HOW ONE ARTIST IS PRESERVING THE HISTORY SHE LOVES
Words by Mitchell Goodbar
The architecture of Charleston, South Carolina, has become to artist Harrison Blackford what Beatrice was for Dante: her muse.
Harrison grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a roughly three-hour drive from Charleston, where an affinity for art was born that later blossomed during her college years. As a student at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, Harrison majored in art history, capitalizing on the opportunity to visit the many renowned art institutions of Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. Shortly following graduation, though, Harrison faced a hard decision.
“After graduating, I was painting for fun, and I was selling more of my work. I kind of hit this little bit of a crossroads, where I thought, ‘If I devote all day every day to this, what could it become?’ So, I took the risk and went out on my own. That was six and a half years ago.”
“A lot of my pieces were selling in Charleston even before I moved here. A friend had some office space and suggested I come here for three months and paint. I just thought I had to come and do that. I did a show during that time, and I think that was the first time I’d ever done a boating dock series, and some fun, bright colors in a funky new way—it’s weird to think back on that now. I think that was the first time I’d done stuff like that. When I think about the pieces that I created for that first show, I just see how those three months physically being down here, how that all just totally reflected in my artwork.”
Harrison took an immediate liking to Charleston, and an initial sojourn extended into a more indefinite stay. “I got down here and just didn’t want to leave.”
Harrison has always gravitated to vivid, striking colors. And she found those vibrant colors, an array of bright, disparate hues, somehow coexisting in concord in the florid facades of Charleston architecture. She discovered harmony in the variety, each building contributing a splash of color to the strangely divine concoction that is the Charleston cityscape. “Now, being here for longer, I’ve always been fascinated by architecture, and Charleston is such an amazing place to be, just in that we have so many traditional, classic, old buildings. The attention to detail is just amazing in the columns, cornices, moldings, shutters. It’s all just so classic and old. A green building beside a blue building beside a white building. Walking down King Street, it’s just a palette of colors.”
In the spring of 2019, Harrison unveiled her “On King” collection. “Me being such a lover of architecture, I had never really taken the time to focus on one street with a series. King Street is the heart of the town, and it has been for centuries. It was just a lot of fun to take bits and pieces of that street and highlight different things. With my painting, sometimes I’ll throw in a dash of a color that’s not there, or I might change a part of a building to be a different color, just to highlight that feature. I just wanted these paintings to really express the liveliness of King Street. There’s just nothing like it in the development we’re seeing now in Charleston.”
Approximately 40 people move to Charleston every day, and this surge in size, as well as the city’s thriving tourism market, makes the available housing options inadequate. In response to the burgeoning population, housing developments have started cropping up in every corner of the city. The developments merely strive to satisfy a demand, and, consequently, lack the artistry and candy wrapper colors of the old Charleston. The developers are starting to enlarge their dominions, encroaching on the space some buildings have stood upon for two centuries. Harrison has watched the housing developments quietly lurk about, thirsting for more terrain, indifferent to the merciless bulldozed fate that threatens the historic buildings.
“Charleston is in this immense growth period. When you’re just driving into town, it looks like a different city than we knew two years ago, a year ago. For example, there is this new development going on next door to a building that has been there for 200 years.”
As Harrison marvels at the vivid colors blanketing the city’s old homes and the panoply of pastels lining its bustling streets, idly flaunting their fine-colored chests, Harrison not only sees their classic beauty but hears their silent call, a humble plea of the downtrodden, classic Charleston sounds for salvation. She answers the call with her brush. “With my ‘On King’ collection, I was trying to preserve the essence of Charleston, the traditional, the attention to detail. The new development can be great and fine, but architecturally speaking, there’s no comparison.”
The young painter looks down from her regal muse and rushes back to her studio, just off upper King Street, determined to save the soul of the streets she loves from being wiped off the canvas of Charleston—the Charleston she knows, the Charleston she loves, the Charleston that’s disappearing.