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Creating Art through Connecting with Nature

Anne Harris painting in her SMFA studio.

Anne Harris likely would not have met the porcupine were it not for the pandemic.  

In the woods behind the Worcester, Massachusetts, home where she grew up, Harris collaborates with nature to create art. She had begun spending time there after returning home when the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts switched to virtual education last spring due to COVID-19.  

She set up a wildlife camera and found that a porcupine, coyotes, and at least one bobcat spent time in the acre of woods nearby. The porcupine proved to be one of her most interesting companions; it roamed about eating evergreen needles and beech tree bark with its distinctive “silly walk,” as Harris, who specializes in place-based art making, created her large unstructured paintings of the landscape around her. If Harris got too close, it would run away. 

Harris uses gouache, an opaque water-based paint, as well as soil from the forest, to create her art, which she then installs in the woods. She often performs wearing her large canvases to create video art. 

As winter’s arrival brought more frequent snowfalls, the woods around her began to change. After one nor'easter, she didn’t see the porcupine for a while.

“One evening, I was getting ready to do a performance in the snow with a painting outside. I had this instinct to look to my right, and I saw a lump lying in the snow. It was the porcupine. It was a very challenging experience to process at first. It didn’t appear to have been killed by anything. It was very old, its time had come. It looked like it had just laid down to take a nap,” she explained.  

To honor the porcupine, Harris offered one of her soil-paint paintings to the animal by placing a painting next to it. Over time, she observed how the snow covered the animal, froze, and then thawed. The land around the porcupine changed as the body decomposed. 

“The porcupine is still alive in the sense that it’s feeding the soil. It’s going to nourish the earth around it, which is going to nourish the trees,” she said, noting the land originally belongs to the Nipmuc tribe.  

In her resulting art, which Harris calls the Porcupine Work project and is a part of her thesis, she believes she used the adversity created by the pandemic to her advantage.  

She now has a clear vision for her career: “The pandemic showed me that I really want to be a successful artist more than anything else. And that no matter what challenges pop up, I can get through it,” said Harris. “It was not easy, but now I can see that I persevered.” 

Initially in her art school journey, Harris had been going to Mount Greylock in western Massachusetts near the border with New York and Vermont to paint and record art videos. When the pandemic hit, Harris said she did not feel it was responsible to drive the roughly three hours to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to actively continue that project. The Mount Greylock project, consisting of eight large canvases, remains a component of her thesis, however. 

Harris cited Patte Loper, professor of the practice, Mary Ellen Strom, professor of the practice, media arts, and Ethan Murrow, professor of the practice and chair of the SMFA painting and drawing area, as a significant Tufts connections and supporters, who helped her brainstorm ideas and put together proposals for outdoor art. 

During this last year at SMFA, Harris said she has learned to be confident and fearless in her art. “Believe in yourself. Know your worth,” Harris advised. “Believe in your ideas, even if nobody else can see what you’re trying to do. Know in your heart that it’s still the right thing to do.”  

Above image: Anne Harris, MFA '21, works on her graduate thesis in her studio space at the Mission Hill Building at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University on February 25, 2020. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University). This image was taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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