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  The Labyrinthine World of Les Harris

The history of art, quantum physics, astrology, and numerology all collide in a walk-through installation -- 25 years in the making -- designed to challenge existing notions of "reality."

By Dale Keiger
Photos by Stephen Spartana

Les Harris doesn't care much for facts. He professes no interest in material reality. He says, "By the middle of this century, matter will be the gross illusion." And he says, "I believe in myths before I believe in science. Science is the big myth." And, "There are no facts. There's nothing left for facts."

Nonetheless, here is some material reality about Charles Lester Harris (MLA '72). He is 78 years old. He lives in Baltimore with Sally, his wife of 45 years. He's a Christian Scientist. He can speak extemporaneously and accurately about modern physics, about quanta and Bell's inequality and the multi-dimension space-time of Kaluza-Klein Theory, but says that astrology and numerology are his sciences. The most important thing to remember, he says, is this: Reality is non-local. In conversation, which he loves, he will refer to himself as a mystic, and as a nut. He'll say things like, "The Egyptians did not know gravity." He declares that abstract art isn't art, it's merely design. He's trying to write a book titled Dwellers on the 13th Floor. He has been a soldier, a welder, an estimator, a dancer, a teacher, and a painter. Above all, he has been a painter.

For the last 25 or 26 years--he's not sure when to date the beginning--Harris has been obsessively assembling a labyrinthine exhibit of creative work that expresses a linear history of art and a decidedly non-linear theory of reality, a theory that encompasses about 50 centuries of painting and sculpture from before the Egyptians to the present day, as well as the psyche and quantum physics and a wide assortment of arcana. Titled "The Labyrinth at the Amaranthine Museum," the installation resides in a converted mill building in Baltimore and is open to the public one Sunday a month and by appointment. Walls and other dividers form 16 chambers, each crammed with art: a dozen canvases representing the Egyptian zodiac; wooden frames that Harris calls "fields" draped in gold foil tinsel; obelisks bearing images of ancient gods; tall, reed-like sculptures that resemble Tinkertoys; abstract sculptures of the Greek alphabet fashioned from a cypress knee and the roots of a cedar; mannequins without hands, sprayed with metallic paint; detailed reproductions of the rose window of Chartres Cathedral; multipaneled murals reproducing work by Michelangelo; antique chairs bristling with wooden rods and balls, in a chamber sprouting unbraided telephone wire; an "Age of Romance" area brimming with large montages, each juxtaposing the signature images of 19th-century masters, decade by decade. Like a 21st-century hip-hop artist who samples other musicians' recordings to create new dance music, Harris has sampled hundreds of the most reproduced images of Western art to create a walk-through installation manic in its detail and creative energy. A longtime friend, graphic designer Michael Best, says, "He's used art to focus on how man has dealt with reality over time."

Harris loves to guide visitors through his labyrinth's chambers, which includes the "Age of Romance." Harris is a showman. He can't resist guiding people through his work, talking talking talking as he walks, pointing out details and expounding at perplexing length on his ideas. Those ideas are hard to follow. Here's his description of one painting at the start of the labyrinth, word for word: "The whole situation here is like a quantum field. It's a combination of things. There's what I call 'the primordial scission,' which is what the Egyptians called 'the rupture of the perfection of the absolute.' In other words it wasn't the biblical idea that I was brought up with, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form and darkness was on the face of the deep and God said let there be light and there was light ... that's word for word, and I could go on, I was so drilled into that. When I heard what the Egyptians did ... the Hyperboreans, you've heard of the Hyperboreans? The Greeks said they came across from Iceland down across England and across France, across Italy into the Aegean Sea, and in and across to the pyramids. Now in my book I'm calling the base of the Great Pyramid grave. Now grave wasn't thought of, then, but gravity and grave and matter ... see, my whole premise is that matter is a superstition. That's my word, but they say by the middle of the century it's going to be thought of as a superstition because reality is non-local. That's the implication of the quantum. I'm not a religious person but I'm very spiritually minded."

Harris will deliver one of these dissociative torrents, then say, "I'm a nut. A natural nut. A hazelnut." But he only sounds like this when he's talking about his work. Talk to him about his house in Virginia and its lake and gazebo, or how he met his wife, or the time he inhaled too much solvent and nearly suffocated, and he's a wry, amiable, coherent raconteur. Ask him about his art, or his theories of reality, and it's as if 78 years of facts, connections, quotations, theories, memories, musings, and observations are all trying to push their way out of his mind at once. Sort through this montage of seemingly disconnected ideas and you'll find eccentric but more-or-less coherent underlying theory. But on first encounter, you wonder about him.

Says one of his three daughters, Laurel Harris Durenberger, "There are a lot of people who think my father is brilliant but mad."

