How waking up late saved the life of professional artist and former NFL player Marshall Harris
Waking up late likely saved Marshall K. Harris’ life.
He had arrived in New York City and was greeted by a tremendous rainstorm. In town to set up a trade show exhibition, he had breakfast reservations the following day at a restaurant called Windows on the World.
But on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Harris woke up late. Instead of going to breakfast, he took advantage of the beautiful weather, walked to the site of the trade show and started working.
For about 30 minutes, everything seemed normal, Harris recalled.
“We were … undoing crates and unpacking boxes and heard this really big noise like thunder. And I thought, ‘Well, that was weird. Last night there was a thunderstorm. It was perfectly clear and beautiful this morning,’” he said. “And about 10 minutes later the floor got really, really quiet.”A man took to the stage with a bullhorn and said that everyone had been ordered by the authorities to leave the building immediately. Workers were told to take only what they could carry and go. No one knew what had happened.
“When I walked out of the front of the Javits Center, there was a woman standing next to me … just shellshocked. And I looked up and there’s smoke billowing out of this tower,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Where’s the other tower?’ She said, ‘It just fell down.’”
It would take Harris three days to get out of the city. He knew that he was lucky to still be alive.
“That day sort of shook me a little bit and I was like, ‘Am I really doing what I want to do?’” he said. “I was supposed to have breakfast in the towers that morning, and if I had made my appointment, I wouldn’t be here. So I thought, well, maybe the universe was giving me a kick in the pants to look at what I really do want to do.”
A circuitous path
More than 20 years earlier, Harris had graduated from Texas Christian University, where he also played on the football team for five seasons.
For one of his art classes, Harris designed a logo known as the “Flying T,” which would represent the school and adorn jerseys across its athletics programs through the early ’90s. The history of the Flying T is at the center of a documentary short by Jacob Martin, which was recently named as a selection for the upcoming 2023 Lone Star Film Festival.
“He was always off doing some art project,” his former teammate and fellow Horned Frog Chuck Giammalva, said.
On the field, the football team struggled. The Horned Frogs won only a handful of games in the five years Harris played. He thought his athletic career was over when he graduated in 1979, but then he got drafted by the New York Jets.
“I was very impressed that he went to play pro football — very impressed,” Giammalva said. “We were terrible. And so for him to be able to do what he did was pretty admirable.”
Harris reported to the Jets training camp but left after a couple of weeks.
He took on a role as an art director for an advertising agency, but his football career wasn’t over yet. He got an invitation to try out for the Cleveland Browns and joined the team in 1980.
“These all were things that I didn’t put into play,” Harris said. “They just kind of happened, and I followed that carrot.”
All told, he spent six years as a professional athlete: four seasons in the National Football League, with the Browns and New England Patriots, and two in the United States Football league, with the New Jersey Generals.
From there, Harris took on a series of creative roles from marketing and graphic design to designing trade and educational exhibitions and restaurant interiors.
The work allowed him to be creative and paid the bills, but it wasn’t his passion.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “But I knew that what I was doing was not really fulfilling.
‘There was never an I-want-to-do-that moment’
Harris enrolled in a master’s program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2007 and graduated with a master of fine arts in sculpture in 2010. Soon after, he moved back to Fort Worth and started his full-time studio practice.
During his senior year, he had lost the studio space that allowed him to build and weld large-scale works, so he pivoted to plan B: drawing.
“There was never an I-want-to-do-that moment,” he said. “The times that I thought that I wanted to do that, the universe goes, ‘No, we’re going to take you and send you down a different road for a while.’”
Harris tested the waters at a few local galleries, a process he likens to dating.
“We artists, we’re really picky,” he said. “I am not the easiest person to work with. You can ask my wife. But once there’s a bond made, it’s really like a marriage.”He connected with Clayton Snodgrass, an art collector and one of the new partners and owners of William Campbell Gallery, around the beginning of the pandemic. In late August of this year, the gallery announced Harris as a new artist on its roster.
“I think he’s probably the most underrated talent potentially in DFW,” Snodgrass said. “He’s absolutely phenomenal at what he does.”
It was Harris’ striking, photorealistic drawings that first caught the attention of Snodgrass, who said he was struck by the work and immediately wanted to know more.
“I’ve got this cloudscape drawing he did that suspends from the ceiling, and I think it’s 26 or 25 feet long,” Snodgrass said. “I continually have people that come over to my house and just can’t even fathom that it’s a drawing. I mean, he’s so meticulously technical.”
Even though Harris is known for his intricate and highly detailed drawings, the artist still wasn’t happy with the level of detail he was able to capture in his work. So he began experimenting and developed a technique that he has used in a few different projects.
Instead of drawing from a regular photo, he inverts the colors and draws from a negative. This swap of highlights and shadows helps him to create work that is more true to things as they really are, rather than how he imagines them to be.
“When I’m working from a photograph that I’ve inverted, I’m not really sure what I’m drawing. I’m just doing what the photograph is telling me to do,” he said.
“But when I draw it traditionally, I want to take and fill in all that detail … In reality, our brain doesn’t need to see all that information, and it actually looks more real if we don’t.”
As he explores different subjects and pushes himself to test new ideas, Harris’ goal is to create work that sparks a conversation, even when — or especially when — the work is not for everyone.
“I equate my work to making birdseed. I make one seed at a time, and it’s for a very specific bird that I don’t know what the species is. I don’t know where they live. I don’t know how to contact them,” he said. “I put that bird seed out and hope that somebody sees it, flies up, is interested in it, and then enjoys it.”
Over the years, Harris has learned what he doesn’t want to do, and while studio work isn’t as lucrative as his old corporate gigs, it is more fulfilling.
“I can see (myself) doing this till I can’t do it anymore,” he said.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.