Late artist leaves a metaphysical legacy at obscure museum in Woodberry

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The family of the late Les Harris Jr. would like to sell his museum collection, but has no formal appraisal.

Walk up the steps past the valet parkers at 2010 Clipper Park Road, turn right at the hallway, and you're in Woodberry Kitchen, one of the most popular dining destinations in Baltimore.

But turn left down the same hallway, on Sundays from noon to 3 p.m., and you will come to one of the city's least known attractions — the free, nonprofit Amaranthine Museum, a metaphysical ode to the late artist and teacher, Charles Leslie Harris Jr., known as Les, who died at 84 in 2008.

Named for the amaranth, known as "the unfading flower," the museum in Clipper Mill sits in the artistic shadow of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Walters Art Gallery and American Visionary Art Museum. The 2,200-square-foot, winding configuration of rooms with such names as The Cave of Mothers is filled with hundreds of paintings and mixed media art, representing Harris' search for the meaning of life, and his vision of art through the ages — including what he called Ages of Reason, Aquarius and Contemporary Consciousness.

"It is a labyrinth installation of nearly 250 pieces of artwork created from 1977-1995," writes one of Harris' three daughters, former traveling circus manager Holly Harris, 54, of Hampden, in a small, glossy, self-published book about the museum and her father's work. She describes the collection as "a walk through time; back by the decade, by the century, by the artistic and architectural style, back through the ages, through the outer dimensions of mind, and finally into the origin of consciousness.

"This visionary exhibition is one man's search for the divine; from religion and cosmology to sacred geometry, numerology and astrology," she writes.

The exhibition perhaps is best defined by a small piece of cardboard leaning against a wall and painted in multi-colored squares with four words arranged symmetrically around it: "Art. Philosophy. Religion. Science."

"He wanted to bring all of these things into one and create one totality. That's what this museum is," said Holly Harris, giving a recent tour with her mother, Sally Harris, of the three-hour-a-week museum that they run together.

Waving a tassel in the corner of one painting is a doll that once belonged to another of Les and Sally Harris' daughters, Laurel Harris Durenberger, founder of the old Urbanite magazine in North Baltimore, and now an artist, antiques dealer and librarian near her home in Mountain Lakes, N.J. Durenberger has fond family memories of painting alongside her father at age 13 at the family's home in Bolton Hill, and "all these (art) works coming and hanging on the walls."

In another of her father's paintings at the museum, angels prance through a cathedral he once visited in Europe. Spokes that look like atoms form the seat of a small, ornate chair with a mirrored back that he made of wood and painted to look like metal.

"Have a seat," quipped Sally Harris, a theater and acting professor at Stevenson University and former chair of its theater, film and video department.

Taken together, the artwork is a colorful, entertaining potpourri of images. Heads of ancient Greeks and Romans are linked together in one piece, near others of reclining nudes, sphinxes, pyramids and depictions of Egyptian astrological charts.

A Campbell's Soup can co-exists with a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes in a visual tirade against 20th century materialism. A light prism streams from Mona Lisa's eye. Make what you will of the concentric circles painted on canvas, or empty frames within frames.

"He kept reinventing (the collection) over time," based on everything from the pop art of the 1960s to a trip to Egypt, said Durenberger, who came up with the museum's name (her father wanted to call it "The Transformative Vision") and sits on the museum's board of mostly family members. "He was always informed and informing people through his artwork — not that I understood a lot of it."

Les Harris, referred to as a "maximalist," was well known in the local art scene, although he refused to sell any of the work installed at the museum, and was not as renowned as he might have been if he had sold his art, Durenberger said.

Baltimore Magazine reported in August, 2008 that a memorial service at Clipper Mill drew "an impressive crowd of admirers, students, friends and family," and that the speakers included Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters, who is listed on the museum's website, www.amaranthinemuseum.org, under the heading, "Our Believers."

Publicity boost

Since his death, much of the local press about Les Harris and his museum has faded away. But this month, the 38-year-old Amaranthine Museum will get a boost of publicity. It is being featured prominently as part of the ninth annual Free Fall Baltimore, which runs throughout October, with more than 250 free events, sponsored by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts.

