such items up to that time. Business grew slowly and steadily in the first decade until he transitioned from hand hammering to metal spinning with an automated machine lathe, which reduced the cost of labor and dramatically increased both production and sales. In 1907, Farber acquired a manufacturing plant in Brooklyn to further expand his line of cookware and branded the company Farberware. Newton attended Peddie Prep High School, a college preparatory school in New Jersey, and first expressed interest in becoming an artist at age fifteen. His parents abided, and arranged an apprenticeship for their son with a local sculptor in New Rochelle named Michael Lantz. Newton continued to assist Lantz in his studio in the off intervals of his schooling during the years 1948 through 1953 with plaster casting, building wood armatures, modeling, woodwork and building architectural scale models, as well as drafting and reading architectural blueprints. He then completed several years of schooling at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio before reaffirming to his parents his intention to become a professional artist. In 1952 he transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to continue his study of sculpture. Local art collectors praised and encouraged the young artist to develop his Rodin-like approach to the human figure, his ability to convey the poetic motions of the body and soul.[3]

Helen and Newton married in 1953. There is a notable collection of letters in the Harrison Papers at Stanford written and received by the Harrisons as a young married couple on their first trip abroad to Florence, Italy where they lived for three years, from 1957 to 1960, with partial funding from the Scheidt Memorial Scholarship awarded to Newton by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the rest financed by Newton's parents Estelle and Harvey Harrison. The Florence letters express the couple's experience coming of age as young Americans living abroad and honing their career ambitions in the postwar era. "Many thanks," begins one letter to Estelle and Harvey, for you both "enable us to find ourselves. The way of the artist is not an easy one, but the rewards for us are many, and the promise of being able to use ourselves significantly according to our capacities is the only promise that holds meaning for us."[4]

The Harrisons returned from Florence to the bustling New York City art scene in 1960. Newton initially found work teaching experimental painting to children at housing settlement projects and neighborhood centers. He then enrolled at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture to complete his bachelor's degree, which he had left unfinished when he and Helen moved to Florence. Sewell Sillman and Al Held were two key mentors for Newton during his time at Yale. He graduated in 1965 at age thirty-two with both a bachelor's and master's degree in fine art, and secured his first faculty position as Assistant Professor in Charge of Visual Fundamentals at the University of New Mexico (UNM). Now with four school-aged children and her own set of credentials and qualifications, Helen also went back to work at UNM teaching literature and acclimating to the world of higher education. However, she oriented her work in the field of education more broadly, endeavoring to raise the issue of equality and access to good education at every level of society. In 1965, she and Newton collaborated on writing an essay exploring new directions in education for high school dropouts, entitled "Dropouts and a 'Design for Living'," published in the book New Perspectives on Poverty.[5]

The Harrisons moved to La Jolla, California in 1967 when the founding chair of the Visual Arts Department at UC San Diego, abstract expressionist painter Paul Brach, offered Newton a faculty position. And for the past fifty years, California has been their home. Helen began collaborating with Newton on the occasion of the "Furs and Feathers" exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, experimenting with new approaches to the production as well as display of knowledge in a work called An Ecological Nerve Center (1970-1971). 1972 is the year that Helen resigned from her director position with UC Extension Division's Education Programs to pursue art full-time. In her resignation letter, she wrote with affection, "I have had too much fun here! However, I am becoming an artist in my old age and I am doing what we have offered a number of Extension courses about - 'switching careers midstream'."[6] A decade or two later, the Harrisons both became tenured faculty in the Visual Arts Department at UC San Diego and subsequently emeriti faculty in the Art Department at UC Santa Cruz.[7]

Switching careers midstream[edit]

Helen and Newton proceeded along different paths and at different speeds to solidify their career as artists after arriving at UC San Diego in 1967. The relatively unsettled period of critical self-reflection and career development in the 1950s and 1960s is key to appreciating their decision to collaborate with one another beginning in 1970. For even within the UC system, the Harrisons have maintained a reputation as self-critical and inquiry-based learners. They have tirelessly posed questions that challenge institutional norms and advanced a new model of artistic research that engages with both social and environmental issues.

