Highfalutin show marks the triumphant return of Kevin Harrison to Charleston’s visual art scene
by Lorne Chambers | editor
It’s been 20 years since protesters filled the sidewalks of Broad Street in historic downtown Charleston, holding signs and picketing an art event called Entropy, featuring the work of local artists Kevin Harrison and John Duckworth.
Cameras were flashing, news crews were on the scene as limos pulled up while pro-arts activists clashed with the “People’s Coalition for Safe Art,” who were advocating for “More Duck Art” and more paintings of Rainbow Row.
Of course, the whole thing was staged. It was a piece of performance art unto itself. The protesters were actors and the People’s Coalition for Safe Art was totally made up. But weeks of drummed-up “controversy” leading up to the exhibit helped drive attention to the multimedia event and overnight Harrison and Duckworth became forces on the local visual art scene, revered for their guirilla-style of marketing as well as their art, which walked the line between realism and abstraction.
Shortly after Entropy, someone threw a cinderblock threw a window of a downtown real estate office and stole one of Harrison’s paintings. The artist remembers feeling bad for the friend and business owner who had purchased the painting, but also somewhat flattered that someone would go to such extremes for a piece of his work.
So for their next show Harrison and Duckworth again concocted another stunt as a way to draw attention to their now-annual show. This one was called The Great Art Caper and was another huge success.
The next year’s marked their third joint art event show and drew the attention of the folks at Red Bull energy drink, who sponsored it. It was dubbed the 13th Hour and Harrison, Duckworth, and others locked themselves in a building for 13 hours while they created art. The pieces that came out of those 13 hours were what was exhibited at the show.
This month, Harrison, now a successful film editor, returns to his visual arts roots with a solo show at Highfalutin Coffee Roasters in the Avondale Business District in West Ashley. It’s his first art exhibit in nearly half a decade and will feel decidedly different from the zany Entropy and subsequent art shows of his past.
The art itself is also different. Still evocative and distinctly Kevin Harrison, but in a much more calming way. The show, which opens with a reception on Thursday, April 1 will be on display through the end of May. Harrison says it will feature more than a dozen pieces, ranging from large scale to micro-paintings.
“We’ll see what we can fit in the space,” says Harrison. “There will be a couple of the city streetscape that some people are familiar with and the rest are a completely different style.”
There’s an almost Dali-vibe to his new work, which juxtaposes a backdrop of warm colors against white silhouetted images of a comfy armchair and trees along with floating, disembodied legs.
“The feeling that I want people to get is that they see that chair and want to sit there,” explains Harrison. “It’s supposed to make you mentally stop for a second and take a break, which we all need, especially after the year we’ve had.”
According to the artist, he wants the work to be “meditative and calming.”
“That’s where I am right now. Years ago, I was raging against the machine. Now I’m 52, which is surreal to even say, but now I’m more into calmness. The walls in my house used to be red. Now they’re white,” he says.
A slightly older, slightly more introspective Harrison still looks back now on those crazy, old shows with fondness as he connects the dots on how one thing has led to another in his life and incredible professional career. He laughs remembering that his initial pitch for an exhibit was rejected by a well-respected, buttoned-up downtown gallery and art dealer. It was out of that failed meeting that Entropy and the bogus protests were born. After that show, just for fun, Harrison took all the digital film footage from the event, edited it, and put it on the Internet. It got him noticed nationally and started him down a new career path.
“It was a result [of Entropy] that I learned how to edit video. I had no idea that it was going to be seen by someone in Chicago,” he says. “But GMR Marketing, a huge firm in Chicago, asked if I’d come up there and do one up there.”
After that, “protest shows” sort of became a thing for Harrison. He recalls the title on his business card at the time was “Riot Starter.”
The big takeaway from all of it was that Harrison fell in love with film editing and found that he was good at it. Really good as it turns out.
“That kind of jumpstarted me and I realized that I could make a living out of this,” says Harrison, who quit his job at Blackbaud and started doing freelance video work for up-and-coming companies like Red Bull and Axe Body Spray.
With his newfound freedom, Harrison said he and his wife, Cathy O’Hara—then a newscaster with WCIV-TV Channel 4 in Charleston—thought they could sell their house on San Souci Street downtown, which Harrison jokingly dubbed “The Poor Man’s Mansion,” and use the profits to travel the world with their two children.
“We thought we could sell it and fund our global adventure. We were wrong,” he says. “It 2010 and it was the worst economy and the worst housing economy.” By 2011, The Poor Man’s Mansion had more than a 100 showings but they still had not sold the house.
So Harrison took a step back, believing that if you put your intentions out there, that they somehow have a way of manifesting. He became creative director for Production Design Associates (PDA) and video director for Charleston Fashion Week. His wife left the newsroom and ended up taking a job with a small upstart in New York City that only had a handful of employees at the time.
That little company was called AirBnB.
Of course, AirBnB would go change the housing market and revolutionize the travel industry in dramatic ways. It also changed Harrison and O’Hara’s life forever.
They did end up traveling the world and eventually sold The Poor Man’s Mansion. O’Hara’s job moved them, their two kids, and two dogs to Europe. For a couple years they lived near Barcelona in the small coastal town of Sitges.
“It was amazing. I just wore a lot of white and pretended like I was living some Mediterranean fantasy and rode my bike everywhere,” says Harrison.
But his Mediterranean fantasy ended when AirBnB moved the family yet again. This time to Ireland. They lived along the coast in a small town with less than 10,000 people called Dalkey, just south of Dublin.
“It’s like a dream town. We absolutely loved it there,” says Harrison, who moved back with his family to the U.S. in 2016, but says he still longs for Ireland and Spain and hopes to be able to one day buy property in one of those areas.
Harrison continues to be in high demand for film editing and directing for movie trailers, TV shows, music videos, commercials, and other creative projects. But he still clearly has a love for and a desire to put paint to canvas.
At the end of 2019 he was commissioned to paint a large 8×16-foot piece for the short-lived Sipango Italian restaurant on East Bay Street. After that, he went back to film editing before being approached a couple months ago about possibly doing a solo show at Highfalutin Coffee Roasters.
Asked if there will be any shenanigans at this show, Harrison insists he’s calmed down a lot since the days of Entropy, The Great Art Caper, and The 13th Hour. His business card no longer says “riot starter.” But then he gives a mischievous chuckle as if to suggest that the crafty master of chaos might still have a few tricks up his sleeve. Afterall, the exhibit is opening on April Fools Day. The same day that his other three notorious shows were held. He’s even calling this one The April Fools Day Show.
“I smell a stunt!,” he says laughing again. “Dress fabulous. Maybe a ’70s tux or a gimp suit would be appropriate.”
Kevin Harrison’s April Fools Day Show opens with a reception on Thursday, April 1, 6-9 p.m. at Highfalutin Coffee Roasters, located at 27 Magnolia Road. It will remain up through the end of May.