Meet the Artist: Dan Harris

Photo: Courtesy of Dan Harris

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

Hi!  My name is Dan, I grew up in the Greater Boston Area in a big Jewish family.  In my youth, Judaism always meant Hebrew school at Reform synagogues and temples, going to shul on the high holidays, and lots of holidays and tables packed with delicious Ashkenazi food.  I was raised very secular but with a strong Jewish identity, and it’s something I carry into adulthood even as I’ve explored and transformed that greatly.  I’ve worked as a backpacking guide in the wilderness of the southwest, a documentary filmmaker and cinema lighting technician, and pull all of these creative threads and life experiences into my journey as an artist and a person today. 

My wonderful wife Dahlia is also an artist and an incredible one at that, we met at summer camp when we were 12, reconnected as adults a decade later, and the rest is history!  You can check out her beautiful painting work @dahlia.raz. Together we’ve really explored our identities as Jews and she introduced me to the Chabad movement. While we don’t consider ourselves Lubavitchers, we love the philosophy, kindness, and community we find at our local Chabad house and with our greater community in Crown Heights. We currently live right outside of Boston, MA but are excited to make the move to New York City in the next few months.

What inspired you to become an artist?

I believe that being a Jewish artist is what I was put on earth to do, and that all my life there were key things pointing at me to do it.  I was very lucky to grow up in a home surrounded by beautiful Jewish artwork.  A wood-block print Ketubah, blown-glass Menorahs, and idyllic scenes of Zion with rolling hills and cypress trees, hamsot, doves, and all of the wonderful motifs that swim through my mind today, these things adorned every wall of my parent’s home.  That’s where it started for me.  I’ve always loved building things and making art, obsessing over LEGO as a kid.  In college and in my profession as a film lighting technician I was always making documentaries about the work of other artists, and these projects urged me to reflect on my own identity as an artist.  A couple years ago I started making fun and humorous greeting cards for family and friends out of paper, not even anything specifically Jewish, however this slowly began to evolve into what you see today as Dahlia and I explored our Jewish identity.  We both come from fairly secular families and as we delved more into our Judaism, the art followed suit. Dahlia too with her thriving career as an artist really encouraged me to pursue my work in Jewish paper-cutting art, and really helped me to create a space where I could explore my art and bounce ideas and inspirations off her. One of her greatest strengths as an artist is that she truly has deconstructed the way she thinks about her creativity, making it truly her own, and encouraging me to do the same. She’s helped to show me what’s possible in life and art and I feel so inspired by the way she goes after her creative dreams.  All the motivational and technical expertise she has in navigating this field have been vital to my success.  It’s a wonderful thing to be married and supported by such a wonderful creative person. 

What is your speciality?

My specialty as an artist is hand-cut paper design, broken up into two disciplines: single-sheet subtractive pattern, and multi-color collage.  Sometimes I combine both styles and continue to experiment with that, at times enjoying the clear-cut boundaries of single-piece design, and at others enjoying the process of finding that perfect scrap piece for a gradient in a collage.  I enjoy incorporating a variety of materials from high-quality archival paper and art supplies to found-objects like labels from kosher food products all the way to scrap paper I find on the street.  Whatever looks interesting to me and helps me express my ideas can make it into my art.  For reasons I don’t even know, I love taking low-value, disposable objects and turning them into something beautiful and lasting.  My primary tools are exacto-knives, a rubber cutting mat, painter’s tape, and crafting glue.  I have no formal training as an illustrator or designer beyond what I learned at film school attending Fitchburg State University, and I find this liberating as my art feels very process-oriented, and each project is a new adventure a little different from the last.

Where do you take your inspiration from? Are you pursuing any themes?

