November 19, 1999
The White House Historical Association has commissioned Ronna Harris, associate professor of art, to create an original painting for its millennium calendar project. The painting will also become part of a permanent exhibit, "White House Impressions: The President's House Through the Eye of the Artist," to be displayed in the White House visitors center.
One artist from each state and the District of Columbia will contribute original work depicting scenes of the White House to one of four consecutive calendars that span December 1999 through December 2003.
"I was so surprised," says Harris. "Out of the blue I got this FedEx saying that I'd been recommended for this project and asking if I was interested. Of course, I was interested!"
In its extensive search for artists, the White House Historical Association had specific criteria in mind: each artist would be a realist painter, depict a historical or contemporary view of the interior of the White House and would use a 16-inch by 20-inch canvas.
The first two criteria were practically tailor-made for Harris. She had already won a Louisiana Division of the Arts grant in 1998 and is well-known for her remarkable renderings of glass and sunlight in her interior-view paintings of windows. The Louisiana Division of the Arts Council readily recommended her when the White House Historical Association requested a list of realist Louisiana painters. Harris' most noted works are all painted to scale on large canvasses.
It was only after traveling to Washington in August to select the scene she would be painting that Harris received an unexpected challenge. Upon entering the East Sitting Room on the second floor, Harris knew that the grand palladium "fan" window overlooking the Treasury Building would be her subject. But after photographing it and preparing to return to her New Orleans studio to begin work, Harris learned of the relatively small canvas-size requirement.
"I said, You've got to be kidding," she says. "I told them that I dont think I've ever painted anything that small unless it was actually that small. They had seen my slides, but they didn't notice the dimensions written on them; they never saw my work in person."
Ironically, the limited size of the project ultimately gave Harris the chance to expand both her skills and her perspective.
"I decided to rethink my art and find a way to do this," she explains. "For me, it's like I'm doing a miniature. I'm using tiny brushes and sitting at an easel and I'm always on a stool, which is very unlike me. Before, when I would paint to scale, I would always be moving back and forth with hyper energy. So it's actually taking me much longer to paint this than it would if I was painting my normal way. But it's definitely been a terrific experience for me and I'm grateful for it."
Harris' piece will appear in the calendar for 2001. "This window is special-its actually one of the best-documented parts of the entire White House. They still have all the blue prints, and the glass is as old as the White House itself. Plus, I've chosen to paint the window from a lower angle so I catch the Treasury Building through it instead of trees and shrubs. The Treasury Building is all warped by the glass, which I find kind of amusing," says Harris.
The White House Historical Association, a non-partisan organization, aims to educate the public about the White House. The 2001 installment of the calendar will be available in April 2000 in bookstores nationwide for $12.95. Funds will be used toward purchasing additional contemporary art for the White House.
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