A Father-Daughter Discussion
The Western Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof Off the Mother
June 22–Oct 13, Olympic Sculpture Park
Late in the afternoon last Friday, after a long week of work, Heather Hart and Harry H. Hart III agree to sit down to talk. We meet at Green Leaf restaurant in the basement of the Labor Temple in Belltown, close to their construction site. Harry has been to the Labor Temple before, for a meeting of his carpenters' union years ago. Now he's retired, but using the same skills to help his daughter build art. On a weedy, sloping lawn at the Olympic Sculpture Park, they're erecting a structure facing water and mountains and sky. It will look like a buried house with only the attic and roof sticking out. All summer, people will walk in it and on it, they will drum on its interior walls made of animal hides, and Donald Byrd will dance on the roof.
The wood-frame form is based on Heather's childhood home in North Seattle, which Harry partly built. Harry the First constructed his own childhood home, too. Heather keeps rebuilding hers. In 2010, she made one at a sculpture park in Minnesota, then again last year at Brooklyn Museum. Details vary, but each house is attic and roof only, summitable and enterable. She calls them "oracles."
This series stems from a lineage that culminates with Heather: 30s, dressed perpetually in no-nonsense overalls, and living in Brooklyn, where she moved a decade ago after graduating from Cornish College of the Arts. Her parents, Harry III and Sue, met in art college in Oakland. The most notable other characters are the first two Harry H. Harts, who stood out in the college town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, for being chefs, being musicians—two generations of the band Harry H. Hart and the Virginians—and being black. Heather is mixed-race; she groans that her undergraduate art was "didactic, exotic hardwoods with things graffitied into them, my brother's dreadlocks sandwiched between layers of resin." The themes haven't disappeared; they're just less obvious.
Over the course of two hours of sodas at Green Leaf, it becomes apparent that what father and daughter most want is to know more about each other. Heather first invited him to help her five years ago, on her grad-school thesis at Rutgers. They built a porch as an interactive installation inside a gallery. "We had music," he remembers. "People came in and they danced. They went into the crawl space underneath. It was nice."
But, Heather explains to her father all this time later, the dancing didn't just happen spontaneously. "I planted the dancers there," she says. Every 15 minutes, dancers instructed to "invade the personal space" of the people on the porch raised the tension on the upper deck, sending people into the haven of the crawl space below, which had maybe previously seemed more dangerous and mysterious.
"It's new to me to hear her talk about her art," Harry says. "My favorite stuff is, I don't know, I guess like Norman Rockwell, what he did for the Post. As a craftsperson, it's something I can handle and not have to think about it so much." He pauses and thinks, then says to Heather about his own small metal sculptures, "Remember the face I did looking up, and the hand?"
"Yeah," Heather says. "There was a lot of modernist stuff you did, and abstract stuff, but later, really figurative." She pauses and thinks, too, then says, dutifully, "I did pay my dues. I know how to paint."
Each of them is building the bridge across a generation gap's worth of differences in art. The year Heather got her MFA, she went to her first extended family reunion—flying both out into the art world and back into her family. When she got a travel grant from an art foundation, she used it "to find rooftops my family lived under" in the East, South, and West. "Most people go abroad," she laughs. She found an interview with Harry the First at the historical society in Williamstown—in it, he named the family's African tribe. "I immediately go call my dad on the phone, and he says, 'Well, but... you know he was a storyteller.'"
Harry looks on, smiling, saying nothing. He has the posture of a mountain.
"These oracles, they're fabricated—it's this fabricated belief system," Heather continues. "You want to create this story for yourself that you can turn to when you lose control. And that's like Great-Grandpa. He was a storyteller."
Harry Hart the First did publish a book of a certain kind of stories. It's a 1951 cookbook of recipes he developed for athletes at Williams, and it's on Amazon, with a cover the color of a blue ribbon. Harry let Heather discover it for herself in her research, then pulled his copy off the shelf at home, so she could see the real thing.