In 1968, growing concern for equality and social justice initially motivated Helen to matriculate at United States International University (known today as Alliant International University) to begin an interdisciplinary doctoral program in the Graduate School of Leadership and Human Behavior. Her aim with this second graduate degree was to refresh and synthesize three domains of expertise—language, learning, and social psychology—so that she could contribute research towards ensuring that all students have equal prospects for living well. However, Helen joined UC Extension Division as an education program coordinator in 1969 and after promoting to a director position in 1970 she withdrew from the doctoral program to work directly with young educators seeking guidance in career development. During her tenure as director of UC Extension Division's education programs, enrollment and course offerings rose from an average of forty-two classes to fifty-five classes per quarter. Helen's goal was to provide teachers of San Diego County with courses to enhance their level of expertise in subject areas, while also providing them with a deeper understanding of psychology and childhood intellectual development. She expanded the reach of UC Extension Division's education programs to more than ten school districts in the county, and she introduced one-day and two-week conferences that drew participants from across the country.

While studying at United States International University, Helen collected writings by the vanguard of the Women's Liberation Movement including: Alice S. Rossi's "Status of Women in Graduate Departments of Sociology: 1968-1969," accepted for publication in The American Sociologist (Fall 1969) and made available through the Women's Caucus of the American Sociological Association at their San Francisco convention; Beverly Jones and Judith Brown's "Toward a Female Liberation Movement," published by New England Free Press; and Naomi Weisstein's "Kinde, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female," published by New England Free Press.[8] In the wake of second wave feminism, Helen's concern for equality and social justice had grown to include, in a more direct way, her own rights as a woman to use herself significantly according to her own capacities and to be recognized for her contributions. It is this alchemy of ambition and social consciousness that led Helen to begin collaborating with Newton in the conceptualization and making of An Ecological Nerve Center (1970-1971) at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, and subsequently to resign from UC Extension Division to pursue art full-time. Yet it would take many more years for Helen to be recognized by her peers as fully equal with her collaborator and husband.

Helen actually took the lead in producing An Ecological Nerve Center for the "Furs and Feathers" exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. She assembled students from the Visual Arts Department at UC San Diego into a small research team to expand on information that she had requested from the World Wildlife Fund regarding the destruction of natural habitats and resident species that suffer from that destruction; their fleshy bodies subject to the insatiable demands of the world market economy. Her influence is especially apparent in the team's approach to presenting the information in the context of a museum. Artists experimenting with art and technology in the late 1960s, including Newton, had been working with information. They had been using new computer technologies to program sculptures as self-regulating cybernetic systems built on the concept of feedback to explore the relationship of machines (perhaps as proxies for humans) to their surroundings.[9] Helen's approach was different. She worked with students to produce a Rolodex (appreciating the simplicity of the rotating desktop card index invented in 1956 by the Danish engineer Hildaur Neilsen) as a sculptural object containing didactic yet poetic descriptions of species extinct, endangered, formerly endangered, and in over supply, and constructed in a way that would permit change as new data became available. She and the students then created a 4'x14' chart visualization of the data contained in the Rolodex to be hung on the wall of the museum gallery, as if a painting, alongside a 14'x14' world map produced by Newton interpreting the Rolodex data as a spatial narrative. It is important to recognize the work that Helen and the students produced for An Ecological Nerve Center as politically entangled, unspectacular, and strong because of it. The Rolodex invited people to participate in the tactile process of retrieving and making sense of information, rather than stand in awe before an eye-catching digital media display. The chart asserted that people are already equipped to process the gravity of species extinction and take decisive action. "The numbers always change" explained Newton in the exhibition catalog "and research shows that an endangered form can regenerate itself when protection is enforced, and again assume its role in the life cycle."[10]

In his review of the "Furs and Feathers" exhibition, Richard Elman described gazing at "a large white map of the world in the main entranceway that was annotated densely with print, especially the U.S. portion, in tones of red and gray to distinguish 'endangered' from 'exterminated' species of wildlife." Even more impressionable was an accompanying audio recording that Elman recalls as "a litany, a casualty list, intoned in a flat dispirited voice. On and on it went for quite some fifteen minutes about the hunting pursuits of the sheiks of the Arabian peninsula, entire populations of sea birds, monkeys, lions, vincuñas, and the great auk."[11]

So why, after many months of working with students to prepare An Ecological Nerve Center for exhibition, is Helen's name conspicuously absent from the exhibition catalog, Elman's review, and other promotional materials? Neither the curator nor critic acknowledged her contributions. It would take yet more time and dedication, in the wake of second wave feminism, for Helen to come forth as an artist equal to Newton.

