Growing up in Detroit, Jonathan Harris’ interest in art started at an early age. He sharpened his artistic skills by attending Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, Henry Ford College and Oakland University, where he studied graphic design and studio art.
“I’ve been drawing forever. I mostly drew figurative drawings but didn’t start painting until about five years ago, after I saw my cousin painting. It changed everything,” the Bloomfield Township resident says.
While Harris studied art in school, he didn’t know how the art industry worked until he met Henry Harper, owner of Harper Galleries of the Arts and Interiors in Detroit, who critiqued his work and became his mentor. Harper also introduced him to Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, a lively and supportive weekly gathering of artists, collectors, and art enthusiasts.
“I tell stories through art and try to be as honest as possible. I dig deep to tell my story and the Black story in America, which is one of love, hope and prosperity,” the artist says. “I’d like to spark conversation and change the world with my art.”
Recently, one of Harris’ oil paintings entitled “Critical Race Theory” garnered worldwide attention after appearing as part of a gallery show at Irwin House Global Art Center and Gallery in Detroit. The image has been widely shared on social media and Harris estimates over 5,000 prints of this painting were sold internationally.
With its haunting impression of a white person using a paint roller with white paint to attempt to cover three prominent Black leaders in American history – Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman – the painting’s depiction of the whitewashing of Black history resonates with many who embrace the importance of teaching Black history as part of American history – and brings attention to a controversial topic.
“Everything has gotten so political and I’m not a political guy. I can see points on different sides,” Harris says. “This painting is meant to be futuristic. It shows what life could be like if a small idea turned into a big idea, which led to our stories and history being erased. It shows what life could be like if people are not taught real history in school because it makes some people uncomfortable.”
He adds, “We need to have uncomfortable conversations to better understand each other. When I was in therapy, I learned that you need to start from the beginning and talk about it to understand. I wanted this piece to start the conversation. It’s working – and changing some hearts.”
The artist’s latest series, entitled “I Pledge Allegiance,” explores what it means to be American. The series is comprised of 10 portraits of non-white Americans shown with the American flag and, according to Harris, addresses “Being in America, but not being seen as American.”
Besides creating art, Harris plans to be in a new gallery space on Saginaw Street in downtown Pontiac by May. His first show in the new location is scheduled for Juneteenth weekend, June 17-19.
While there have been both positive and negative reactions to his art, Harris explains, “As an artist it’s not my job to tell people, it’s my job to show them. People can then interpret the piece how they want to – but I’m always willing to have a conversation about it.”
Story: Tracy Donohue
Photo: Laurie Tennent