Charles Leslie "Les" Harris, a teacher and artist who spent several decades building Amaranthine Museum, a sprawling display of his work housed in a Woodberry industrial building, died at his Bolton Hill home Monday. He was 84.
Citing their Christian Science beliefs, family members declined to disclose the medical cause of his death.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Hickory Avenue, he attended City College and became a welder at local shipyards. During World War II, he served as an Army communications specialist and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge.
His wartime experience served as a catalyst for a broadening global perspective that rapidly expanded his exposure to art, architecture and theater, said his daughter, Laurel Harris Durenberger of Mountain Lakes, N.J.
After the war, Mr. Harris moved to New York City and studied acting and dance at the American Theatre Wing. He danced in Metropolitan Opera productions and studied with artist Charles Rain. He exhibited and sold paintings at the Alexander Iolas Gallery.
Mr. Harris met his future wife, Sally Pomeran, at 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 Park Avenue in Bolton Hill, and he earned a degree at Maryland Institute College of Art and a master's degree in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University.
He taught interior design composition at Maryland Institute and art at Park School, where he built stage sets and helped direct theatrical productions.
"You never saw sets so extraordinarily dynamic," said his wife. "He created things out of nothing. The kids he taught remember building the sets as much as anything they did at the school."
Mr. Harris was also a visiting artist at Villa Julie College and lectured frequently at the Maryland Theosophical Society. Mr. Harris retired in 1996 to pursue art full time.
In 1977, he rented the first floor of the old Poole and Hunt iron foundry headquarters building in Woodberry, where he displayed his artwork rather than sell it.
"Year by year, his installation has grown like an out-of-control Christmas garden. It is now an amazing series of chambers that one observer thought was a room-by-room tour of Western civilization, from Egypt to Andy Warhol," said a 1994 Evening Sun article. "His artwork fills every square inch of space."
Family members said one of his pleasures was leading guests through the large, multiroom installation he built to resemble a labyrinth.
On these guided tours, he often discussed concepts ranging from the Big Bang, numerology, astrology and the Eleusinian mysteries.
Mr. Harris called his creation the Amaranthine Museum, named after a flower, the amaranth, that derives from a Greek word meaning one that does not wither.
His installation had to be moved to a nearby space in what is now called the Clipper Mill neighborhood. It is now has the status of a nonprofit arts center.
"A visit there was like stepping into Les' mind," said Walt Handelsman, the Newsday Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who was his Park School student. "As students, he instilled a passion in us to be very creative. He was quirky and funny. He demanded, then he asked you to think differently. He had a warmth and smile that made you want to enjoy life."
A memorial gathering will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow at his museum, 2010 Clipper Park Road in Woodberry.
In addition to his wife of 50 years and daughter, survivors include two other daughters, Heather Harris and Holly Harris, both of Baltimore; and two grandchildren.