Ralph Harvey, local artist, looks back
By MICHAEL MURRAY
AMERICUS — Some people create art for their own personal enjoyment. Some individuals create art for the enjoyment of others. Some make art because they simply feel that they must, while others work tirelessly so that they can surround themselves in beautiful artworks. The community of Americus recently celebrated an individual who simultaneously encompasses each of these traits.
On Sept. 26, the Albany Museum of Art hosted an event titled, “Hot Glass and Cold Beer,” which had the museum’s facilities teeming with art-lovers from across the state to view the expansive body of work created by Americus resident, Ralph Harvey. The event marked the opening of an exhibition titled, “Ralph Harvey Retrospective: A History of Studio Glass Education in the Rural South” and included live glassblowing demonstrations and live music in addition to an entire floor’s worth of galleries packed with dozens of examples of Harvey’s work.
The exhibit covers work in various media completed over nearly 50 years by Harvey, who has spent the majority of his career as a professor of glassblowing, ceramics, and three-dimensional design at Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) and has continued in this capacity as professor emeritus at the university since his retirement several years ago.
The influence of Harvey’s craft-driven, yet playfully lively aesthetic is clearly evident in the works chosen for inclusion in the gallery show, ranging to the intensely personal to flippantly silly. Harvey’s influence on the artistic community was also put on display at the retrospective, as several examples of work by his students were included in the exhibition to demonstrate the profound effect that his career has had on the next generation of aspiring artists.
On Tuesday, after a long day of doing glassblowing demonstrations with another seasoned artist, Fritz Dreisbach, Harvey sat down with the Times-Recorder at his residence in Americus to crack some jokes, discuss the exhibition and talk about his career as an artist and educator.
There, in his home filled with an impressive collection of arrowheads, an assortment of hand-made fishing flies that Harvey, an avid fisherman, has been busily tying over the last several years, and an even more impressive collection of glass and ceramic artworks created by a host of individuals, including himself, Harvey took a minute to talk. As he and his wife Nancy busily prepared to host a dinner party for several of their colleagues, including Dreisbach and fine arts faculty members from GSW, Harvey discussed the day’s activities and the previous weekend’s retrospective.
Earlier that day, Harvey and Dreisbach had teamed up with metal artist, Gary Noffke, to blow glass, have some fun, and amaze their students with their collective artistic skills in the glass studio.
“It was wonderful,” Harvey said. “Fritz and Gary did all this beautiful work. Gary and Fritz worked for, like, three days with gold wire and forged out things, making little objects. Then, Fritz rolled them up on pieces of glass. They made tea bowl-type things with all these beautiful images that Gary had worked on.”
“I had to pull the cane for it,” he continued, referring to the process of stretching colored glass to produce rods that can then be incorporated into a blown piece.
As for the retrospective, Harvey seemed pleased with how it turned out.
“It worked out wonderful. It was really good.” he said. “(The event organizers) really did an incredible job. Everybody worked really hard over it, I mean, everybody. Paul Williams and the whole museum staff and Keaton (Wynn) and Chuck (Wells) and Phil (Vinson). They really did a good job.”
Asked how the wheels were initially set in motion to help make the exhibition a reality, Harvey said, “(Wynn) and (Wells) decided … I think it was more Keaton (Wynn’s) idea. They wanted to have a retrospective for me. I just didn’t want to deal with it. I made the stuff and, as far as I was concerned, that was it. I was done with it. But they wanted it out there so they told me, ‘You won’t have to do anything. We’ll do it all,’ and I said OK.”
When preparations for the exhibit got underway, Harvey warmed up to the idea of helping put the show together by helping to track down older pieces from his expansive body of work to include. In going through his body of work, he says that he found some things that surprised him and found himself somewhat overwhelmed when he first laid eyes on some of the works of art that had not passed through his memory in years.
