For years, Harry Naar has been championing the work of other artists. In his gallery at Rider University’s Bart Luedeke Center, he has been showcasing artists for so long, he barely remembers the years. It’s been about 30. And as a professor of fine art, he works to inspire new generations of mark makers.
The gallery is part of that process: it exposes students to artists they might not have the opportunity to see otherwise. The artists are often fellow New Jerseyans — Judy Brodsky, Grace Graupe Pillard, Mel Leipzig, Michael Graves. His students can study these artists, help with the show, and be encouraged that they, too, may be exhibited in a gallery some day.
Not only has Naar exhibited the work of more artists than he can remember, but he conducts in-depth interviews with them that appear in the exhibit catalogs he produces. He arranges lectures, concerts, and other public programs to help the community gain greater insight. “It’s important for artists to learn to articulate,” he says.
Now that he will have his own exhibit, “Harry I. Naar: Drawings and Watercolors” on view from Thursday, March 8, to Sunday, April 15, in the very gallery where he has graciously shown others. He is hard to pin down. It took two months to schedule an interview, and even then he needed to reschedule. “I’ve been busy,” he says.
We arrange to meet in the frame shop at the Lawrence Shopping Center, where his works are in storage until he takes them to the gallery.
Across from the shopping center are vestiges of a landscape that might have been before, small patches of woods, places where wild things grow — bushes and bramble, a thicket of twisted vines and dried leaves.
Inside the frame shop Naar, wearing a light blue fleece neck warmer in this season we once knew as winter, unveils his own thickets. He unwraps the three-by-four-foot ink-on-board drawings, and it is as if we are seeing the woods that might be here, if this were not a shopping center: densely detailed snarls of vines, branches, brush.
The season of Naar’s wooded world is winter, revealing the bare bones of the trees, a dried leaf hanging on. “Forest Floor,” for example, shows the path through the woods impeded by fallen trees, logs, and branches, making the way impassable.
The works are detailed with swirls and eddies, a flourish of line. In Naar’s landscapes, trees don’t just grow up, but every which way, as in nature. Look long enough, and you’ll begin to see mysterious objects within. Could that be a dragonfly?
Naar, a Highland Park native and Lawrence resident, is not exactly the outdoorsman. He has taken a fishing trip or two with his sons, but he is neither camper, hiker, nor woodsman. Like his friend, Mel Leipzig, the swarming of insects will send him running.
These are imaginary landscapes, he freely admits. He will go outside — perhaps along the Delaware; Long Beach Island, where he summers; or even the Rider campus — and make a small sketch, or even a photograph, that he brings back to the studio for reference, but once he gets working, he is working from the mind. “I feel the composition. I think more in terms of line, form, and shape until the thing is totally invented.” He absorbs the quintessence of New Jersey Wild, processes it, flows it into line.
Naar doesn’t use pencil, but prefers a felt-tip pen. With the pen he cannot erase, and he finds this liberating.
That a man who spends little time walking in the woods can create such a densely forested scene is fascinating. I forget that I’m in the frame shop and feel as if transported to the woods behind the Institute for Advanced Study.
Unlike the scraggly wooded areas we see from the highway, Naar’s forests go on infinitely. There are no gas stations, cell towers, plastic water bottles, just the pure wild growth of nature without the hand of man or woman to tame it: no trimmed hedges, sheered shrubs, or shaped trees, but dense thicket, twining, tangled.
Naar says he may occasionally bring in a twig or small log from his backyard to use as botanical reference for a tree. His studio, in his home, has windows that look out at a manicured suburban lawn.
A long-time member of the Princeton Artists Alliance, Naar has always preferred to have a studio at home because family is very important to him, he says. When asked about the balance of teaching, running the gallery, and his own art work, he says family is the most important thing. When his wife, Barbara, worked, his more flexible schedule allowed him to be with his boys. During that period, still lifes and domestic scenes filled his canvases. “My kids’ friends could come over and hang out in my studio and see me working,” he says.
