How The Website Came to Be
Welcome to the Clara Isabella Harris website. I’m Verna McLean, Curator of this Canadian artist’s work. If this is your first visit maybe you have one of Clara’s paintings or sketches and wondered who she was or how much her art is worth. Maybe you’re surprised to find a site specifically about Clara. Whatever your reason I’m glad you’re here.
What you’re about to see is a work in progress that formally started in 2010, has been in the making for much longer, and spans two countries. It started in Toronto and continues in the outskirts of New York City where I’ve lived for the past 33 years. In the 1960’s I was a teenager and my mother, Lillian McLean, an antique dealer. An elderly lady named Clara contacted my mother. She had a sizable art collection that she and her husband Fred had created, and now needed to sell. Was my mother interested? This is what she told my mother:
She was born Clara Isabella Perry in King City, Ontario on October 13, 1887.
In 1907 Clara studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, participated in their spring exhibit alongside Frank Shirley Panabaker, Colin Campbell Cooper, Eanger Irving Couse, Charles Warren Eaton, and Edward Henry Potthast.
She attended the Ontario College of Art (OCA) where she studied under John W. Beatty, associate and influential to the Group of Seven painters, as well as noted portrait painter Archibald Barnes. She attended the Port Hope Summer Art School and was a student of George Agnew Reid, Manly MacDonald and William Cruikshank. Under their tutelage Clara refined her artistic style applying the principles of painting upheld by the Group of Seven.
She exhibited at various art shows including The Sixty-First Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, March 1933; The Artists’ Annual Non-Jury Exhibition, Canadian National Exhibition Art Gallery, May 1-15, 1935; and The 71st Annual Spring Exhibition, Ontario Society of Artists, The Art Gallery of Toronto, March 5-29,1943.
When Clara was 31 she married Frederick W. Harris, a draughtsman and commercial artist. They lived for many years in the west end of Toronto at 23 Valleyview Gardens. They shared their love of art as they travelled through Ontario, western Canada, the Canadian Maritimes and the U.S. Northeast. Their sketches, paintings, linocuts, greeting cards and correspondence are a tribute to this.
My mother was enthralled with the details of Clara’s life story, and as a successful female entrepreneur recognized Clara’s dilemma. Clara’s gender was her handicap. The Canadian art world had been the reserve of men. Consequently Clara’s work like most of her contemporaries accumulated in out of the way places, often in less than ideal conditions, was never seen, remained unknown and was undervalued. But Lil also saw something else: the paintings were an historical record of landscapes long-gone. If she saved Clara’s art from the dumpster these Canadian scenes would be kept in perpetuity. She bought approximately one hundred paintings, linocuts, art catalogues, correspondence and Frederick’s art.
Unfortunately my mother died shortly after and her vision for Clara’s was not realized.
With my father’s death in 2004 history was about to repeat itself. While cleaning out his house I discovered boxes of Clara’s paintings. Although they’d been stacked in piles in closets for years they were in remarkably good condition. There were so many of them. What to do? Give them away? Sell them? An art critic I was not. My background included social work, jewelry sales and real estate: not art. But as I looked at Clara’s work more closely I realized what I was looking at. Clara had documented the backs of many of the paintings with the location, date and time of day. I recognized the names of the locations but urban development had erased these scenes permanently. Now I understood my mother’s foresight. I had an important archive that needed to be preserved and shared.
So here’s Clara’s work, an historical record that exists nowhere else.
Verna McLean, Curator