Native American artist Leonard Harmon can tell you precisely the moment his life as an artist changed. He’d been invited to Indigenous People’s Day at the 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati. He’d taken some of the quill art he’d become known for, as well as a couple of mixed media paintings.
“The director said to me, ‘What else do you have?,’” Harmon recalled. “I couldn’t answer the question. I didn’t have anything. They said, ‘You need to get to work.’ I started painting and focusing on just that. By the sixth or seventh painting, they took it automatically and put it in the museum.”
Harmon’s show This One’s For You – Honoring Ancestors opens Friday, April 21, with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m., in the Newport Visual Arts Center and continues through May 28. We talked with Harmon about his art, his inspiration, and his move to Oregon. His comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a bit about life before Oregon.
Harmon: I was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Washington, D.C., and Millsboro, Delaware. I’m a citizen of the Nanticoke Tribe of Millsboro, and the Lenape Tribe of New Jersey. I come from a long line of artists. My namesake was Leonard Allen Harmon. He was doing his work in the mid ‘70s to early ‘80s. A lot was featured in Native American magazines and also at the Heard Museum. Tragically, he died from AIDs in the mid ‘80s. My father did Native American furniture and he would paint on the tops. He was a big deal in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. He took his life in 2007. So, I have all this art in my background. I’m really the last one to carry on that arc in the family. That’s what my art is about, carrying on those traditions in my family.
How have you developed as an artist?
I’m self-taught. I started in my teens as a DJ; I considered that an art. I started taking art seriously in my early 20s. I started porcupine quills in 2011. It just came naturally to me. It’s the same thing with painting. I’ve only been painting for 2-1/2 years. When I picked up a paintbrush for the first time, it just clicked. It’s so embedded in my DNA to be an artist.
What inspires you?
I think my uncle really inspires my work the most. I had a really tight connection with him for the four years I was alive before he passed. The day I was born, my mom saw him in me. That is what inspires me the most.
Where else have you shown your work?
Right now, I have work at 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati for a show called Refuge: Needing, Seeking, Creating Shelter. I have two pieces at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art in New Haven [Conn.] at a show called Truth in Three Colors, and I have a live show coming up at 21c in Cincinnati where I’ll do a live 4-by-8-foot painting.
You’ve been living on the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians’ reservation in Siletz for about three years. What brought you west?
In the early 2000s, I got connected with a Siletz tribal member. I was living in Delaware and I was known for my pine-needle baskets. It’s cool, because basket-making is one of the Siletz tribe’s biggest mediums and one of their oldest. She had seen my work on Instagram. She asked me to make some earrings. I told her we’d make a trade. So, she made something for me, and I made a few things for her. And then we just stayed friends, and I started coming out to visit. I realized this is where I should be.
You mentioned you feel a certain connection to the area.
Newport reminds me of the Ocean City, Maryland, fishing port or Rehoboth Beach. My Uncle Tyrone owned a fishing marina in Rehoboth, and as a kid, I would come from D.C. and work on the docks for the summer.
And there’s also a sort of Rick Bartow connection?
Right. When I went to the Heard Museum, they gave me a bunch of magazines. And in every one, Rick and my Uncle Leonard were together. There’d be a story on Rick Bartow on one page, and on the next page, a story on Leonard Harmon. I have the feeling they knew each other, because my uncle would move up and down the West Coast and visit artists. I would have loved to have met Rick [who died in 2016] and asked if he knew my uncle.
Many of the paintings in This One’s for You feature a strip of red. What is the significance of that?
The theme of the show is connecting with my family’s past and looking toward the future. The red signifies the bloodline that runs through us as human beings, not just being an Indigenous person and those types of lines, but the root of it all, where we all come from.