By Mark Yale Harris, sculptor
59 years old. Major life shift. New dream. Follow my heart. Chase my passion. Reinvent myself. What a thrill to proclaim that I doggedly followed a new goal I set at age 59. I traded the security of an extremely successful business career for the risky life of an artist, and now, years later, I couldn’t be happier!
After 20 years in my new life, at 79 years of age, I wake up every day with the thought that I have so much yet to discover!
When I Grow Up, I Will Be an Artist
When young, my artistic skills were evident. But more importantly in my life story is that not only was I artistically gifted, I loved creating! It provided great joy and I imagined that “when I grew up” I would be an artist. As often happens, pragmatism stepped in and I ended up following the advice of my parents, who, having lived through the Great Depression, advocated a less risky, conventional career. I supported myself through Ohio State University, earning a business degree. I then began 30+ years in the realm of hospitality/urban development – specifically real estate and hotels.
But First, Co-Found Red Roof Inn
In 1972, I co-founded the Red Roof Inn, a successful chain including over 300 hotels across the United States. In 1984, I founded the Amerisuites Hotels, revolutionizing the business model with the new concept of suite accommodations. My career flourished. It was lucrative. I was enjoying the pursuit of excellence in business. At the same time, I had a lovely young family, raising my children and providing a comfortable life for them.
Throughout my business career, I did get to exercise a degree of creativity within the scope of my field. Creative people are curious; that curiosity helped me seek the untried, explore new ways of doing business. I believe that some of my greatest commercial achievements stemmed from ingenuity and imagination.
A Yearning for True Destiny
However, after over 30 years of success in the business, I felt the need for something more, a more personal expression of my creativity, a yearning for my true destiny. Despite my success, it was telling that I had never forgotten what made me joyful when I was younger. It was like I was weighing the options in my hands – continue my career path/follow my passion; continue my career path/follow my passion. I sold my business interests. I chose art.
Starting at the Bottom Rung
It was a big adjustment, becoming a “nobody” in the art world. I was humbled. However, as a self-made man who began with nothing, I understood this enormous pivot required starting all over, learning my craft, and earning my respect as an artist.
In 1999, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to be mentored by Aleut sculptor Bill Prokopiof, as well as to study with Nez Perce sculptor Doug Hyde (both protégés of the renowned Apache sculptor Allan Houser). Inspired by the geographical region and grounded in the wisdom of my teachers, I was committed to learning how to sculpt. Over the years, I honed my technical skills as well as my artistic vision.
My Native American mentors believed that you quietly observe the shape of the rock, see the image within and it will come forth. There is little margin for error in the reductive art of stone carving. Try and fail, continue working through a concept until it feels complete – this is what I learned and kept in mind, as I grew more self-assured in my work. I also realized the importance of editing – not everything is a masterpiece! Present only the best work.
Art conveys my nonverbal view of life, an ongoing portrayal of myself. My alabaster, marble, limestone, and bronze figurative abstractions interpret emotion and its dualities. Rigid, angular lines hard depict life’s aggressive side and the soft side is visible as curves and soft forms. Some of my pieces speak best on an intimate scale, while others require a monumental voice.
Dreams Can Come True When You Follow Your Passion
Over the past 20 years as an artist, my dream has come to fruition. I am going on 80, with a thriving studio practice in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. It is a bucolic and geographically impressive area.
For the past several decades, I have found myself drawn to the mountains and magic of the Southwest and the lifestyle it beckons. It begs you to head out in to the gorgeous outdoors and revel in the natural surroundings. Here I find peace and inspiration!
In addition to my daily fitness practice and long bicycle rides, for years, a group of same-aged friends and I have met in Big Bend, Texas for horseback / rough camping excursions. In addition to the immeasurable deepening of these lifelong friendships, the experiences have inspired complete new bodies of sculpture.
I intentionally set out to have my work shown in galleries were my adult children live, so I travel to attend to my career, at the same time I get to revel in my children’s and grandchildren’s beautiful lives. My works have been featured in 112 solo, museum, university and international art exhibitions, including the Royal Academy of London, out of the 270+ exhibitions outlined on my resume.
My sculpture has been included in over 120 feature press publications, including Art & Antiques, American Art Collector and The Guardian, as well as the cover of Contemporary Sculptors: 84 International Artists, by Schiffer Publishing. Public collections worldwide currently present my sculpture, including Four Seasons Hotels, Hilton Hotels, State of New Mexico, and the city of Brooklyn, New York.
Second Act As Rewarding As First
This “second act,” returning full circle to a childhood/lifelong interest, has been as richly rewarding as my first career. It is never too late to take the leap and make a career change!
I took a risk, but managed it by being thoughtful and deliberate, getting trained, and working tenaciously. I also understood that when you are an artist, art IS your business.
Not only did I have to produce work, I had to see to the pragmatic aspect of marketing my work. My business background put me in good stead. While success in the art world always involves a bit of luck, I made sure I entered the arena prepared as I could be! That made the transition, the shift, the evolution of how I define myself, a brilliant adventure!