By Carla Mortenson, Becketwood Member
Since George Floyd’s murder, many neighbors at Becketwood have been even more committed to contributing to racial justice in whatever way we can. One of the complaints about our artwork in our public spaces, has been that it is so “white. ” Ironically, last Thursday, I had debated whether to donate or loan the painting to the Becketwood Art Committee. I found that I could not force myself to actually part with it so I had decided to merely loan it instead. I asked if I could request that it hang in one of the more public areas in the building, where visitors will see it (when we have visitors again!). Selfishly, I knew that I could look at it every day as well. When the committee volunteer asked me to fill out a document regarding the painting they were borrowing, I realized I knew nothing about the painting, which I have always called “Bedstefar,” the Danish word for grandfather. This knowing nothing got me motivated to go on my “Art Hounds Detective Hunt" on Facebook. I posted a picture of the painting and the following note:
“About 28 years ago I bought this painting. I had decided I would spend about $200 to decorate my new office. I went to the Powderhorn Art Fair ready to buy. Most of the artists had booths with wire mesh walls to hang their art. One artist, a young Black man, had only a card table and a small cash box. A few pieces, including this one, were leaned against the legs of the card table as he was getting organized. I asked him the price. He hemmed and hawed and responded, more in a question than a statement, "eighteen dollars?" I gave him twenty. Anyone who has known me professionally knows that my mantra is "Relationship, Relationship, Relationship." This picture says it all. Over the years, people have often commented on the picture and I have been able to tell the story of how I have regretted that I didn't have the artist sign the piece. I think his name was Chris. If you could help me find him, I would be so appreciative.”
There were two potential positive hits. The most surprising was from my cousin Heidi in San Jose who sent me a website for Christopher Harris, a Minneapolis visual artist. I looked at the site and saw his lovely work, mostly sculpture. I looked at his vitae and the years didn’t seem to mesh. I told myself that I would pursue it in the morning and proceeded to a cribbage game with my husband, Joel. As we started the game, I told him about Heidi’s response. He asked me if I had followed the thread in Facebook and urged me to look.
There was the response from Jane Burnett:
“Carla—I bought something by him at the Powderhorn Art Fair, too. I remember his table being on the south side of the sidewalk at the east end of the park, between the parking lot and the park building. His info was printed on the back of the watercolor. Chris Harrison, 4339 Sheridan Av N., Mpls. 612-522-8361.”
An adrenaline rush kept me from sleep Thursday night. My intent is not to make light of the heart-wrenching stories about members of the adoption triad finally finding the person for whom they are searching, but that is the parallel I drew. Was Christopher Harrison that “family member” I had been seeking? After all, I had internally referred to the painting as Bedstefar.
My hopes were dashed when I contacted him the next morning asking him if the piece was his. His response was, “I don’t think this is one of mine.” Thinking that it was such a coincidence that two Black artists in Minneapolis would be named Christopher Harrison, I sent him the post from Jane where she had a name, address, and telephone number from the back of the watercolor she had bought.
Soon after, I received the following e-mail response from Christopher:
“Hi Carla, the information you have is correct. I looked at some of my old work from the 90s and it resembles the style I was doing at that time. I had created a portrait of my niece that is in that format and was probably created around then. The info you have is my old address and phone number, and I did sell work at the Powderhorn Art Fair in the 90s. I've been through so many works and iterations it didn't strike me as familiar at first, but I will verify that it is an original piece of mine. I hope this helps!”
“This is thrilling. Could we figure out a way to connect so I could have you sign the piece? May I also have your permission to share the story? I have told the story of how I bought it every time someone commented on the picture. I assure you that that is hundreds of times! I was always hoping that someone would know who you were. Last night I suddenly thought of Facebook as a tool to assist in my search for you. I am sitting here grinning from ear to ear!”
And then from Christopher:
“Hey Carla, that's fine! My phone is in the address block below or you can contact me via reply and we can set something up. My studio is in Minneapolis. You could mail it to me or we could meet up safely to sign it, whatever works best for you.”
I hoped this was not the end of the story.
On January 28th, 2021, one week after the hunt began, Christopher Harrison came to Becketwood to sign the painting. As of today, the painting is named Grandpa and Me. We learned that Christopher grew up in Ohio, always hoping to be an artist. He was at the Powderhorn Art Fair because the booth space was free because his sister was one of the event organizers.
Already, I have contacted our Art Committee Chair in hopes that we might consider inviting him to have a show here at Becketwood. When Jerry Nordstrom, a previous Becketwood Art Committee Chair, died, there were generous memorial donations received, and the Committee purchased four paintings from Minneapolis artists. I am going to suggest that we also purchase another, by a local artist of color, preferably one of Christopher Harrison’s more recent pieces. I will suggest that we pay more than the $20 I paid for Bedstefar in 1992!