William Geoff Harris: Artist, Philosopher, TeacherMar 02, 2022 10:07AM ● By Mary Colarik
Geoff and his wife Olga live in San Clemente surrounded by his art.
I met William Geoffrey Harris almost two years ago at an Anchors Dinner, a social event with several other members of St. Clement’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. At the end of our conversation, he handed me his business card, sharing that he had an extensive art collection listed on his website. I confess … I never peeked at the art until a few months ago. So when asking for his business card again, he laughed and said, “Oh, I thought you didn’t like my paintings.”
Upon finally visiting his website I was intrigued by the depth and variety of his art. He displays a great number of lacquer paintings numbered and titled. These paintings are kept together forming a very large collection of this art style which is not listed for sale.
In December Harris invited me to his home to view his paintings. While showing several pieces of his brightly colored art, he described the background and process of the different art mediums which include: lacquer on Masonite, oil, watercolor, buon fresco and life drawing. He explained that as an artist he is inspired by what he feels. Sipping wine and munching on light appetizers, we sat down with his wife, chatting about their life together and his life as an artist.
Harris was born in 1940 in La Canada/Flintridge, a prestigious, tranquil community with good public schools in the Los Angeles foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. His father was a patent attorney. The family enjoyed a pleasant upper middle-class lifestyle with Geoff relishing a “typical” childhood with a lot of his youth spent exploring the fields and woods surrounding his home. As an adult the grape vineyards, trees and trails that he traipsed though growing up inspired many of his paintings.
As a young child he was always drawing and painting. His parents happily supported him giving him “artistic license” to pursue his creative interests. He was somewhat athletically inclined, but also bullied by his older brother, yet he always fought back and never gave up. He attended three different high schools and graduated from John Muir high in Pasadena. Around that time his older brother who was attending Stanford University died in a motorcycle accident at 21 years old. This tragic event devastated Harris’s parents prompting Geoff to move out of his family home as he was unable to cope with their sadness and heartbreak. He says he, too, was extremely sad for his brother’s passing, angry, and had a negative attitude at this time in his life.
He moved to Mexico City, enrolling in art classes at the University of the Americas. While in Mexico (1960-62) he also became interested in yoga and intrigued with Eastern mysticism, particularly Vendanta, “one of the world’s most ancient spiritual philosophies, based on vedas, the sacred scriptures of India.” Harris shared that he has developed a five-step approach to a higher state of awareness is, one, “think it,” two, “see it,” three, “feel it,” four, “believe it,” and five, “be it.”
Additionally, he was inspired by different Mexican artists, including Siqueiros, the youngest of the “los tres grandes”—the three greats of Mexican Muralism. Much to his delight he was able to embrace the incredible creative energy and the strong ubiquitous influence from the indigenous people of Mexico. During these years of art study, he was introduced to the synthetic painting method of using lacquer paint on Masonite. He loved that the lacquer paint created bright colors and permanence and that the quick drying forced spontaneity, creating a rapid painting method that quickly became his preferred medium for the art that he was creating. He continued with this method throughout most of the 1960s and ‘70s. Eventually he had to give up painting with lacquer because of its toxic fumes.
When returning to Los Angeles, he attended Otis Art Institute and continued developing and evolving his art. After inheriting about $3,000 from his grandfather in 1963, he decided to travel and headed to India. While there, delving more into his art and Eastern philosophy, he met his first wife, Jeanette, who was of British and Indian descent. That marriage lasted for 14 years. They had three children together, one son and two daughters and eventually six grandchildren.
After his time in India, he returned once again to the LA area attending California State University Los Angeles. While attending Cal State LA he was in an auto accident breaking his femur and tibia and sustaining a collapsed lung and concussion. He spent three months recovering in the hospital, another three months in a wheelchair and another three months on crutches. He graduated in 1969 from Cal State LA with an M.A. in painting.
Upon graduating he began teaching English, history and art in several LA high schools; eventually teaching art in the Torrance School District from 1971-1981. While there he met his second wife Olga, also a teacher. Married for 37 years now, they have raised children from both their first marriages as well as one of their grandsons from age 6-18 years old.
While teaching at North High in Torrance, during summer vacation in 1973 he painted a 72 ft. historical fresco secco mural at the Torrance Historical Society Museum located in the old Post Office building. It depicts the time spanning from the founding of the California missions by Junipero Serra, to the Spanish land grants, the farming, the 1920s and into modern times.
In 1981, he decided to leave teaching behind. Moving to Oregon, Harris built a house, started a picture framing business and did some substitute teaching. When his mom contracted pancreatic cancer, he returned to the LA area.
Geoff’s wife, Olga, continued teaching in the Torrance School district while Geoff pursued his art. He had an art studio on Washington Avenue in Venice, and many of his watercolor and oil paintings from the 1970s through the 2000s highlight the beauty of the California coastline and inland nature spots, as well as depictions of the San Juan Capistrano Mission, the canal in Venice, Italy and many more intriguing scenes.
Harris has created paintings that have been displayed in juried shows, receiving several accolades from local art associations. He has works that were displayed in private collections and had a one man show at the Paideia Gallery in Los Angeles’ “Gallery Row” on La Cienega Blvd. His website wgharrisartcollection.com, features his wide variety of painting styles, ranging from impressionism to expressionism and surrealism subject to his mood at the time.
He says, “one one of my goals has always been to do paintings that don’t repeat or look too much like other paintings that I have done. Each one is original, and, in many cases, there was no preplanning as to subject matter, so that the subject matter often developed and evolved during the painting process.” His large collection of lacquer on Masonite paintings, plus many of his beautiful watercolor and oil paintings are all available to view on the website.
In their leisure, Geoff and Olga Harris enjoy the ocean view from their home in San Clemente. Geoff rides his mountain bike alone, usually mid-day along the Ridgeline trail. He lifts weights and finds his exercise routine spiritual, feeling like a big bird as he lifts his weights, “soaking in the sunlight of God’s love, the lord directly sustains me.” He keeps his back strong with an inversion table, and as a self-described Chess “nut,” he has played in several major open tournaments as a class A player, but now plays Chess mostly on his iPad.
The young man who was angry with a negative attitude has evolved into a gentle, kind spirit finding his way all those years ago through his extensive travels, ancient philosophies, art, and the realization that only with the power of love could he achieve positive results.
For more information: wgharrisartcollection.com