The Journey Home, MaryLea Harris,  Mixed-Media on Canvas 15"x30" 2005


My father and I made a deal when I was a senior in high school: if I went to a liberal arts college for my undergraduate education, he would help me go to art school later in life. Eight years later, in the summer of 2002, I began the journey toward my Master of Interdisciplinary Studies (MIS) with Virginia Commonwealth University's Off-Campus Graduate Art Program. What began as merely a teaching re-certification class evolved into an opportunity to pursue a life-long goal: to establish myself as a working artist. Even so, it would be another eighteen months until I would take my next class. Life has a funny way of bringing us back to our roots: my final studio class in this program brought me back to the same high school I attended when I made this arrangement with my father. 

Personal Aesthetics

In college, my passion for printmaking was fueled by my love of textures and layers in art. The downside of printmaking was my exposure to harmful chemicals. My husband and I met during his cancer treatment for a malignant brain tumor while we were both in college. His cancer remission, my daughter's birth, and my own concern for the environment inspired me to pursue new non-toxic materials in painting and mixed-media work. During this program, I worked with acrylics for the first time and discovered a way to create visual layers in my work with computer emulsion transfers. My love for paper led naturally to making handmade books while another long-buried interest in textiles and fiber arts also re-emerged. 

Answering The Voice Within

My first class was a summer painting class with Kurt Godwin and I produced some acceptable landscapes, but I was not happy painting them. I didn't want to make mediocre, meaningless art yet found it very difficult to paint anything that did not look like one of my elementary art lesson examples. Landscapes were not the right subject matter for me. Standing outside with a brush in my hand, I felt like I was supposed to be painting like one of the "Old Masters" or Impressionists and that was not what I wanted to be doing. I spent a great deal of time in that class feeling paralyzed by my own inner critic. After our class ended that summer, I visited Godwin's show, Twelve Keys and the Glass House, at the McLean Project for the Arts. His layering of images within his paintings, splattered and dripped paint, and large-scale was what I had been trying unsuccessfully to create in my own work. Standing in that gallery I realized that my days as a painter were just beginning. 

My next class with Warren Corrado brought me back into the printmaking studio where I thought I would rediscover the same passion that I previously had for printmaking. Printmaking lacked the spontaneity that I now craved. I no longer had the patience to work through all of the meticulous steps required by printmaking and I still had not developed a focused theme for my work. 

I found what I was looking for during my third class, a mixed-media and computer transfer course with Bob Worthy. I was able to combine layers, textures, and think outside of the box with media I had never used before. I found a quotation on the internet by author Barbara Ueland that was helpful:  "(w)e are always afraid to start something that we want to make very good, true, and serious." I wrote this quotation on my studio wall as a daily reminder to push through and just start working. I had to ask myself what do I love and from where do I draw my strength. The answers -- family, relationships, nature -- became the catalyst for all of my work. 

The path I traveled through the M.I.S. program was a circular journey of self-discovery. I re-learned my identity as an artist in the process. I found peace and contentment in my studio making art for myself as well and gained confidence as an artist. I learned that it is important to experiment and that understanding failures often leads to new opportunities for a chance to create art beyond the original intentions. 


After experimenting in my first computer transfer class followed by a painting class, I became interested in combining the two mediums. I discovered that the layered imagery of contemporary artist Lynne Perrella's assemblages and collages and have a great deal in common with my monoprints from my undergraduate work. Her Jasper Johns-like pieces inspired me to merge my painting and computer transfers in any way that I could imagine. 

During an independent study with Bob Worthy I created a few canvases combining painting and transfers. The most successful one is The Journey Home because it fully incorporates my interests in layering both content and media. This textured canvas combines tea-dyed handmade paper with computer emulsion transfers. This led to a new series based upon this piece. 

The Journey Home, MaryLea Harris, Mixed-Media on Canvas, 15" x 30"

I also created a series of emulsion transfers with photos of trees I took in the woods behind my home. This series sold at my Path is a Circle show to a private collector in 2006. 

Arboreal Suggestion, MaryLea Harris 
Emulsion Transfer A/P, 2006 12 " x 12" (Private Collection)

Sunrise, Sunset Trees, MaryLea Harris 
Emulsion Transfer A/P, 2006 12 " x 12" (Private Collection)

Transparent Trees 2, MaryLea Harris 
Emulsion Transfer A/P, 2006 12 " x 12" (Private Collection)

Transparent Trees 1, MaryLea Harris 
Emulsion Transfer A/P, 2006 12 " x 12" (Private Collection)


The Materials of the Artist, MaryLea Harris, Altered Book with Emulsion Transfer, 9" x 6"

I started experimenting with handmade and altered books a few years ago. With my first effort, I layered an emulsion transfer of trees over the pages of an old artist's manual. On the facing page I created a small diorama by cutting a hole in the center of the book. 

