Robert Harris, 75, said he was a misfit – Black, disabled and an artist. He never let that stop him. Some people thought he was crazy to make a living as an artist, especially Black.
He has a positive, ebullient personality that shines as he describes his work.
A long-term resident of Cincinnati, he has been active in the community as well as with the arts.
Harris became interested in change agent work when Jimmy Carter was president from January 20, 1977 to January 20, 1981. He worked with the Cincinnati Human Relations Commissions in disabilities and inclusion for thirteen years. He said he was qualified to do this because he was both disabled and Black.
Another organization for which he volunteered and continues to this day is the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) board. Recently he was elected vice chair of this board.
He pushed for the transportation levy of 2020. For the first time in history, Hamilton County voters approved a county-wide tax levy to pay for transit. Issue 7 on the ballot in 2020 passed providing an 0.8% sales tax increase for SORTA. On October 1, the Hamilton County sales tax increased to 7.8%, one of the highest rates in Ohio. The increase will last for 25 years.
Harris also helped create a program for Cincinnati called Access, which provides paratransit service for people with disabilities. To use Access, you must first register and be approved. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was passed to remove physical barriers that have kept people with disabilities from fully participating in society. Under ADA, Access serves as a safety net for only those people who do not have the functional capability to ride Metro buses.
Harris helped bring Model Cities to Cincinnati where he worked in the art department. Black artist Robert O’Neal also headed the Culture and Recreation Task Force of the Model Cities Program in Cincinnati. The program was an element of US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty. In 1966, new legislation led to the more than 150 five-year-long Model Cities experiments to develop new antipoverty programs and alternative forms of municipal governments. The ambitious federal urban aid program succeeded in fostering a new generation of mostly Black urban leaders. The program ended in 1974.
One of his major achievements was helping create the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati at 1515 Linn Street in the West End. Harris wrote the grant for $100,000 from LBJ’s War on Poverty national program in the late 1960’s. The Consortium opened in 1972 with a mission to celebrate, advance and preserve African and American culture and achievement through art, history and education. Classes offered included drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, dance, acting, music and writing.
“In those days, these things were not talked about,” Harris said. He wanted to help African-Americans be recognized as viable artists, whether it was visual, literary or performing. Consortium leaders mentored Black artists and offered classes in subjects such as art, music, dancing and fencing at the center.
“It did not take much convincing of the community to bring the Arts Consortium to the West End,” Harris said.
There were two groups surrounding the Arts Consortium. One was called the Neo-Ancestralists Artists Group, founded in 1989. African-American artists Jimi Jones, Ken Leslie and Thomas Phelps began the group whose express purpose was to perpetuate native culture artistically by producing art forms based on ancient and contemporary cultures and socially by becoming a positive influence in the community and a resource for Black imagery, according to the website. They began to make the consortium Afro-centric.
The Arts Consortium closed around 2009 due to a lack of funding.
Harris also served on staff, board and committee member positions including BRIDGES for a Just Community, the Ohio Art Council’s Artist with Disabilities Advisory Council, the Contemporary Art Center and American Red Cross.
Then there was Umoja, the Swahili word for unity in family, community, nation and race. Led by Jymi Bolden, Terrance Corbin, Joyce Young and Thom Shaw, now deceased, the group’s purpose was to mentor incoming Black students at the Art Academy and also obtain shows as a group. Aeqai Editor Daniel Brown was the only white member. Shaw was an accomplished Cincinnati Black artist who graduated from the Art Academy, as did Bolden.
Lin Laing, former executive director of the Center for Independent Living Options (CILO), founded Art Beyond Boundaries. It was intended to be a one-time exhibit to highlight the need for artists with disabilities to have mainstream opportunities to show their work. Bolden said, “My involvement began as the volunteer curator. When ABB found a permanent home on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, the CILO board asked if I would take the position of director. That was March of 2007. The rest is history.”
Bolden, a photojournalist, said the gallery works to promote awareness and understanding of artists with disabilities. The gallery operates as the centerpiece of the arts program for CILO, an organization Harris helped create. CILO serves Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky people with physical, sensory, cognitive and/or physical disabilities. Located in Mt. Auburn, the Center empowers people with disabilities to live productive, rewarding lives with pride and dignity.
Bolden said, “Robert and I have been friends and activist artists since the early days of the Arts Consortium. Robert is a selfless advocate of the rights of under-represented people in every aspect of today’s society.”