The chamber known as "Tumera: Measure of all the Neteru" is pictured at right. More material reality about Les Harris: Born in Baltimore, he was raised in what he describes as a fanatically religious, predominantly Methodist household. After serving under General George Patton in World War II, Harris studied interior design at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he earned a certificate that was not long in his possession: "I went out with a group afterwards and left my certificate in the car, and I've never seen it since." He giggles merrily. "We got drunk!"

A few years later, he was dating a woman who took him to see Swan Lake, performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. (Les: "I almost married her." Sally: "I never heard this story.") He was unhappy with his job, and after Swan Lake he decided he'd rather be a dancer, so he began studying with Estelle Dennis in Baltimore. That got him involved with theater. A friend in Smithtown, Long Island, asked Harris to watch his house for a while, and the friend knew a woman who was a Christian Scientist, and she invited Harris to attend church with her. It was in that church that he met Sally Pomeran, who had founded and was running the Gateway Playhouse in nearby Bellport Village. He soon began working on sets at her theater. One day, she cast him in Tea and Sympathy, in a part that Harris says was coveted by a young aspiring thespian named Robert Duvall. "Because she was after me," Harris says. "We were married within a few months," Sally replies.

They eventually moved to Albany, had three kids, then returned to Baltimore and earned their living as teachers, she teaching theater at Villa Julie College, he teaching art and design at the Maryland Institute and the private Park School. Their youngest daughter, Holly Harris, who lives half the year in Baltimore and half the year in a mobile home as general manager of a traveling circus, says, "He was very giving, very loving. We were always very close to our parents." She recalls them as flamboyant, argumentative, and brilliant. Her father would read a book a day. "He just couldn't get enough." His passion for knowledge and exactitude could exasperate his daughters. Laurel, who publishes a Baltimore magazine called The Urbanite and works in development at a neighborhood co-op school, remembers, "One thing that would drive me nuts growing up was, 'Laurel, think before you speak.'" When they traveled to Europe, Holly says, "He knew everything about every place he went. He took us into every cathedral and knew where every piece of art was. I was 14. I wanted to play pinball and see Italian guys." She adds, "He was always Mr. Right, and raised us all to be Miss Right. You tell me I'm wrong and I cry." Their household was popular with their friends, Laurel says, largely because of her father: "He was awesome. All my friends adored him. He was a magnet. People would talk to him for hours. He was just cool."

Former students from Park recall him as an inspiring teacher who often advised, "Just get to work." Walt Handelsman, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for Newsday, says, "He was amazing. He pushed you toward doing anything creative. He was always sort of on the edge." Joseph Holtzman, founder, editor, and art director of nest, a prominent interior design magazine that recently lavished 20 pages on Harris' labyrinth, says, "Les was the most important teacher I've ever had. He was very supportive of everybody. The jocks, too, liked him, not just the art people."

And he was a productive painter. "He would leave the house at 6 in the evening and come back at 10," Holly says. "We'd go back to the studio with him and he'd have three new paintings, incredibly detailed. It was like he was exploding, there was so much coming out." But he rarely sold a canvas; he didn't get shows in galleries. Says Laurel, "Artists have to be marketers. I don't think he was good at it. He knew he was creating fantastic work, but I believe he thought people would just embrace him." She says he didn't shop around slides of his work, didn't cultivate the Baltimore galleries. Says Holly, "I don't think he could be bothered. He didn't care about selling, but it's humiliating to him that he hasn't been able to sell. He has a problem with not being acknowledged."

Part of his lack of acknowledgment may be because he has devoted so much time to work not meant to stand on its own outside his installation, and that borrows so much imagery from other artists. But he has his fans. Says nest's Holtzman, "I think that Les' work is important. I think what's happening now is that his work looks much more valid to our current New York, sophisticated taste than it ever has. The rest of us have kind of caught up to Les' way of thinking. I revisited his studio about a year ago and was quite shocked by the value of what I saw."

Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator in the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, says, "The Irish government just bought Francis Bacon's studio and is moving it completely to Dublin. If this were Europe, the government would already have bought the building [housing Harris' work] and turned it into a museum. But this is America."

One day at the labyrinth, Harris says, "I'm tempted to burn it and have a big celebration. And you know what? They'll take note then."

The "Rococo" chamber includes rotating drums. Harris has poured 25 years of work into his museum, but constantly finds portions of it that need to be finished. On a late winter morning, Harris leads a pair of guests through his labyrinth. We leave our coats on because he can't afford to heat the exhibit space. Sally walks ahead of us, plugging in lights. Les chatters away, talking about the paintings, tossing out references to Egyptian mythology and quantum physics, frequently professing amazement that someone as undisciplined as himself could have produced work of such exacting detail. (Holtzman: "He is remarkably disciplined. I think it comes so easy to him that he feels almost fraudulent.") As we walk through he points out anything in the installation that remains unfinished. At one point, he wanders into a darkened area to help Sally find the light socket. He says, "You have to be blind to find your way through here."

