More than a Message
For artist Harry Seymour, the beauty of Martha’s Vineyard and personal experiences come together, along with his personal style of creating, to form powerful narratives about the world around him.
Photography courtesy of Harry Seymour
For Harry Seymour, art has always been a form of escape, while also a way to tell a story. “Ever since I was in elementary school, I would doodle, and it was about the process of creating something tangible. I noticed very early that it was something I could do more or less naturally, so I continued to do it, and I derived satisfaction from crafting something,” Seymour says of his discovery of art. “As I went through high school, college and my professional life, I always gravitated back to it for pleasure, as well as relief. For me, it’s very relaxing; when you’re creating something and you’re focused, it takes your mind from everything else and gives your body and mind a rest from all the noise. Over the years, that has not only been gratifying, but also therapeutic.”
From Ecorse, Michigan, to Howard University, to The Ohio State University, to UMass Amherst to Martha’s Vineyard, Seymour’s path has been more winding than most, but no matter the direction, his art has always been a constant, comforting presence. Seymour left Howard University with a degree in business administration, and after some time in the field, he jokes, “I was not particularly suited in temperament or otherwise to be the great entrepreneur I thought I was going to be.” At the same time, he met his wife, Charlena Seymour, who was pursuing a master’s degree in speech pathology. Though the idea was foreign to Seymour at the time, the thought of a career working with and helping people with disabilities appealed to him. “Next thing you know, I’m in a master’s program for speech pathology at The Ohio State University. I had no idea what that was all about 10 years earlier,” he says. From there, the two earned Ph.Ds. in speech and hearing science, as well as positions at UMass Amherst. All the while, Seymour continued to create and experiment with his art. “When I would get frustrated, or didn’t want to teach a particular class, do another research project, or write another grant, I would always gravitate toward creating art,” he explains.
During that period, Seymour discovered that he was, in fact, allergic to most paint, but he wouldn’t let that stop him from creating. He began working with egg tempura, as opposed to traditional oil paint. Upon his retirement, he started looking into ways to keep creating without getting sick and came upon a style known as scratch art: the process by which black India ink is placed atop white China clay, all layered over a hard, Masonite board. The artist scratches away the black India ink to create the image. “As is my nature, which I think comes from my scientific background as a researcher, I’m always asking myself, ‘If I did this, if I did that, what would happen?’” Seymour explains. “It’s an approach of formulating hypotheses. As a result, my current artistic process that I know and love, is one in which I scratch, but instead of using the black India ink, I use wax pastel, rubbing it into the surface of the china clay.” Seymour describes it as a subtractive method rather than the traditional, additive processes of painting. “I’m going to add stuff, sure, but I’m mostly taking away, scratching away. I call it scratch pastel painting,” he says of the technique that is all his own.
“What I care about is producing a high-quality piece of art, one that might be relevant and might say something about the times in which we live, not just in 2020, but in 3020.”
Just like his art process, his pieces have layers that, when scratched at, reveal more about Seymour and his message. “Who I am, and what’s important to me, is critical to how I spend my time. And I spend a lot of my time on my art. I want it to be a narrative, to tell a story. And the story I try to tell speaks to ‘social justice issues’ that are important to me.” Across Seymour’s art, among the seascapes and lighthouses of Martha’s Vineyard, are images not traditionally shown in portraits of the island he now calls home. “I want to show Black people in my work, but not just to show Black people. I want to say something that has a universal appeal to all people. I want to make a statement. So, I show a little black boy on a beach,” says Seymour, referencing his piece “Imperiled.” Like many kids who visit Martha’s Vineyard, the little boy is sitting on the beach as a large wave approaches. But, unlike the white children dotting the beaches across the island, this little boy has more coming at him than just a wave. “There’s a difference with respect to him. That wave that’s about to hit him is a metaphor for that kid being Black and what happens to him when he leaves the island and as he grows up; what we know about what’s happening to Black boys all over this country, in terms of stop and frisk, mass incarceration, poverty and miseducation.” This messaging and subversion of traditional Martha’s Vineyard imagery is prevalent throughout Seymour’s art, all working toward his goal of telling a story. “My work, when you look at it,” says Seymour, “it’s ‘Gee that’s beautiful; that’s a little Black kid; I don’t see many Black kids in paintings.’ But, I’m making a statement beyond just having a Black kid in a painting.”
While Seymour draws his inspirations from a lifetime of experiences, his two main influences coincide thanks to his many summers and eventual retirement to Martha’s Vineyard. He credits his wife and the thriving African American community on the island, specifically in Oak Bluffs, with forming this indelible bond with the Vineyard. His wife, a longtime island visitor, first brought him there for their honeymoon, and they continued to return summer after summer. “It appealed to us not just because of the beauty of the place, but because of our lives as two black professionals working at a predominantly white university. We lived in a community that was also predominantly white. That’s what our children were growing up exposed to. Not that that’s bad, but there was something missing from that experience, and that was other African American children and adults. One of the things that makes the island so very unique is that there’s a robust community of African American professionals and non-professionals. When we would come over in the summer, our children interacted with other children they wouldn’t otherwise get to back home.” This sense of community pushed the couple to eventually retire on the island. “We couldn’t come up with a better place than Martha’s Vineyard,” says Seymour.
In his retirement, Seymour has expanded his artistic resume by writing poetry to accompany his artwork. “I don’t regard myself as a poet,” he says. “What art is, to me, is a way of evoking emotion. If I can’t do that, it’s an empty process for me. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but if an emotionally evoking picture is matched with a strong, provoking poem about that piece, then it becomes magnified in its impact.” The addition of poetry to his already impactful work helps Seymour ensure that message is relayed loud and clear to all who view his art. “I’m reminded of a phrase, ‘If art is not political, it is simply decorative.’ I don’t think there’s anything simple about beautiful pieces of art that are for decoration, but those are not political or message-driven. Whereas my art takes it to a different level; it has an edge to it. When you do work like that, you have to accept the fact that your audience may not be as wide as it would be if you did more neutral work. I’ve dismissed that as a motivation years ago. If I’m going to spend one minute on something, it’s going to be something I want to do, and I’m going to do it the way I want to do it.”
You can find Harry Seymour online at hseymour.artspan.com
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