By George Kevin Jordan, Special to the AFRO
William “Billy” Harris was a legendary teacher, artist, and founding faculty member and former chair of the visual arts department at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C., but his legacy continued through the impact he left on the community and the thousands of kids he served.
Harris was an example of a local hero, with international influence. A native Washingtonian, he received his BFA in design, and his MFA in printmaking and drawing, both from the prestigious Howard University. Washington seemed to be his home and his muse. The city was where he taught and drew inspiration.
A photo featured on William Harris’ Facebook page.
“I began my professional artistic career as an instructor of art in the D.C. Public School School System. I, soon, embarked on a journey to become a craftsman by having a mentor teach me the art of woodturning. During the time I spent completing my mentorship, I learned additional woodworking skills,” Harris wrote in his artistic statement.
“As I evolved, as an artist, I began to merge my printmaking skills with woodworking. The two separate processes allowed me the opportunity to combine colors printed on canvas surfaces with wooden constructions. Starting from mere doodles in my sketchbook, I have begun to merge the two skills into imaginative and creative forms as never before. In giving birth to each new work, the journey has allowed me to make visual, social and culturally infused comments about the people, ideas and events that I have recognized as, important, in my lifetime.”
His celebration of life, held Oct. 16 at Duke Ellington, served as a grand art exhibit of Harris’ career and the legacy he has left.
Chelsea Harrison, 27, a teaching artist in Brooklyn, is Harris’ youngest daughter and spoke of his life and the impact his home going service had on her family.
“He had a very rare brain disease; it was a terminal illness from the onset,” Harrison said in a telephone interview. “It was very hard to see someone who relied on their body to watch that body turn against itself and become useless in a way. It was devastating to see.”
A photo of “Last Homage To The Past” (2013) part of the Fractured Neck Series by William “Bill”/ “Billy” Harris.
Harrison added how her perspective shifted during his ceremony.
“It was beautiful to see people have a memory of him that was so fresh and alive,” Harrison said. “As a family dealing with the day to day you forget who this man really was. I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing all the people who came out.”
He was honored with several awards throughout his career, including the Mayor’s Art Award For Teaching, Washington, D.C. (2010), Highly Effective Educator Award, D.C. Public Schools, (2010), and the Certificate of Merit – Presidential Scholars Program – White House Commission on Presidential Scholars (1989), just to name a few. His work is also exhibited at the Capital One Corporate Collection in McLean, Va., Sallie Mae in D.C. and the John A. Wilson Building – City Hall Art Collection, for starters.
However it was Harris’s dedication to education that left a profound impact on people. According to his official website he began as public school instructor in the D.C. Public School system, and taught on every grade level from pre-k to senior high. Not only was he a founding faculty member and former chair at Duke Ellington, but he also was an adjunct/associate professor at Howard University, College Of Fine Arts, from 1985 – 1988 and served as a (crafts) panelist for the D.C. Commission On The Arts And Humanities (1980) as well as a (fine arts) panelist for the Maryland State Arts Council (1983). He was an artist/member of the Washington Printmakers Gallery from 1991 through 2006. Mr. Harris served as a member of the Board of Directors of Pyramid Atlantic. He served on the board of Arts On The Block of Maryland, until his passing.
Harrison referred to her father’s time at Ellington as his “Magnum Opus,” and shared how his words of wisdom and guidance still reverberate for her today.
“When I first started being a teaching artist I was asking (Billy) how do I do this, dealing with classroom and students,” Harrison said.
“He said young people need boundaries. They need someone to create those boundaries for them to create within. They may resist at first but ultimately they appreciate it and feel safe enough to experiment and grow as an artist.”
Art to Harris and his family was crucial, said Harrison, “Particularly as a Black person it is super urgent and you have to develop those skills and there are lots of layers in developing your artistry and your discipline.”
But you need look no further than to his former students to see his legacy.
“Mr. Harris was a man who was as blunt as iron. He was honest and forthright,” Maya Cunningham, a former student, wrote in an essay to her late teacher and mentor. She goes on to say, “As I look back on this special time with mature, adult vision, I can see how invested Mr. Harris was in all of us. He loved us and cared for us.”
In reaction to the essay Tia Powell Harris, wife of Harris and CEO of Duke Ellington wrote via email: “I thought I knew him well. But his students knew him in other ways, ways that explain the outpouring of love and sadness that has been so astounding (and comforting) to me. piece is not only archival, but a look into the “secret sauce of Ellington.”
Mr. Harris leaves five children, a wife and many friends, family and supporters.