Pivotal to the story of Helen solidifying her career as an artist are two solo works through which she arrived at her own avant-garde understanding of participation in growth form and growth activism. Strawberry Jam (1973), the first solo work, began when Dextra Frankel, Director of the Art Gallery of California State University at Fullerton, contacted Helen in February 1973 to inquire if she would like to participate as a solo artist in a large group exhibition entitled "In a Bottle." As Helen recalls in a typewritten statement reflecting back on the exhibition: “I had just finished assisting Newton Harrison with a work called Strawberry Wall and he suggested that I do a performance of making jam, since I did the feasts for his growth works, and I thought—what goes in a bottle but Jam.” On a separate piece of paper, torn from an old notepad of the English Language and Literature Department at the University of New Mexico (where Helen taught from 1965 to 1967), she recorded a stream of consciousness that further elaborates on her creative process: “One of the things to do with a bottle is fill it. One of the basic things to fill a bottle with is food. One makes the food and preserves it in the bottle. Collecting bottles and filling them with food…imagine there is no food for us this year and we have to make next year’s food—Food Wall—give up its yield to other people in a series of feasts—abundance ritual—record it.”[12] Strawberry Jam thus became an endurance performance in which Helen made fifteen jars of strawberry jam per day for six consecutive days using only natural ingredients like lemon juice and wine to thicken the mixture, and as little sugar as possible to acquaint herself with the sweet flavor of the fruit itself. The recipes varied each day based on the sweetness of the berries plucked from the plants, and the jam became increasingly tart as Helen came to appreciate the way lemon and wine enhanced the acidic undertone of the berries. The initial five days of the performance took place in private. On the sixth day, Helen staged the making of Strawberry Jam for an audience at the Art Gallery of California State College at Fullerton. And on the seventh day, she rested.

Six months later Helen resumed making strawberry jam as an artistic research project. She had continued ruminating on the conceptual imagery of the bottle and its attendant ideology of preservation. She wondered how the medium of photography would serve as a tool of preservation or perhaps continuity, not of the fruit itself, but of the knowledge and skill required to plant, grow, and harvest strawberries in cycles of regeneration with moments of abundance and scarcity. As a studio experiment, Helen used square wall-mounted shelves to arrange a canvas-like grid composition of jars filled with jam left over from the Fullerton exhibition. She then entreated Philip Steinmetz, a conceptual artist and photographer who in 1971 had joined the Visual Arts Department faculty at UC San Diego, to make two color images: one of abundance with all the jars in place so as to fill the shelves, and one of scarcity with only a few jars in place. She also produced a third and compelling image in which she placed just three jars on top of a short stack of books, including Jack Burnham’s The Structure of Art, and printed several copies such that she could modify the composition using collage techniques. With collage, Helen could adjust the quantity of jars and stack them in different cumulative formations as a way of reflecting on the merits of growth form and growth activism by women in relation to the so-called structure of art.

Off Strawberry Wall (1974), Helen's second solo work, began when feminist art historian Arlene Raven invited Helen to participate in the exhibition program at the Women's Building of Los Angeles. Helen paired up with Joyce Shaw for a three-week exhibition at Grandview One Gallery inside the Women's Building. The artist statement that she produced for this show further demonstrates the fluidness of her thinking about time, labor, culture, art, preservation, and continuity of life. In this statement, she explained that both strawberry works are “spin-offs and amusements from feasts and performances that I have done in other contexts. I am interested in the relationship between the morphologies and transformations that happen in living and growing and cooking and the transformations that we call art. I am especially interested in those intentional transformations that make objects stand for process. The play of time, nature and artifice is an important element in my work and I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of real growth strawberries, shelf-life for the jam and the instantaneous transformations of the camera and collage.”[12] On the largest wall of Grandview One Gallery, Helen hung the Steinmetz photographs alongside her exploratory collage that questioned the merits of work by women in relation to the structure of art. On an adjacent wall, she installed a low-lying horizontal pasture of strawberry plants in modular container-like forms that Newton had designed for Survival Pieces. But the closing of the exhibition on March 23, 1974 would coincide with a special celebration explicitly called "A Woman Made Day" to include an array of events such as a gynecological self-help slideshow by the Feminist Women's Health Center, a karate and self-defense demonstration by Karen Iwafuchi, an open forum on survival and power by the Commission Against Rape, a presentation about the creation of the Feminist Studio Workshop (the entity that founded the Women's Building), and a jamming performance by Helen.

