PEMBROKE — A local artist believes art is all around, but it took him decades to see it.
“Just step outside,” Frankie Harris said. “The world is art.”
Whereas art once was a non-existent thought in the 58-year-old’s life, now it has bled into every aspect, whether it’s making earrings or Christmas ornaments from acorns, or painting seeds from a magnolia.
Harris’ Pembroke home has become his personal museum. With carved gourds crowding the dining room table, driftwood repurposed into art taking up a portion of the kitchen counter, and hand-carved canes and staffs cluttering every corner of his home, art has become his life’s centerpiece.
Harris describes himself as a “gangster” in his early life, but a series of events over the past decade led him to see what he was capable of and to see the art that surrounds him.
“Everybody has a past, and I won’t apologize for mine,” Harris said.
What caused the pivotal turn in his life was the death of his grandmother when he was 48.
“My life changed when my grandmother died,” Harris said. “That was my world.”
Harris said that for months he would sit out on his porch mourning his grandmother after her passing.
“When I was sitting there one day, I picked up a piece of wood and started carving,” Harris said. “I haven’t stopped since.”
Harris began by carving pieces of wood into intricately designed canes and staffs.
“One thing lead to another the more I got into it,” Harris said. “It felt like I couldn’t make my best piece. I just kept getting better and better.”
Still, Harris, who was in his late 40s at the time, never believed he was really good until he was approached by an 80-year-old man named Hubert Sampson.
“He said ‘Boy, you have more raw talent than anyone I’ve seen in my whole life,’” Harris said. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was scared. I was lost.”
Other elders helped him see what he couldn’t see.
“They saw something I didn’t,” he said. “When I made a piece, I didn’t see what they saw. It was all ordinary to me.”
Now when he looks at his works, he sees what the elders saw in him, Harris said.
The birth of his daughter Bethany Mae, named after his grandmother, is what gave Harris the final push he needed to take his talent seriously.
After carving staffs and canes, Harris moved on to different mediums. Most of Harris’ works are born in nature through the use of material found around his yard or in swamps.
Using the carcasses of gourd vegetables was one artistic medium that came to Harris by chance.
“One day, I just picked up a gourd,” he said. “I was just playing around with it. I carved it, I didn’t paint it,” he said.
Gourd art involves creating works of art using hard-shell gourds. Gourd surfaces may be carved, painted, sanded, burned, dyed, and polished. Typically, a harvested gourd is left to dry over a period of months before the woody surface is suitable for decorating.
The designs for Harris’ gourds are inspired by his native roots, with tribal images, feathers and other natural elements that he said “tells a story.”
“How I do it, I don’t know,” said Harris, a member of the Lumbee Tribe.
Harris prefers to use the natural shape of the gourd and adds his own personal touch and details later. He sketches a design to get stated, but never commits to the original concept.
“I constantly change it as I go,” Harris said. “If I mess I up, so what. I’ll just make something else. I’m not afraid to try anything.”
The first gourd he carved sold for $200, Harris said.
Harris’ future plans include establishing a nonprofit foundation for youth with the goal of giving them the ability to surpass any limits they may have set for themselves.
“We’ve got to save this generation,” he said. “That’s my ultimate goal.”
He also plans to start an online store of his works and the works of others.
“I can make pretty much anything I want because ‘can’t’ isn’t in my vocabulary. When you take can’t out of your vocabulary, you can do anything,” he said. “Nothing is beyond any person’s reach.”
His purpose is to leave a legacy for youth around the world, and for his daughter, he said.
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