Portrait of a Baltimore artist who opened his own gallery


It goes way beyond understatement to say this place is somewhat different from most art galleries. Hugh Harrell's gallery on Auchentoroly Terrace is as far away in look and spirit from the fancy downtown galleries as a lively, working Paris atelier is from the IBM building.

Here there are no stark and sterile white walls, no polished wood floors, no eyeball spotlights on slightly disembodied works of art. No manicured and suited sales associates whisper, "May I help you?"

Instead Hugh Harrell himself gets up from whatever he's working on, opens the door and says, "Come on in."

This is a place where ideas cook, where art lives and breathes. As you walk into the high-ceilinged Victorian row house across from the Druid Hill Park conservatory, you enter a long hallway where every inch of wall is covered with portraits: oil paintings, watercolors, charcoal and pastel sketches.

Then through French doors, you find his studio. Thick, gilded frames, both filled and empty, lean against the walls. In front, near tall uncurtained windows, easels hold portraits in progress. In back, a huge work table holds a mass of plaster currently being shaped. Finished sculptures, wood or bronze, sit here and there on tables.

And here too, every bit of wall has been hung with paintings and drawings. Most are of women; some are of children, a few of men. In one, working women lean over piles of crabs; in another, a boy stands next to a fallen bike; in still another, a mother holds a small child.

Faces stare out from the walls. Beautiful or plain, they all have a haunting sweetness, as if some spark, some bit of spirit, stayed behind in the image when the person sitting for the portrait walked away.

His works are in collections on both coasts: the African Heritage Center at Yale University, both the library and the Third World Center at Princeton University, the Schomberg Center in New York, Hampton University in Virginia and in the private collections of Marlon Brando, Rosa Parks, Phyllis Diller, Stevie Wonder and others. The late James Baldwin -- whom he met in the mid-1960s through his then-wife, the Emmy-award-winning actress Beah Richards -- had a half-dozen works and visited him here at his gallery last in 1987.

"I met James Baldwin first in California," Mr. Harrell says. "I had had a show and afterwards the paintings were scattered all around and two of them were at a friend of my wife's home. And he went by there one night and saw the paintings and he said he liked them. I thought he was pampering me, you know, just being nice. And I called him the next day and asked was he interested in buying them. And he said he didn't know. How much did I want for them? I quoted him a price and he said, 'You're a damn fool.'

"And then there was a great long pause. Finally he said, 'Send them over.'

"He thought I was a damn fool for selling them at the price -- which I know now is true. But I carried them over to him."

Mr. Harrell's abilities were first recognized when he was 13, when he was offered the chance to study informally at the art department of Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). "I couldn't be on the official list because I was too young," he says.

When he grew older, he was encouraged to work as a barber rather than an artist. "All the advice was, 'Become a barber. That's where you can make the money.' "

Later he went to New York to study and paint. While there he and a partner opened a gallery in Greenwich Village and his works began to receive recognition. He moved to Baltimore 10 years ago to be with his son Bruce, also an artist.

Mr. Harrell sells both finished artworks and commissioned portraits. There are no set hours here. You know he's accepting visitors when an orange light is turned on out front. "Orange represents good health, so I put an orange light on to welcome people in good health to come in."

If you are lucky -- very lucky -- he may tell you stories as well.

Mr. Harrell's studio gallery, Harrell-Art, is located at 3402 Auchentoroly Terrace. The telephone number is 225-0402. A selection of his works is also on display at Artworks gallery at 508 W. Franklin St. The telephone number there is 383-2415.

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