My bookmaking venture led me to my final studio course in the M.I.S. program, Ginna Cullen's wonderful bookmaking class, which has transformed my art forever. Books allow me to work through many different ideas while experimenting with various media. The intimate scale allows me to sit quietly and reflect upon each book while holding it in my hands. 

 Birches, MaryLea Harris, Watercolor, Stitched Canvas, Computer Text, 12" x 12" 

I was able to combine many of my past techniques with my Birches book. I layered watercolor paintings with computer text and created rudimentary botanical prints throughout the pages of the book by pounding leaves and herbs with a hammer into the soft Arches paper. I created the cover using scraps of raw canvas from my paintings and stitched monochromatic patterns into the cover with my sewing machine. I finished the book by hand-sewing a Coptic binding. 

Crossing Paths, MaryLea Harris, Mixed-Media book with Branch, 6" x 9" 

Detail: Crossing Paths, MaryLea Harris, Mixed-Media book with Branch, 6" x 9"

In Crossing Paths, I was inspired by Jasper Johns' Fools House (1962) to use a rudimentary tool, in this case a small branch, to splatter ink and paint on the pages and then incorporate it into the binding on the cover as Johns did with the broom in his painting. The layered criss-cross pattern of the pages allowed me to paint a neutral color palette on one side of the book while allowing a shock of vivid orange and crimson red to be hidden within the pages. 

Closer to Home, MaryLea Harris, Mixed-Media Book 8" x 8" 

 Detail: Closer to Home, MaryLea Harris, Mixed-Media Book 8" x 8" 

With the portfolio book, Closer to Home, I combined emulsion transfers and handmade papers with the archetypal symbol of a house. I incorporated stitching with my sewing machine as a symbolic historical connection to the generations of women in my family who sewed to provide income and clothing for their families. 

I am the second woman in my family to pursue a post-graduate degree and am reminded of my female ancestors when I have the luxury to create art in my studio. Historically, wealthy women learned needlework as a pastime while poor women sewed out of necessity. My grandmothers and great-grandmothers sewed not for recreation but out of need. 

Combining machine stitching and hand stitching with my computer transfers is also meant to remind the viewer that this is a handmade piece of art and not completely computer generated. It is handcrafted like clay pots or woven baskets that also hold the marks of their makers. 

Mother to Daughter, MaryLea Harris, Mixed-Media Star Book, 12" diameter

The star book format seemed most appropriate for my Mother to Daughter book because its circular shape, when open, symbolizes our inter-connectedness. This was truly a collaborative piece which combined my daughter's artwork with my own. I handed her a paintbrush and a palette of acrylic paint before her second birthday. My mother was my first art teacher as well. My daughter loves painting in my art studio on my easel. I find the natural freedom of her abstract paintings very refreshing. I scanned one of her paintings on my computer and transferred it onto one of the towels I use to clean my paintbrushes on from my studio. I then cut up the pieces and stitched the sections to paper and bound them into the star book format. It is a gift that I hope to pass along to her someday when she is older. 

Pop Up Book, MaryLea Harris, 2006

Circle Pop-Up Book, MaryLea Harris, 2006

Jacob's Ladder Book, MaryLea Harris, Mixed Media with Emulstion Transfers

Cover: Jacob's Ladder Book, MaryLea Harris, Mixed Media with Emulstion Transfers

Coaster Book, MaryLea Harris, 2006
Altered Coasters and Cheese Box with Encaustic, Machine Stitching, and Emulsion Tranfers

Mixed Media Book of Quotes, MaryLea Harris, 2006
Watercolor paper, machine stitching, ink, canvas


I wanted to create contemporary versions of traditional women's art forms with my quilted wall hanging. Wildwood, and my sculptural basket book, Nest

Wildwood, MaryLea Harris, Emulsion Transfers on Cotton, Linen, 36" x 20"
Machine Stitching, Hand Embroidery, Beading, Branch

Wildwood is hand-beaded, embroidered, and machine stitched; skills passed down to me by my mother and grandmothers. It hangs from a branch found in the woods where the photographic images were taken. 

Nest, MaryLea Harris, Sculptural Book with Yarn and Altered Tyvek, 8 " x 12" 

The basket form for my Nest book was inspired by my collections of traditional African Zulu Wedding baskets as well as the role of women in building a metaphorical nest in their homes. The shredded pieces of altered Tyvek tied to the outside of the basket and filling the middle have dictionary definitions for various nests and vessels printed on them.