Harris Diamant is a full-time art maker. ‘Artist’ has been his full-time pursuit for half of his life…40 years.  He has been buying and selling American Folk Art since the early 1960s.  Born in the Bronx, New York City in 1937, he lived in New York City until four years ago when he and his wife settled in the Hudson Valley, Kingston, NY. They love it there. No adjustments were necessary. Unlike most of Harris Diamant cohorts, his early life was an easy passage. His parents were kind and supportive, good grades in school, chums were pretty nice people, and he was better than the average athlete. 

Harris Diamant started C.C.N.Y. (City College) when he was 16 years old and instantly fell into the crowd of artists and writers. He still hangs with some of them. Alas, lots has passed. After six years as an undergraduate (City College was free then), and having taken courses in every category available, he was called into the registrar’s office and forced to choose a major. He chose comparative literature. He was awarded a Regent’s Graduate Fellowship and majored in communications.  Followed by six years of teaching in the NYC school system -in the toughest Jr. High School in the city. He hated every moment but persisted because he needed a job. Persistence is a treasured trait. Drawn to old things and especially to American Folk Art, he opened a gallery in the mid-1960s, when American Folk Art was resurrected and enthusiastically pursued. Harris Diamant always had a studio where he taught himself the many technologies necessary to become a first-rate restorer and base maker. Brazing, soldering, welding, gold leafing, lathe turning, on and on. All self-taught. He was among the first folk art dealers to take weathervanes, whirligigs and etc. away from being accessories to highboys and mantles and installed them on pedestals and lit them as art.

Harris Diamant had many one man shows in NYC and recently had a retrospective in High Falls NY.  He showed at Allan Stone Gallery, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, Luise Ross Gallery, N.Y.U.’s Windows on Washington Square, Alexander Gallery and Giampietro Gallery all in NYC. He has been represented by Obsolete Gallery in Los Angeles for about a dozen years. 

For a beginner's year, Harris Diamant pushed American Folk Art into the margins and devoted himself, full time, to the making of sculptures. His working process was, and still is… if art making is not everything, it’s bound to be nothing. After 30 odd years of making sculptures, Harris Diamant turned his hand to painting: "Painting is easier on these old bones and in the famous words of Ad Rinehardt, ‘sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting’. Paintings fit in a flat file. Huzzah!" he adds.

Harris Diamant sculptures were featured in two issues of Harpers Magazine. His sculptures were used under the titles for ABCTV’s Brave New World, an 8-part series with Robert Krulwich. He visited the Hirschhorn in 1985 and was inspired by a recreation of the 1962 Spoleto Festival that featured David Smith’s Voltri series. Inspired... no, fired by experiencing this work, he returned to his studio and built his first sculpture. A small, tight abstract steel sculpture (by no means related to Smith) that he brought to Allan Stone Gallery. Stone purchased the sculpture from him and on the strength of this single work, offered him a one man show, a year distant.

Standing before Harris Diamant’s works of art, it simply does not give you the chance to have the slightest interruption.  His works of art have the power to capture every sense, every thought, every curious question you may have. That is the art of Harris Diamant. A fragment of his inner world that invites you to participate, to see, to feel, to dream, to distract yourself and yes, even to live! It is truly fascinating to somehow be part of a parallel world that you cannot even understand nor explain ... but there you are. And in the same way, there is Harris Diamant.

Q. What role does the artist have in society?  

A. I believe that the role of an artist is to look deeply into his soul as a means to engage viewers to look deeply into their own.

Q. What’s your best childhood memory?    

A. My best childhood memory was catching a four-pound brook trout on a dry fly.

Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?  

A. I was the youngest of three. I was expected to go to college, the only sibling that was. All tasks that had to do with repairing and handedness were assigned to my older brother.

At around age 40, mostly due to my experience restoring antique objects and my being inspired by seeing David Smith’s work, I allowed that my greatest satisfaction lay in my making things. Using my hands. I turned my life around and started down the path where I currently, happily, find myself. I don’t deny that there have been struggles.

Q. Do you remember the first sculpture you made? What was it and how old were you?  

A. The first sculpture that I made, as indicated above, was a small, dense, steel sculpture that I sold to the gallerist Allan Stone. That was certainly encouraging, but even more so was having a one man show offered a year in the future. Focus and persistence are my best allies. I learned that the work produces more work.

Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?  

A. I’ve always been interested in art. But it wasn’t until my mid-twenties with my focus on buying and selling American Folk Art that I considered it a way of life. It was that process that gave me the chops to make critical artistic judgments and the mastery of tools with which to make it.

Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it?   

A. My art is making heads. I begin with a detail, usually an eye, and complete it. This succeeds in making the work, attractive and valuable to me. From there, I let my fingers take me where they’ll take me. I frequently work with binocular magnifiers. That brings me to a very large, engaging world where I have much more control than the one that I live in. I do need a moment to re-engage with ‘reality’ when I emerge.

Q. What does your art aim to express? A. My style is my own, made from whole cloth. My sculptures were sometimes categorized as steampunk (feh) but I was making sculptures of that sort more than a decade before that style emerged. My decision to concentrate on heads is motivated by my awareness that they embody both subject and object, and that they engender and circumscribe simultaneously the content of my artistic pursuit. Relieved of these considerations, I merely have to make another-albeit advanced- head and when that is finished, yet another.

My subject is always a head. By repeating my subject, I hope to reveal a deep, internal secret that’s cloaked in mystery, especially from myself. When a head is near completion, I photograph it extensively.  This level of removal allows my critical sense to kick in and editing ensues.

Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?  

A. The traits that got me into trouble are the same ones that keep me going. Focus and persistence, forcing myself to show up, fighting distraction.

Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?  

A. What have I sacrificed? Money. Not my intention but my reality.

Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?

A. My strongest influence is my history, not my peers or another artist although it was David Smith who messaged me that I could do it. I’ve always loved the art of ancient Egypt. They strove for eternity by making art that was too powerful, valuable and engaging to destroy.

Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?  

A. No, art making is not lonely. It is wholly engaging. The only thing meaningful and sustaining left for me to do. I do like to cook, talk to my mate and chums, absorb nature.

I used to have hobbies, lots of them. No time for that now.

Q. What does 'success' mean to you?  

A. I’m already a success in that I’ve succeeded in creating a sizable body of work. SUCCESS would be getting more of it out into the world. Money, acknowledgement…they’d be nice.

Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?  

A. Showing up, persistence and focus are the biggest life lesson I’ve learned. Find your passion, follow your passion.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?  

A. When I started painting with acrylics, a mere six or seven months ago, an old hand gave me four invaluable words of advice. Masking tape and hair drier.

Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?

A. I’ve always favored Alain Robbe-Grillet, the French film maker and writer’s quote, “The hallucinatory effect derives from extraordinary clarity and not from mystery or mist. There is nothing more fantastic ultimately than precision.”


Artist Harris Diamant is interview by Luise Ross