The teacher/student relationship can be one of the most rewarding non-familial or non-romantic relationships. Good teachers change lives. Good students enrich the lives of their teachers. It’s a reciprocal relationship that drives human excellence.
Most of us remember the teachers that had an impact on our lives. If we’re lucky we remember several: people that opened our minds, expanded our horizons, and challenged us to be more than we thought we could.
Wesley Harris, a respected artisan whose work has exhibited across the country, is also aware of the impact of teachers and highlights one key relationship as the defining theme of his full-career retrospective, now on view at the Mary E. Black Gallery, next door to Pier 21.
Mentor & Metalsmith: The Silver Art of Arthur Brecken and Wesley Harris features the full range of Harris’s impressive career, punctuated with examples of the work of the artist whom he credits with setting him on his life’s path. Arthur Brecken taught Harris for a few years in high school, remaining a mentor and touchstone for the younger artist for the remainder of his life. (Brecken died in 2003).
Brecken, the child of missionaries, was raised in China, an influence that one sees in the work in the exhibition. A graduate of Mount Allison, he taught for six years in the high school in Erin, Ontario, the town he lived in for most of his life. He did not have a teacher’s certificate, however, and was eventually let go. Undaunted, he continued to teach students for free in his home, for decades. His “kitchen college,” so named by Harris, helped launch numerous artists.
Wesley Harris was one of those students, first at school and then on evenings and weekends at Brecken’s home. Brecken provided an environment within which aspiring artists could experiment, learning from a mentor and from each other. He helped them find exhibition opportunities and commissions; he often gave young artists their first commissions himself.
Harris went on to study silversmithing, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. After graduation he worked for other silversmiths, honing his craft. In 1987 he returned to Canada and began his career as an independent artist. In 2015 he was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art, and lives in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.
The exhibition features 23 works by Brecken, 11 early pieces by Harris, and 38 mature works by the artist. Brecken’s influence is apparent in the many thoughtful homages by Harris, works made specifically to evoke the themes and techniques beloved of his teacher. But Harris surpasses his teacher in skill and inventiveness, pushing silversmithing in direction’s unexplored by Brecken.
This is not a criticism. What teacher does not hope for their students to go further than they have? In terms of scale and ambition, Harris proves himself to be a master in his own right, but a humble one who never forgets his origins.
Brecken was much taken with braided forms, effects created by braiding fine silver wire. Works such as bloodstone ring, from 1946, show the elegance of his style, and a certain art deco feel that persists in his work throughout his career.
Harris, whose sculptural works display particular virtuosity, often evokes the Chinese influences apparent in so much of Brecken’s work. Lotus & Landscape, which Harris identifies as the first piece created specifically for this exhibition, is a remarkable small sculpture, made from silver, gold, jade and semi-precious stones. Its central feature is a mountain form, built up of layers, suggesting the terraced hills seen in classical Chinese landscape painting, rising from moss agate “pools.”
The exhibition is a conversation, between student and teacher, and is expansive and generous. Harris has been called one of this country’s leading silversmiths, and Mentor & Metalsmith makes clear why that description is accurate. Until Dec. 21, 2018.