Two prized possessions at my house are a pair of ink and watercolor sketches by North Carolina architect Frank Harmon.
They depict two of Thomas Jefferson’s most sophisticated projects. One is The Lawn and Rotunda at the University of Virginia. That’s on one side of a six-inch by eight-inch sheet of paper. On the other is a view from the steps of the Rotunda, looking west to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Stanford White’s Old Cabell Hall is nowhere to be seen. What Harmon’s done here is restore Jefferson’s original, optimistic vision for The University – and the nation. That view was obscured in 1898 by White’s design – an effort by the Board of Visitors to blot out the view of a freed black settlement.
The second is a sketch of the tree-lined approach to Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s octagonal-shaped retreat in Bedford County, Va. On its flip side is a drawing of the view from its main portico, looking out to the incoming driveway. In the foreground is a series of boxwood hedges, recently removed and replaced with more authentic pavers.
Each sketch and watercolor wash is a statement, a slice of history and an articulation of what Harmon’s eye sees and how his hand interprets it.
Remarkably, he spends no more than five minutes on each. “That’s a principle with me,” Harmon says. “If I take too long, it becomes more about the sketch and less about what I’m looking at.”
He estimates he’s drawn between 2,000 to 3,000 sketches in his lifetime, starting as a teenager. “Like most architects, I’m self-taught,” he says. “I’m not drawing to make a pretty picture – I’m drawing to express an idea.”
Now 30 of his drawings – among them Boneyard Beach in South Carolina, Rural Studio in Alabama and the view from Van Gogh’s window in France – will be available for purchase.
On Saturday and Sunday, December 7 and 8, from noon until 6 p.m., 10 of his original sketches will be part of a special event in architect/artist Abie Harris’s studio at 222 Hawthorne Road in Raleigh. And on December 8, from 1-5 p.m., Rebus Works in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights neighborhood will present 21 original sketches from Harmon’s book, Native Places, during the 2019 Boylan Heights Art Walk. They’ll be on sale through January.
These are two rare opportunities to own one of the nation’s more gifted architect’s works of art, though Harmon doesn’t look at them them that way. “I never think of them as art,” he says. “I think of them as a way to explore what I’m looking at, or experiencing.”
Others disagree, comparing his sketches to Picasso’s early drawings.
So now we have the option not only to decide for ourselves, but to purchase one or more.
Alas, The Lawn, The Rotunda and Poplar Forest are already spoken for.