With Strawberry Jam (1973) and Off Strawberry Wall (1974), Helen reaffirmed the work of art as an opening for participants to learn, sense, and even bond with their food sources as precious—and in turn to see themselves as capable of making growth and form choices that benefit society without degrading the earth. These two strawberry works also signaled a turning point in a new politics of knowledge—an affirmative politics—by which Helen and Newton Harrison began combining scientific research on environmental issues like pollution and global warming with self-critical introspection, mixed media technologies, and the live action of performance art to energize the epistemologies and ontologies of academia and civic life.[13]

Collaborative studio practice[edit]

Helen and Newton recruited their youngest son Gabriel Harrison and Vera Westergaard to join them in establishing the Harrison Studio in 1993. The Studio relocated from La Jolla to Santa Cruz in 2004. The Harrison Studio's subject matter ranges across a large number of disciplines, yet always has at its core the eco-social well-being of place and community. Whether dealing with the reclamation of watersheds, reforestation, or modest projects in cities and their surrounds, whole systems thinking guides the conceptual processes of their research. They have exhibited broadly and internationally with large-scale installations using diverse media that have critical and propositional thinking in them. They use the exhibition format in several ways, often in the sense of a town meeting, always with the intention of seeing their proposals moving off the walls, landing in planning processes, and ultimately resulting in interventions towards social and environmental justice.[14]

The Harrison Studio locates their work within the domains of both art and science. By operating in the domain of art, the Harrisons teach the ecological dimensions of the human condition better than they could were they working in the domain of science. By doing art with ecological content, the Studio implies that the human species should treat the planet as a sculpture. The first major collaborative work Helen and Newton produced in the early 1970s is known collectively as Survival Pieces, so named because they intended each installation in the series to contribute to the design of a productive and sustainable food system (e.g. hog pasture, a catfish farm, and a citrus and avocado orchard). The Survival Pieces were exhibited in reputable galleries, commissioned by major museums, praised by influential critics, and studied by historians as well as philosophers. The work heralded future histories of BioArt and debates over the ethics, ontologies, and affects of non-human or posthuman life. The Harrisons worked with living entities as art mediums, and adopted biofunctions like waste, procreating, growing, evolving, dying, and decaying as art processes. Helen and Newton began working with global warming in the late 1970s as a result of a career-defining work called “The Lagoon Cycle”. All the work the Harrison Studio does involving this issue assumes that the world's oceans are indeed rising and reshaping the planet; they too are sculptors. This poetic idea is especially prominent in the Harrison Studio’s ongoing series “The Force Majeure” (2007–Present).

The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, founded by Helen and Newton Harrison at UC Santa Cruz, operates on the principle that "We as a species must adapt ourselves to a very different world...proceed[ing] on our assertion that ecologically based, large-scale systems of adaptation to the extreme changes in the ever-warming environment are necessary for collective survival and so must be invented. Seen metaphorically, two frontiers are emergent and evolving exponentially: One is a wave front of water, advancing on the edges of all continents that touch the oceans; the other is a heat wave that is increasingly (apparently slowly, but in fact exponentially) and covering, touching, and affecting the whole planet and the lives on it. These are different from all other frontiers that have been part of human experience, frontiers that we have advanced toward, most often by conquering or exploiting to our own advantage. These new frontiers move toward us, and our habitual responses of exploiting resources for production, consumption, and profit are no longer meaningful behaviors. Rather, we must adapt ourselves to meet these two frontiers on the scale on which they operate."

One of the Harrison Studio projects from 1993, entitled Serpentine Lattice, was quite successful. It was an installation that measured 10’x36′, and consisted of a dissolving slide mural of the disappearing North American Pacific Coast Temperate Rain Forest. The installation also included a 12’x36′ hand drawn map, text and forest image photo panels. At the time, 95% of the old forest growth had been harvested, and the cutting of the trees had left around 75 thousand miles of disturbed river and stream. The Studio created a design that would require controlling the high ground from the San Francisco Bay to Yakutat Bay in Alaska. This would create a scaffolding for the sustainable reclaiming of the Pacific Northwest Temperate Coastal Rain Forest. The main idea was to generate an eco-friendly security system, not too different from the social security system, and to use 1% of the Gross National Product to try and fight against the seemingly endless destruction of the environment. Included in this installation was a piece of writing to better explain their ideas and reasoning. This project took place at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Susan Fillin-Yeh supported the Harrisons in this endeavor. Douglas F. Cooley, from the Memorial Art Gallery of the college, commissioned the project. Serpentine Lattice is now in the permanent collection of the San Jose Museum of Art.

