Ben Harrison raised his cellphone over his head to take a picture of the chalk drawing he had made of his father, Bil Harrison, at the intersection of Clark and Danforth streets, just outside of Ruski’s Tavern. Inside, the bar filled with people who came Wednesday evening to say goodbye to the senior Harrison, who died of lung cancer Sept. 2 at the age of 72.

Bil Harrison was a prolific artist, producing thousands of drawings and paintings of the city he loved, including work featured at Mainely Frames & Gallery in Portland and on the walls of local restaurants such as DiMillo’s and Rosie’s. He also was a sometimes curmudgeonly regular at Ruski’s and a colorful ringleader of a tight-knit community.

A favorite line of Bil Harrison’s was etched on a chalkboard on the sidewalk in front of the bar: “What I’ve done is far more important than who I am.”

After Ben Harrison snapped his picture, a gray-haired man approached with a somber handshake.

“I’ve known your Dad since 1977,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Harrison said, shaking his head. They both laughed, then the visitor got serious again.


“He was an institution,” the man said.

That was obvious.

Ruski’s was packed, with two bartenders – there’s rarely more than one bartender working – hustling to fetch drinks for the throng.

Harrison “was part of the wallpaper here,” said Pete Swasey, himself a Ruski’s regular since 1997.

That’s true in a literal sense. Harrison’s black-and-white drawing of a Honda motorcycle sits next to a Löwenbräu sign up in the corner.

Bartender Dominique Krasow, who has worked at Ruski’s for 12 years, said Harrison sat always in the same spot, with a bag of his artwork. He’d strike up a conversation and try to sell a piece to somebody. Or he’d try to stir things up with the regulars.


“Bil was a pain,” Krasow said with a smile. “He’d sit at the end of the bar and get everybody going.”

Ornery, vivacious, conceited. That’s how bartender Beth Milton described him.

“And he had the kindest heart,” she said. “Money didn’t mean a thing to him as long as he had enough to buy a beer and a bag of weed.”

Harrison drank 16-ounce cans of Schlitz, so Schlitz was everywhere Wednesday as regulars and friends toasted him. A vase of flowers sat between a couple of his self-portraits, and a can of Schlitz in front of the vase.

Kitchen manager Scott Hayes took it all in from the front corner of the room, as far as he could get from the throng standing in front of the bar. He’s worked at Ruski’s for 10 years and said Harrison was one of a colorful cast of characters.

“We get everything from bikers to lawyers to the chief of police in here,” he said. “The Portland police chief and the Scarborough police chief bring their wives in here a couple times a month for dinner.”


That’s what Harrison liked about the place. He was an artist who was constantly working, but he didn’t care that his work wasn’t hanging in a fancy art museum.

Harrison’s agent, Leo Pelletier, laughed as he sipped his Schlitz and talked about Harrison’s spot in the art world.

“He wasn’t snobby at all,” he said. “The (Portland Art Museum) called me up and asked to interview him, but I couldn’t get him to do it. … He didn’t like the public life.”

But he was at the center of life at Ruski’s. Harrison lived upstairs from the restaurant in the 1990s before moving a block away, where he lived with longtime roommate Jim Payson. Standing on the sidewalk Wednesday, Payson said Harrison “didn’t do diddly-squat” to help him clean the apartment in their recent 12-year stint together. Nearby, a redhead told Krasow, the bartender, how Harisson once promised he would marry her. It turns out he made the same vow to three other women.

As people exchanged stories, Harrison’s son unfurled a large sheet of white paper next to the front door. He asked people to sign their names and write a note to Bil.

Krasow grabbed a black Sharpie and gave her favorite customer a farewell: “Thanks for leaving your imprint (footprints) on my heart.”

Outside, the rain had already washed away the chalk drawing of Harrison.

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