My work is an exploration of textures and shapes, enamel and metal finishes, shiny and dull surfaces, solid and see-through forms. By placing opposites next to each other, an energy and tension develop. There is a tactile quality to the elements that invites the viewer to respond, to touch, to fondle.
Jan Harrell is best known for her recent complex and visually opulent installations that explore gender-based issues in sometimes humorous and always thought-provoking ways. Her ‘magnum opus,’ a multi-part installation called Vanitas: The Muse in Her Boudoir was presented at the Goldesberry Galley in Houston in 2010. Comprising what the artist describes as a “vanity set for a larger than life persona, a muse who is bawdy and joyful, embracing life to the fullest,” the exhibition included a wide array of the artist’s enameled sculpture. While some works in Vanitas celebrate pure visual opulence, others elicit a layered response, an artful confounding of attraction and repulsion, new and old, beauty and obsolescence.
Born in Houston, Harrell moved with her family to Sukagawa, Japan when she was just six months old. Her father was a textile engineer who loved to deconstruct and rebuild equipment and appliances and her mother, who was deeply interested in Asian art, studied sumi painting while the family lived abroad. Harrell asserts that, “my joy in life is a direct product of these two wonderful people.” In an interesting way, through repurposing commonplace tools (funnels, paint brushes, rusty old saw blades, etc.) to discover new meaning in the mundane, Harrell’s work reflects her parents’ complementary interests in mechanical form and pure beauty.
Harrell also acknowledges that her first eight years spent in Japan had a profound impact on her own artistic sensibilities. Her love of lush silks and brocades, as well as her fascination with the richly patinated, married metals seen in samurai weapons, and her fondness for the spare, uncluttered Japanese design aesthetic, shaped her future direction and interests in art.
She returned with her family to Lubbock, Texas in 1960. Harrell studied jewelry and enameling in high school then continued her studies at Texas Tech University, one of the few places where enameling was taught. She studied with Donna Read, majored in jewelry with a minor in enameling, and was awarded her BFA in 1974. Her early works were the more common spun copper bowls enameled in spare colors with intricate design patterns. This progressed to hand forming more intricate metal shapes that would become the basis for the exploration of more personal issues. Combined with elements such as barbed wire, real baby deer leg and other found material with metal that was forged, hammered, chased and treated in various finishes, including enameling, Harrell explored personal objects of adornment and ritual. With time the size of the objects grew from small worn jewelry to hand held or wall mounted pieces.
After raising a family, she resumed her studies at the University of Houston where she awarded an MFA in sculpture in 2007. She currently teaches enameling at the Glassell School of Art in Houston where she has held that position since 1992.