Bolden added, “Opportunities for Black artists now are as great or greater than they have ever been, due to the availability of exposure aided by the current events of today and the barriers that have been broken by artists, like Robert Harris, in the past.”
Harris joined forces with Reverend Maurice F. McCrackin (1905 – 1997), a Cincinnati civil rights activist and proponent of Black change. They traveled to the Ohio State Penitentiary (1834 – 1984) in Columbus, Ohio and protested the treatment of disabled prisoners.
Harris said the Black movement is changing. Even the wording has evolved, from colored, to African- American to Black to people of color.
Kennedy Heights Arts Center, in conjunction with Ten Talents Network LLC, sponsored “The Unfinished Revolution: Dare We Dream,” an exhibit of art and discussion by two of Cincinnati’s well-known artistic community activists Robert Lee Harris and Ricci Michaels. Harris addressed the inequality of health care for cancer patients through his art.
Each generation wants to believe that the battle for equality and justice will finally be won. Harris began his fight for inclusion in the 1960s. For him, this exhibit was a retrospective of all that he has sought to accomplish in creating an inclusive community as an artist and advocate for persons with disabilities, according to publicist Ena Nearon Menefield.
Since its founding by local residents in 2004, Kennedy Heights Arts Center has been dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Executive Director Ellen Muse-Lindeman said, “We aim to create social change through the practice of community-engaged art, employing art as a vehicle for human interaction. Much of the visual art we present explores contemporary social issues and provides a platform for diverse artists’ voices.”
In addition to Kennedy Heights, the Miller Gallery featured work of Black artists such as Thomas Shaw as far back as the l970s.
Honors followed for Harris’ community involvement. He was the Ohio winner of a Victory Award which he received from former First Lady Barbara Bush at a ceremony at the White House. In 1994, he received the Ohio Humanitarian Award – Employment Equality from Governor George Voinovich. In 2003, he received the Maurice McCrackin Award for Peace and Justice. That same year, he was included in Fifth Third Bank’s Profile in Courage. He was also inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
He came from a modest background growing up on Clark Street in the West End because it was cheap. He married and moved to East Walnut Hills, where he has lived for the last 37 years.
Harris graduated from Central High School in 1965 and went on to study art at Gebhardt School of Commercial Art and Photography, which later became Antonelli College, in the former Montana building downtown. He said it was an ideal place for an art school which had a three-year program. Harris concentrated in illustration and design. He used pen and ink as well as oil, acrylics and watercolor.
He credits his father Raymond who graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati for his inspiration to create art. Raymond was the first Black man to receive the coveted Stephen H. Wilder award from the Academy. It entailed a traveling scholarship where the graduating senior received a travel stipend for research in fine art or design out of the country. Edith Carson Wilder endowed the scholarship in memory of her husband. The first award was in 1947.
Raymond became a portrait painter. He loved art so much that his wife Freida eventually divorced him because of the time he spent with it.
Art expanded to other members of the Harris family. Robert’s brothers Raymond, Jr., and Michael Earl both enjoyed art. Michael became a writer and photographer after a drug problem sidelined him for a while.
Harris had several people who influenced him. One was French artist Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec, 1901 – 1964, a disabled artist, who became successful.
“Gordon Parks was one of my inspirations,” Harrris said. Parks was a Black photographer at Time Magazine. “I was able to meet him,” he said. Harris also is a photographer.
Harris also cited the example of Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi, a trained aerospace engineer who turned her efforts in the 1980’s to bring many unrecognized contributions of African-American quilts to the attention of the American people. The National Endowment for the Arts named her a National Heritage Fellow in 2014.
Harris contracted meningitis when he was eight-years-old and became disabled. I interviewed him in a wheelchair where he conducted himself as an active, enthusiastic human being. The doctors told him he would be dead in three days. He passed that mark. Then they told him he would be mentally disabled. That never happened. He had total paralysis, however, and has used a wheelchair since he was a child.
He didn’t let his disability stop him from community service or art. He won the drawing prize at school and decided to make a living in art after a first job as an elevator operator at Gebhardt School. He did freelance work for a while before landing a role as art director at Time Warner Cable. He went on to do graphic design at the Army Corps of Engineers in the Federal building downtown. “I was happy to do that,” he said.
He also worked with the Ohio Arts Council to promote artists with disabilities by using art from people who are in wheelchairs.
His community involvement takes him to the ministry of People’s Church on William Howard Taft Road where he is a lead pastor of a program called Extend. This program is meant to extend an invitation to all people who have disabilities including physical, cognitive, intellectual, emotional and blindness.
–Laura A. Hobson