You probably don’t think much about your furnace filter, until of course it gets dirty and clogged and needs to be cleaned or replaced. What would be for most people a moment of fleeting annoyance and inconvenience, was for Edina native Louise Harris, a moment of inspiration and transformation. When she changed her furnace filter eight years ago, so began her other life.
A consultant, business owner and adjunct professor of organizational effectiveness by day, Harris became an artist by night, one who transforms the seemingly mundane metal screens of furnace filters into simple but dynamic geometrical compositions. She never set out to be an artist, but as Harris explains it, in a moment of domestic drudgery and quite unexpectedly, she found her medium. While she had met her match, materially and artistically speaking, she didn’t know much about the life of a furnace filter before it ended up in her home, so she picked up the phone and called the manufacturing company.
It turns out that the history of her chosen artistic material does not begin in the manufacturing plant in Chicago where the furnace filters are made, but rather on an assembly line in a factory in Mexico where small circles are punched out of large sheets of metal to make bottle caps. The punctured sheets of metal that remain are then shipped to Chicago where they are cut down to make furnace filters that end up in homes across the United States. Harris collects her filters from willing friends and family, as well as local business owners.
To manipulate these used and dirty metal scraps into shiny two-dimensional abstractions, Harris throws on gloves, grabs her scrub brushes and applies various solvents. After the metal is clean, she then uses a razor blade, industrial epoxy and what she can only describe as “intuition” to cut, model and stage these pieces of sharp aluminum into visual arrangements of light and dark, curvilinear and angular, and negative and positive space, arrangements that are at once nondescript and highly evocative.
Harris explains, “The chemists and the engineers I know have said that in my work they see the molecular, the architects sees the modernist … an imaginative child at an art fair swore that one of my pieces looked like an elephant.”
Harris calls this body of work Relief Circles, a title that had one local art fair patron asking: “If I buy your art, will I feel better?”
Actually, you just might because Harris donates not just some, but all of her profits to various local, national and international charities, which have included organizations like the Minnesota Justice Foundation, Treehouse, Project Success and African Children Today (ACT).
By using the word “relief,” Harris hints at the philanthropic dimension of her project, but the term also makes an aesthetic reference to a method of molding in which a design stands out from the surface. “Relief” is indeed that mot juste to describe the visual and social character of her work.
In addition to her gallery shows (right now she has several pieces on view at Portland, Ore.’s Pearl District Gallery 903), Harris participates in about three or four art shows a year, like the Edina Art Fair, where her work was featured last month. Design lovers also had a chance to see Harris’ minimalist work hung amidst streamlined modernist home furnishings at a one-man show she installed at the Design Within Reach Minneapolis Studio in 2007. Customers who buy her pieces find that it’s not often that you can give your walls a facelift, recycle and be philanthropic.
As for Harris, the attention and praise her work has received caught her somewhat by surprise, but her response to all the accolades is as simple and understated as her work. “It has its own life, and I follow it.”