Columbus, Ohio USA
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Second Life
A painting gets another chance in the Short North

by Jennifer Hambrick
October 2007

© PHOTOS Darren Carlson

If you peer into the street-level foyer of the apartments at 735 N. High Street, you’ll see a modest painting, an abstract expressionless face in muted hues. How the painting came to be there is a mystery today. How it came into existence is a clear memory of its creator, Jeff Harber, who says the artwork is a symbol of love gone bad, broken dreams and bad choices.

However, the painting at 735 N. High St. is also a symbol of second chances and the power of the creative process to thrive in a world of despair and neglect. And for Harber, it’s also a sign that often forces greater than those we can account for are at work in subtle yet palpable ways.

An Unusual Coincidence
Harber’s identical twin brother Greg discovered the painting one day about eight years ago on a walk up High Street. “I was walking northbound along the west side of High Street and looking in the window and thinking, wow that looks really familiar,” Greg Harber said.

On a later walk up High Street with his brother, Greg pointed out the painting. “We were both walking on that same side of High Street shortly after that,” Greg Harber said, “and I said, ‘Look, isn’t that (painting) yours?’ and he stopped and said, “Yep, that’s mine.’”

Jeff Harber, 46, calls the painting “underwhelming,” adding that it’s a project he abandoned months before he moved out of the Wall Street apartment where he painted it, leaving the canvas hanging on the wall.

“It really had no bigger purpose than to be a sketch, though it might have been more if I had continued,” Harber said. “When it was time to pack everything up I stuck the painting on the wall. I just kind of left it there and thought whatever happens happens. It’s kind of cool somebody appreciated it.”

It’s not clear who that “somebody” was. It’s unknown who salvaged the painting from the otherwise empty apartment or who hung it on the semi-public foyer wall at 735 N. High, just in front of the Wall Street building where it was painted.

It is clear, however, that the painting came into being at a time when Harber had a less clear vision of his life than he does now.

In the early 1980s, Jeff Harber, who grew up in modest circumstances in south Columbus, enrolled as an illustration major at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD). He attended the school for a year during which time he continued to date his high school sweetheart (later his first wife) who had been raised Baptist. Harber’s exploration of the Baptist denomination had led him to the conclusion that painting nudes, among other activities, was sinful.

A Baptist minister convinced Harber to become a preacher. Harber left CCAD to attend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist University in Virginia. There he heard Christian documentary filmmaker and author Frank Schaeffer speak affirmatively about art as a godly act of self-expression and about the nude as something created by God and, therefore, not essentially sinful. After one year at Liberty, Harber returned to CCAD and got married.

The first marriage didn’t work out, though it did produce a child. Two years after his divorce, Harber married again, had another child and divorced seven years later.

Harber says he had a tumultuous relationship with Andrea, the woman who would become his third wife and who would emerge as the subject of the sketch hanging at 735 N. High St. He lived with Andrea for some time before moving into his own apartment at 754 Wall Street during what he calls “a bad stretch” in the relationship.

Artist Jeff Harber (left) with his twin brother Greg
who first spotted the painting in the Short North window.

Attending CCAD and working part-time, Harber says he often felt compelled to paint when he came home from work in the evenings.

“I remember lots of times coming home with this need to go straight to a canvas, the result of the day’s pressure or some particular frustration over the relationship,” Harber said.

One evening, he placed an old canvas laden with a layer of gesso covering a previous painting onto his easel and began to paint. From a web of scrawly black lines emerged an abstract face amidst an orange-hued glow.

“When I looked at it,” Harber recalled, “I remember thinking, that looks like (Andrea) and how I would envision her if she were younger.”

Harber hung the painting on his wall, knowing it was incomplete.

It was only a matter of months before Andrea told him she was pregnant with their first child. He left the painting hanging in his apartment when he left Wall Street to move in again with Andrea to salvage their relationship and start a family.

“Once I found out she was pregnant, that threw a switch in my mind that I’ve got to start being more responsible about this and we’ll give it another try together,” Harber said. “I was trying to do the right thing.”

Bad Choices
Two children and five years later, the marriage was over. The stint at CCAD ended, too, when Harber left with only one year to finish his degree. He says he knows he has created his own chaos. His life now consists of getting through one day at a time.

“I think my life is the result of not only what’s happened to me but, really, a lot of my own bad choices. I see that now after having had three marriages and five kids (including a stepson from his third wife) and dealing daily with the kind of burdens and stresses they put on you. I’m never free from worry or concern or just the organizational logistics of trying to see all these kids and be part of their lives and contribute in some way.”

“Doesn’t he undermine himself to live in a state of frustration? Of course, but that’s part of the inner workings of an artist,” Greg Harber said.

Harber has known perhaps more than his share of loss, which he admits to having created for himself. And the loss extends beyond his three failed marriages and broken families to his artworks themselves. Having lived a nomadic lifestyle for many years, moving from apartment to apartment around town, he has left behind artwork in many places. He lost a sizeable number of his photographic prints when his sister-in-law at the time, who was storing the prints in her basement, moved away. He had ignored her numerous warnings to collect his work. After she moved, the cleaners threw it away.

These losses, too, have caused Harber pain, which has brought his priorities clearly in line.

“I know what it’s like to lose something permanently, and it doesn’t feel good. You get over each loss, eventually the wounds heal over and the emotions stabilize. I regret losing all that stuff. Call it part of my walking that razor-edge between failure and survival. Sometimes you don’t have enough energy or, literally, time in a day to just do what needs to be done then, even though you know there are things that need attending to. (But) I’d rather lose all my artwork and still have my children in my life than look back on a wealth of creativity and say, ‘But where are my kids?’”

Still, Harber says he will always create, largely because the difficulties he brings on himself bring about a need to create.

“That’s the release valve for what otherwise would cause you to implode or fall apart,” Harber said.

He says he will continue to do photography and nurture houseplants, a more recent passion that Harber claims borders on obsession.

“I’ve always thought plants were beautiful, (but) I feel like now I’m addicted,” Harber said. “I can’t help but look at plants everywhere I go now. I have this list running through my mind of plants that I want to get now. I told my friends, ‘Guys, no more. How am I going to handle them all in the winter? Cut me off.’”

Within this cycle of loss and renewal, Harber’s approach to creating artwork has become intensely personal. He creates for his own satisfaction.

“I do know that I continue to create and always will, but (I have) no illusions about being famous, of having success in the eyes of the public. It’s almost just private now, which I almost think that’s what art is, it’s for the artist first. If you’re doing it for everybody else, then you’re just advertising.”

And he considers the appearance of his painting of Andrea an almost mystical occurrence.

“I would never have thought about bringing this painting up at this point in my life,” Harber said. “I don’t want to sound sappy, but it just made me think that God looks at us and what we’ve given up and what we’ve abandoned and sometimes He’ll bring it back at a different point in time. Something forgotten, lost, given up is all of a sudden given life again.”

© 2007 Short North Gazette. All rights reserved.