I draw inspiration from a variety of life experiences, cultural encounters, and fantastic people.  Culturally, the foundation of my style is drawn from classic Eastern-European Ashkenazic and “Folk” Judaica design themes mixed with post-modernist Judaica conventions.  I’m inspired by a variety of Jewish artists, ranging from the emotional surrealist paintings of Samuel Bak to the wonderful found-object creations of Harriete Estel Berman, and the beautiful high-detail illustrations of Ephraim Moses Lilien.  The book Crafts of Israel by Ruth Dayan and Wilburt Feinberg really re-shaped my understanding of how modern Israeli and Jewish artists interact and form their ideas.  Going to Israel for the first time in the spring of 2022 to meet Dahlia’s family, I found myself inspired by the people, the language, the food and the landscapes of Israel.  Dahlia and her family have exposed me to so many beautiful new Sephardic traditions that I didn’t grow up with in a more Ashkenazi-American world, and I’m grateful to have learned so much from them. Becoming part of an Israeli family has also expanded my view on what it means to be Jewish, and I draw inspiration from their unique life experiences and perspectives. It’s an incredible thing to grow up surrounded by the art of your homeland, and to finally step into that landscape to see where those beautiful colors and shapes originate. I feel inspired in my art by the beautiful community I see every week at our local Chabad House, the families there, and how they share the joy of being Jewish with their children.  Images like a father and son Chazan chanting together, small children riding on scooters up to the bimah, and families singing together all pull at my heart and inevitably end up in my artwork.  I have this distinct image in my mind of attending a Friday night Shabbat service at 770 Eastern Parkway and seeing this little boy wearing his father’s hat and sitting atop his shoulders, laughing and bouncing as the crowd danced.  Things like this that make my eyes well up with happiness are the only true “theme” I chase after in my art.  If it moves me, I will create it!

Which project have you enjoyed working on the most so far?

That is a very difficult question to answer because I love each project so much!  Each one is so different and exploratory, but if I have to choose one, then it’s a project I titled “Sinai Mezzuzah.”  It speaks from the heart and opens up a lot of things in my life that I find meaningful.

When I was younger, I enrolled myself in a wilderness program in the American Southwest, inspiring me later on to work as a backpacking guide for challenged high school students in that same region.  Both this personal and professional work brought me out to many remote deep deserts.  My favorite time of day out there was always the night, when the earth goes silent and the milky way comes out.  It provides a calm and clarity, opening one up to many healthy spiritual ideas. I remember sitting under the stars back then, thinking about my ancestors in ancient Israel, and how it was they were able to develop such beautiful spirituality in environments like this that lend themselves to that type of growth. 

In the past year or so, with the help of my fantastic Chabad Rabbi, I began to wrap Tefillin on a regular basis, a reflective ritual very much rooted in the wilderness-based traditions of Judaism that I’ve come to love. This piece celebrates all of this, and my gratitude for it.

I learned so much from this project for a number of reasons, first and foremost because it is so far the largest illustration I’ve made so far, coming in at a 24in x 7in size (60cm x 17cm), and it helped me to push my ideas to scale.  It also helped me develop a technique to create glittering stars, by which I punch holes in a navy-blue over-sheet and layer underneath it a levelled reflective subfloor of pieces that reflect back at the viewer. The large dimensions of this project also pushed me to hone my photography and photoshop editing skills given that the piece was too large to be put on my flatbed scanner in one go. I’m excited to see what my next favorite

What do you want to achieve with your work and what are your wishes for the future?

The dream that I’m actively pursuing is to be a full-time professional Jewish artist! Beyond doing commissions, selling my work, showing it in community spaces, and supporting my family, the goals here feel so much larger and holistic.  As I begin to scratch the surface of the digital Jewish artist’s community on Instagram and in hubs like New York City, I find myself amidst so many fantastic Jewish creatives who are so kind and so eager to celebrate each other’s work.  My goal is to bolster and support them right back, along with the greater Jewish community as a whole. I want to make art that makes Jews feel connected to one another and happy about who they are, whether it’s hanging in their homes, their synagogues, or they just find it scrolling on Instagram.  I want the message to be “Hey you can do this too, your success is my success, and I’m eager to help you.”  I’m not yet sure what all of this will look like, but it doesn’t matter because I’m so excited to be at the start of this journey.  

Where can we find your work?

You can currently find my work on Instagram @jewishpaperguy.  I’m working hard on setting up an online store, but originals, clothing, and prints will all soon be available!  Interested buyers and collaborators can send direct messages on Instagram or reach out via email to [email protected].  It’s very exciting to launch all of these things, more to come soon!

Photos: Courtesy of Dan Harris

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