His son, Devin, 28, earned his Ph.D. from Stanford last year and is a professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Washington-Seattle, and Aaron, 25, is a filmmaker in California.
“Ever since I can remember, I have always made drawings,” Naar told me a few years ago, when his works were exhibited at Ellarslie in Trenton. “These drawings came from a desire to create images that would make my dreams, my fantasies and my observations visual.”
The drawings were a way to visually brainstorm and figure out ideas for paintings. Using a pen, he says, “forced the drawing process to become more spontaneous and more continuous. I became more aware of the beauty and the purity of the single and the overlapping lines.”
“The world of drawing is more intimate than the painted world,” writes Judy Brodsky in an extended essay in the exhibit catalog. “The hand of the artist is more evident in drawing than in painting where the brush takes over and transmits the artist’s esthetic decisions to the canvas.”
Naar has known Brodsky since the late 1970s, when they were both teaching at Beaver College (now Arcadia University) and shared an office. It was Brodsky who tipped Naar off about his position at Rider some 30-odd years ago.
Those who have followed Naar’s drawing career will notice something new: he has begun to add color in subtle ways. “The color doesn’t necessarily relate to the realistic color of, say, a pond. My colors are total invention. It’s how I imagine a specific environment I’m trying to create.”
The lines have grown denser and the forms more abstract. He is creating rhythms with line. “They are about nature, but they’re really about the nature of me.”
It is as if Naar, who is fastidious — while we are talking he mentions he just vacuumed his house — is letting his untamed wild side out in the forest of line.
“It takes skill and experience to paint and draw this way,” says Brodsky. “The images of the natural world must be in the brain and in the fingers. One thinks of Renaissance artists who apprenticed as early as five years old to their artist fathers or to other artists to develop that skill.”
Despite the enormous canvases he fills, and the great output, as well as a list of exhibits so long they scroll on his website, Naar says creating art is a constant struggle. “I’m always wondering whether what I’m doing on paper is fulfilling ideas,” he says. “The work is in flux. It can expand and contract. It’s alive.”
He only works on one piece at a time, he says, “so I can focus and immerse in it.” Each work can take several months.
Naar says he believes in creating “something that will continually enrich the viewer. Each time you see it, you see something new. I want the viewer to feel a part of it, not just a witness to it.”
In addition to the line drawings, he is showing several monoprints and watercolors. The prints were made at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions, where he was artist in residence. Some of these were selected for the oncology unit at the new Capital Health hospital in Hopewell for being uplifting. The watercolors are landscapes of the rocky coast from his Long Beach Island home.
In describing his process for interviewing artists for the catalogs, Naar says, “I usually start with, ‘Tell me about your youth.’”
So I turn it on him: “Tell me about your youth.”
His father was a manufacturer with a food plant, Nar (sic) Best Food Products, and his mother a homemaker. An uncle took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when he was 10. His cousin, Jon Naar, is a photographer. But Naar cites his grandfather, a rabbi, as an early influence.
“He practiced Kabala before it became popular because it was part of his heritage. He was a scholar, and his books had his inscriptions and diagrams.” Naar’s grandfather died when Harry was eight, but those markings stayed with him.
Naar graduated from Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) in 1968 and earned his MFA from Indiana University in 1970.
Naar turns 66 on July 28 (“tell them to send cards”). He plans to continue teaching for as long as he is able. “I’m really shy about this,” he says when asked about how this show of his work will fit in with the pedagogic role of the gallery. “I teach everyone to paint in their own language, to fulfill what they’re trying to do. I don’t want them to think I want them to work my way.”
“Harry I. Naar: Drawings and Watercolors,” Rider University, Luedeke Center, Lawrenceville. Thursday, March 8, 5 to 7 p.m. Opening reception for an exhibit of drawings and watercolors by Harry I. Naar. On view to April 15. Artist talk on Thursday, March 22, at 7 p.m. Gallery hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu/arts.