“Plate #905,” 17 x 22, 2018 Photo by Sean Alonzo Harris

Sean Alonzo Harris was halfway through a residency at Portland’s Indigo Arts Alliance when the coronavirus pandemic turned his photographic practice upside down. His fine-art photography, which concentrates on narrative and environmental portraiture and was featured in the 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, couldn’t be created in isolation. His commercial and editorial assignments, which had already been put on hold for two months for the residency, were canceled for the next three.

Having moved from Portland to Waterville last year to join his wife, Elizabeth Jabar, a printmaker and director of civic engagement at Colby College, the 51-year-old Harris now finds himself in an empty academic apartment building that normally would have been teeming with students. Instead, he’s enjoying the company of his adult daughter, Enrica, who flew up from New York City before the lockdown took effect, while trying to come up with creative ways to continue his artistic practice and connect with people.

Q: Your residency at Indigo was supposed to run through the end of March. When was the last time you were there?

A: Probably over a month ago. At first, I stopped coming as regularly, cutting my time from four days a week to two. But I was doing portraits, and people had to come in. The last portrait I was going to do was of an elderly woman, and I thought, that’s not good. So I packed up and left.

I was also supposed to have a solo show at Cove Street Arts at the end of December, but we pushed it back to mid-April 2021. There’s some stuff I was just about to start when I was at Indigo that I didn’t get a chance to do, so that will give me some time.

Q: You were working with the writer Nyamuon Nguany Machar as your mentee for the residency. Were you able to collaborate much during the time you had there?

Sean Alonzo Harris plays with silkscreening using an old photo of his daughter, Enrica. Photo by Sean Alonzo Harris

A: Yeah. And actually, we’re still working together. We’re talking on the phone and playing around with some ideas. I’m going to start trying to incorporate her words into silkscreen, and then we’re going to silkscreen them over some images. It’s something I can experiment with up here in Waterville because my wife has a print shop right next door to my studio. I think there’s only 10 people in the whole building right now, so I can come here every day and be fine.

We’re also working on this sound piece together, asking the people I took portraits of to give us something, a story or poem or chanting or whatever they want. I don’t have any idea how this is going to come out. I’ve never done anything like it before.

Q: Many artists can continue producing the same type of work they’d been creating before the coronavirus hit. But your photography centers around environmental portraiture, which is impossible to do with social distancing.

A: It’s a curse and a blessing at the same time. When I was at Indigo, I had all these grandiose ideas about what I wanted to do, but then things quickly changed. I’ve started to get into reading again, and now I can’t stop. I reread Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and it’s such a good book. I read it 25 years ago, but now it means so much more. That and a bunch of other books made me put the brakes on all the things I thought I was going to do; the work morphed into something else, something with more depth and a larger voice. The silkscreening ideas kind of stem from that.

The cool thing is I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone and just see what happens. That’s what creativity is. You’re faced with something, and you try to make the best of it. It’s never a straight line when you’re creating. You have to kind of bend and mold, and it’s up to you to accept it or not. Things are always changing. They’re changing now.

Q: It sounds like you’re making the best of this creatively. But how is the situation affecting you and your family financially?

A: My primary way of making money is commercial and editorial photography. I already took off two months to do the Indigo before this happened, and now every job that I had lined up for the next three months has been canceled. We also still have a house in Portland. It’s rented out, but one of the tenants already asked if they could pay half the rent at the start of the month and half in the middle of the month. I don’t know how long they can hold on.

And now our daughter is with us. She’s been taking time off from school, working as a waitress in New York, trying to figure it all out. She speaks fluent Korean, and was planning to go to Korea in May for a month and a half. Now she’s in my wife’s studio, screening her drawings onto T-shirts and bags. She’s been drawing forever, but because my wife and I are both artists I think she’s shied away from it. Now, all of a sudden, what she finds joy in is art. My wife’s teaching her, and she’s loving it.

So we’re all paring down together, buying food and cooking good meals, watching Netflix, making art, and hanging out.

A self-portrait of Sean Alonzo Harris. Photo by Sean Alonzo Harris

Q: What is your take is on the role that art can play right now, especially with museums and galleries closed and all of us maintaining a physical distance from one another.

A: It’s a really bizarre time in that way. Historically, artists are on the front lines. When things happen in the world, we speak out the loudest. How do we do that now? I’ve been reaching out to people and talking to them about art, trying to figure out ways to collaborate – bridges to bring things together. Just like that whole music idea with the portraits, asking people to record whatever they want, a poem or prayer, banging on pots and pans or whatever, and sending me those files and seeing what comes about. You have to think differently about how to connect.

Q: Do you think your artistic practice will be forever changed?

A: Well, as terrible as this is, it’s also a great opportunity to really dig in and do some self-evaluation and self-discovery. I’ve been doing commercial and editorial photography for a really long time, and I honed those skills. I was like a race horse: I was really efficient and finely tuned, and could go around the track a million times. Sometimes I’d win, sometimes I’d lose. But now it’s like I’m a horse back out in the field, and I’m responding to the wind and the sounds and I have to eat the grass, and when it rains I have to go for cover. And there’s danger, and there’s fear, but there’s also joy, there’s freedom.

It could be the best thing ever, as far as my career on the other side. That may be wishful thinking, but I’m hopeful.

Stacey Kors is a longtime arts writer and editor who lives on Peaks Island.


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