Hugh Harrell Jr., artist

Virginia-born painter and sculptor whose work was popular among Hollywood stars ran gallery, studio from his city home

January 18, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Hugh Harrell Jr., a former Baltimore sculptor and painter, died Wednesday of cardiac arrest at a hospital in Hampton, Va. He was 82.

Born and raised in Hampton, Mr. Harrell exhibited an interest in painting and drawing at an early age. By the time he was 12, he was sitting in on art classes at what is now Hampton University.

He attended Phoenix High School in Hampton until enlisting in the Navy during World War II. He served aboard a minesweeper, the USS Hogan, in the Pacific Theater.

After being discharged in 1946, he returned to Hampton, where he worked as a welder and a barber.

"Between cutting hair, he worked on his artwork," said a son, Bruce Harrell of Hampton, a former Baltimore artist.

In 1959, Mr. Harrell left Hampton and moved to New York to study and paint, and with a partner established the Soul Gallery in Greenwich Village.

With his work beginning to be recognized, Mr. Harrell was given a scholarship to study drawing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

He also studied printmaking at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and sculpture at the Johnson Atelier Foundry in Princeton, N.J.

Mr. Harrell left New York in the 1960s and returned to Hampton, where he owned and operated a studio and gallery, until moving to a Victorian rowhouse across from Druid Hill Park in the early 1980s, when he established Harrell Art.

"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," observed a Sun reporter in a 1991 profile.

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

Instead, visitors entered a world where every inch of wall space was covered with oil paintings, watercolors, charcoals and pastels.

"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," reported The Sun.

In his studio proper, "thick, gilded frames both filled and empty, lean against the walls," reported the Sun. "In the front, near uncurtained windows, easels hold portraits in progress."

If that wasn't enough, wood or bronze sculptures, some finished and others incomplete, sat on a large wooden table.

Mr. Harrell's marriage to the late actress Beah Richards, from whom he was divorced, brought him to the attention of stars such as Marlon Brando, Phyllis Diller and Stevie Wonder, who purchased his artwork for their collections. Rosa Parks and author James Baldwin also were friends who included Mr. Harrell's works in their collections.

Mr. Harrell enjoyed telling a story about Mr. Baldwin, whom he met in California when he gave an art show. The author of Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time had admired some of Mr. Harrell's paintings.

"I called 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,' " Mr. Harrell said in the 1991 interview.

"And then there was the 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."

In the warm months, Mr. Harrell enjoyed working on the front porch of his house where passers-by often were invited up for a chat and a look at what he was creating at the moment.

He installed an orange light on his porch, and when it was turned on, it was a signal that he was receiving visitors.

"Orange represents good health," he told The Sun, "so I put an orange light on to welcome people in good health to come in."

Mr. Harrell's son recalled the day that Mr. Baldwin came up on the porch and talked to his father, who eventually painted a life-sized portrait of the noted author, who died in 1987.

"You would never know who would show up on his front porch. It could be Dr. Ben Carson, the pediatric surgeon, or even Mayor Kurt Schmoke," his son said.

His work is also included in the permanent collections of the African Heritage Center at Yale University, both the library and Third World Center at Princeton University, the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City as well as Hampton University and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Mr. Harell left Baltimore in 1998 and returned to Hampton, where he spent the last decade continuing to work as an artist.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Smith Brothers Funeral Home in Hampton.

In addition to his son, Mr. Harrell is survived by two other sons, Hugh Harrell III and Pernell Harrell, both of Hampton; two daughters, Brenda Harrell of Germantown and Latera Chestnut of Birmingham, Ala.; seven grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter. An earlier marriage to Pearl Charity also ended in divorce.

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