“We went up in the attic and got all of this work down from my attic that had been up there for 20 years,” he said. “We unboxed it and put it in the gallery and the stuff was … good. I cried, it was so beautiful. I didn’t know. You know, if you make bad stuff and you look at it five, 10 or 20 years later, you still think, ‘That’s bad stuff.’ But this came out and I was like, ‘Whoa, man!’ It was impressive the way it worked out.”
While setting up the exhibition, there were still more unexpected realizations in store for Harvey as he continued to learn about the influence that he has had on others through the years. During the interview, he told a story of another surprise that he encountered while helping out with the show.
“One of the funniest things was, I had all these different tea bowl shapes that I’ve been doing over the years,” he said. “Some that involved (the Harveys’ daughter) Sarah’s aesthetic and all that. There were these tea bowls and, on the top row there were these two really lively ones on the ends. Nancy looked at them and she said, ‘I don’t remember those pieces.’ and I said, ‘That’s because (former student) Phil Taylor made them … ’ It’s always nice to see work that’s done by your students that’s better than yours. They’ve taken your ideas and taken off with them. We all do it, you know.”
Harvey initially became interested in pursuing art as a career while a high school student. He later went on to study painting at the University of Iowa and continued his education at New York University, Auburn University and Florida State University (FSU), intermittently.
In 1966, he got his first teaching job at Alexander City State Junior College, now Central Alabama Community College.
“I was a one-man department there,” he said. “I taught painting, drawing, art history, and design … I did that for seven years. That was fun. There was a lot of stuff we did that was pretty exciting. Because I was a one-man department, there wasn’t any feedback, so I said, ‘Well, I think I’ll do something else.’ I had G. I. bill left, so I went to FSU to do the constructive design thing.”
During his time at Florida State, Harvey discovered his love for three-dimensional art, learning to work with clay and metal while developing the dynamic aesthetic sense that would remain prevalent in his work through the rest of his career.
He later found himself working in Madison, Ala., where he could continue to impart his knowledge and explore three-dimensional forms while remaining near the love of his life, Nancy, who lived in Wetumpka, Ala.
“We were in the ‘Artists in Schools’ program in Alabama in 1974, when I was working for the Madison County Public School System on a grant from the Alabama Council on the Arts and the National Council on the Arts,” he said. “It was some kind of big-time grant. I worked at 22 different schools over there. That was fun. Every day it was a new thing.”
“I taught there for a year …” he continued. “They were going to hire me on for another year. In fact, they sold a bunch of school buses to pay my salary for the next year. They loved me so much. It was terrific.”
It turns out Harvey had another surprise coming his way that would significantly change the course of his artistic career. He soon received a call informing him of an open position at Georgia Southwestern College, teaching art history, painting and glassblowing.
Despite having never opened a crystal furnace or picked up a blow pipe in his life, Harvey traveled to Americus for the interview. He made a good enough impression with the interviewing panel that he was offered the job. At this point, he knew he had a lot of work to do in order to prepare for the task of teaching students to express themselves through glass.
He picked up the medium quickly, watching the advanced students in the studio and going back in after the students left to work on the techniques that he had seen them practicing. Soon, he was working the molten material as if he had been doing this his entire life and has been a familiar face in GSW’s Fine Arts building ever since.
“We had a lot of fun here, man. And I haven’t quit teaching. I’m over there all the time,” he concluded as he looked up to hear a knock at the door. The dinner guests had begun to arrive. Dreisbach was the first through the door. Harvey and Dreisbach greeted one another again. Their hands, calloused and worn from decades of perfecting their craft, clasped each other’s as Harvey welcomed him in.
A minute later, Nancy came into the room saying, “I have just found the funniest thing. I was looking for (a book). Look. I found this copy of T. S. Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’.”
Ralph responded, “Hey, is that my copy?”
“It is,” she answered, thumbing through the book. “It’s got your self portraits scattered all through the pages,” she continued as they laughed, not surprised at finding even more artwork in such an unlikely place.
It seems, after all this time and such a prolific career, Ralph Harvey is still able to surprise himself with the amount and the quality of the artwork that he is surrounded by.
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