I ask him what inspired him to display all this stuff in a labyrinth, and I get two answers. This is the first: "Standing on the top of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera [in Egypt] ... that was in 1979. I was standing on the top of the Temple of Hathor, and 'Hathor' is 'truth,' this was the new temple built by the Greeks over top of the old temple. You see, standing on top of the temple, I looked out at the north gate and the south gate--between them could have been close to a mile--and a star would shine in that gate, into the temple, and that's the only explanation for the height of the gate. The calculations were unbelievable! That star would hit the altar, the light. Standing on top of that temple and looking out over that space is where this came from. There was something there, and I think it was the quantum: that sense of light and infinity and space. By 'infinity' I mean the infinite and eternal. We're gonna find out something yet. And I don't think they had gravity until it was brought there by outsiders."

This is the second explanation, offered a moment later: He had packed up his work because his landlord had wanted him to move out of the gallery space. After boxing everything, Harris learned he would not have to move after all. He looked at the crates and saw they were arranged in a labyrinth. Thus was born the idea. As he developed the installation, whenever he needed a new wall to display new work, he'd throw one up, adding to the maze.

The second explanation makes sense, but the first one is more typical of Harris' speech. It takes awhile to find coherence in the things he says, but it's there. He believes that modern quantum physicists are only now understanding what was known by the ancient Egyptians: that the idea of a material, mechanistic universe is illusion. That may sound beyond the fringe, but Harris didn't just make it up. Do a little research on the ideas that he tosses at you and you find, for example, the work of the 20th-century Irish physicist John Stewart Bell, whose theory argued that quantum physics has to allow for a bizarre phenomenon called non-locality: that an action (say, a measurement) taken on Particle A causes an instantaneous change in Particle B, even though there's no connection between them, no mechanism by which a change could be effected. Thus, in the parlance of physicists, reality is non-local--Harris' favorite phrase.

As for his beliefs in what the Egyptians knew, those are largely derived from the work of René Schwaller de Lubicz, a Swiss Egyptologist who argued that Egyptian civilization was centuries older than anyone else believed, and that the Egyptians had the sort of fundamental insight into creation revealed by contemporary physics. Harris: "Academicians are insisting that the Egyptians were primitive, barbaric people who worshiped animals and had many gods, and that is an absolute lie, and maybe a deliberate lie to cover up the fact that everything we're learning about subatomic physics they knew then!"

His daughter Laurel sighs. "You have to hear it again and again. I wish more than anything that I could understand. There have only been two or three people who could sit and listen and get it."

Michael Best says: "Once you think you get it, you've lost it."

The labyrinthine nature of Harris' installation may have been inspired by packing crates that formed a little maze. Or by his 1979 visit to the Temple of Hathor. It depends on when you ask him. There is another piece of material reality about Les Harris: He's losing his vision to macular degeneration. He makes rueful jokes, but the loss is a bitter blow. Laurel says, "He has lost his eyesight and now all he wants to do is die." When he talks about parts of the labyrinth that he can't see to finish, tears come to his damaged eyes. "I am so angry!" he says.

He began to notice odd changes in his vision some years ago. When the comet Hale-Bopp approached in 1997, he realized that he could see it only in his peripheral vision; when he looked straight at it, it disappeared. His perception of color began to change. The pumpkins at a produce stand all looked pink. He saw sunsets as turquoise. His wife recalls, "Every time sunset came at the lake [on property they own in Virginia], he'd say, 'It's time for the turquoise. Cocktail time.' And we'd say, 'Les, it's gray.' And he'd say, 'No, it's turquoise.' He kept insisting." Holly Harris recalls, "He was adamant about it. 'It's turquoise! It's turquoise!'"

I listen to these stories, then tell Harris about two Hopkins astronomers who announced in January that the color of the universe, the hue that would be produced were one to combine the wavelengths of all the visible light from stars and galaxies, is turquoise.

Harris is delighted. Sally gives him an affectionate nudge with her foot and says, "Oh, wow! You're in, kid! That's amazing! We're all wrong, Les, and you're right!"

Her husband smiles. But he is already lost in thought: "Interesting. Turquoise. I'm glad you said that. See, that's information that I need to know for my book. OK ... Hathor [in Egyptian mythology] is known as 'The Lady of the Turquoise.' She's the mother of her father, and the daughter of her son. Isn't that something? Hathor is called Lady of the Turquoise, which is interesting.... But in my lexicon, she's orange. Hmmmm. That's very interesting."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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