Harrison Studio works are mainly done by invitation and commission. They often come when they are asked to begin research, propose ideas, and discuss with leaders in the area to try to make a change. They leave when they feel their work is done, or they have done all they are able to do.[15]


The Harrisons are represented by Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, California and Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York City, New York.


  1. ^ Adcock, Craig (Summer 1992). Conversational Drift Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. Art Journal, Vol. 51, No. 2, Art and Ecology. p. 38.
  2. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (13 April 2018). "Helen Mayer Harrison, Leader in Eco-Art Movement, Dies at 90". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  3. ^ Mrs. Catherine Biddle Cadwalader Scull, whom along with her husband Mr. Richard Barclay Scull commissioned Newton to create a rooftop sculpture for their home in the Radnor Township of Villanova, likened Newton's Love Groups (1957) to the work of Auguste Rodin, citing The Kiss (1889) as a comparable example of two nudes embracing. See Mrs. Scull quoted in "Nude Statues on Roof Cause Traffic Jam on Main Line" and Thomas Hovenden, "Plastic Nudes in Quaker Land: Ups and Downs of Works Raise Stock of Plymouth Mtg. Sculptor," The Times Herald (undated) in Scrapbook 1 (1957-1958). Series 7, Early Work by Newton Harrison, Flat Box 290. M1797, Helen and Newton Harrison Papers, Special Collections & University Archives, Stanford University.
  4. ^ "Dearest Mother and Dad, Much Love, Us" (undated). Series 4. Correspondence, Box 121, Folders 2-4. M1797, Helen and Newton Harrison Papers, Special Collections & University Archives, Stanford University.
  5. ^ Shostak, Arthur B. and William Gomberg, eds. (1965). New Perspectives on Poverty. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  6. ^ Resignation letter from Helen to Dr. Martin N. Chamberlain, University Extension (August 25, 1972). Series 10, University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Box 178, Folder 1. M1797, Helen and Newton Harrison Papers, Special Collections & University Archives, Stanford University.
  7. ^ The "Early Life and education" segment of this page is adapted from Eliasieh, Laura (née Rogers). "The Social and Environmental Turn in Late 20th Century Art: A Case Study of Helen and Newton Harrison After Modernism." PhD diss., Stanford University, 2017.
  8. ^ "On Women" paper notes (1968-1969). Series 1, Personal/Biographical, Subseries 5, Harrison Family, Box 218, Folder 9. M1797, Helen and Newton Harrison Papers, Special Collections & University Archives, Stanford University.
  9. ^ Plasma Chambers (1969–1971), designed in collaboration with engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as part of the Art and Technology Program at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is the most distinguished of Newton’s art and technology projects. Newton began working with a student in the Physics Department at UC San Diego to experiment with glow discharge demonstrations, which show how an electric force introduced to a medium of noble gas plasma will produce colored light—orange in the case of neon gas—in a process called ionization. A neon light is a miniature glow discharge environment. JPL engineers helped Newton design an even larger glow discharge chamber to increase the visibility of ionization, which can form diffuse shapes and patterns. Plasma Chambers traveled to the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka along with seven other esteemed works from LACMA’s Art and Technology Program before the opening of the official “Art and Technology” exhibition in Los Angeles on May 16, 1971.
  10. ^ Harrison, Newton (1971). "An Ecological Proposal" in Furs and Feathers, ed. Paul J. Smith. New York: Museum of Contemporary Crafts of the American Crafts Council.
  11. ^ Elman, Richard. "Furs and Feathers." Craft Horizons 31, 2 (April 1971): 43.
  12. ^ a b Materials from Strawberry Jam at the Woman's Building, Los Angeles, CA (March 23, 1974). Series 5, Performances and Exhibitions, Box 136, Folder 8-9. M1797, Helen and Newton Harrison Papers, Special Collections & University Archives, Stanford University.
  13. ^ The "Switching Careers Midstream" segment of this page is adapted from Eliasieh, Laura (née Rogers). "The Social and Environmental Turn in Late 20th Century Art: A Case Study of Helen and Newton Harrison After Modernism." PhD diss., Stanford University, 2017.
  14. ^ "Helen and Newton Harrison - InterSciWiki". Retrieved 2016-02-19.
  15. ^ Weintraub, Linda (2012). To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. UC Press. p. 74.

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