The museum is holding "treasure hunts" on consecutive Sundays, Oct, 11 and 18 from noon to 2 p.m., and on Friday, Oct. 23 from 4-6 p.m. Participants can walk through the museum with 8x11 sheets of paper showing images of the artwork. Those who find all of the images will win a small print of Les Harris' paintings of astrological signs.

It's a showcase for the museum, which costs about $2,500 a month to run, including rent and insurance, but draws only 20 to 30 visitors on average each Sunday.

"Sometimes, it's completely dead," Holly Harris said. She said the museum stays afloat with money from an annual spring fundraising appeal and the family's own pockets.

Free Fall Baltimore comes at an uncertain time for the museum, which has already been relocated once within the Clipper Mill complex and now is facing the prospect of another move. Holly Harris said the museum's second five-year lease expires this December and she and her mother are trying to rent a smaller space for it in the same complex.

They are not looking forward to the prospect of shutting the museum down for several months and moving all the art work, including some large, 150-pound paintings, to a new space. Cramming the content into a smaller space that the public can navigate will make for "a very tight walk," Holly Harris said.

The family will be glad to have a place to keep the museum going, but, "In the ideal world, we want to sell," Holly Harris said. "The exposure would be far greater with someone else" running it. "We feel it could have a much larger life."

"What we don't want to happen is to have it go into storage somewhere," Durenberger said.

Holly Harris dreams of someone overseas, like in Dubai, buying the collection.

"Dad would love it to go out of the country," she said. "It would be divine."

The problem is, they're not sure what the paintings are worth collectively. No one has ever formally appraised the museum, with some auctioneers telling the family there was no way to do so because Les Harris never sold any of the paintings there. About 15 years ago, someone tried to buy one for $13,000. Based on that, the family figures the collection is worth $2 million to $4 million.

As a celebration of its founder, it is priceless.

"He believed art could scratch the surface of the divine," Holly Harris said. "He was always searching for truth and what was divine truth."

But she said her father never could translate his vision into words. "I figured it was my job to explain it to people, because he couldn't," she said.

Some abstract pieces, based on quantum physics, numerology and sacred geometry, are inscrutable.

"He was playing with the angles, the geometry, the sacredness," she said.

And some they just don't like, including "The Birth of Tragedy," colors dripped onto canvas, that sits in the basement.

"We hate it," Holly Harris said. "There are a few others we don't like, but we can't throw them away."

Artist and teacher

Born in Woodberry and raised in Hampden, Les Harris attended City College, became a welder at local shipyards, and, during World War II, served as an Army communications specialist and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he moved to New York City and studied acting and dance at the American Theatre Wing. He danced in Metropolitan Opera productions, studied with artist Charles Rain, and exhibited and sold his then-more traditional paintings at the Alexander Iolas Gallery.

He met his future wife at a Christian Science church. She invited him to work at her theater, the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, N.Y. They later lived in Albany, N.Y., where he taught at the Albany Academy.

In 1962, they moved to Bolton Hill, and he earned a degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a master's degree in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University. He taught interior design composition at MICA. He also was a visiting artist at Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University) and lectured frequently at the Maryland Theosophical Society.

He also taught art at the Park School, where he built stage sets and helped direct theatrical productions, too. While teaching Park students to stretch canvasses, he couldn't resist painting on them, which led him to open an art studio in the 1970s. In 1977, he rented the first floor of the old Poole and Hunt iron foundry headquarters building in Woodberry and began displaying his artwork and giving tours in a labyrinth-style setting.

"He was one of the first artists down here" in Woodberry, Holly Harris said.

Sally Harris said her husband was so wrapped up in his studio and museum that, "After supper, he'd go back," she said. "We had our 50th (wedding) anniversary party here."

But Holly Harris said her mother was her father's muse.

"Mom didn't let Dad stop painting."

Today, Harris' legacy lives on, with the museum drawing about 1,000 visitors a year, and about 5,000 hits a year on the website. Visiting school groups "eat it up," Holly Harris said.

Best of all, she said, "Nobody says it's weird."

The Baltimore Sun contributed to this story.

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