Tracey Sylvester Harris’s oil paintings infuse color into images of women from a bygone era that were first captured in old black-and-white snapshots.
The San Luis Obispo artist finds the pictures in flea markets, at yard sales and on the Internet. Some depict old Hollywood starlets and some show regular women on ordinary family vacations — inspiring the title of Harris’s upcoming exhibition at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, “Lost Holidays.”
Harris looks beyond the surface of the images to find the colors that lie beneath.
Harris loved old movies as a child and remembers being upset when she learned the actors and actresses were from a different time and in some cases were no longer alive. That was her first connection to people from the past.
“One day I happened to be working on a painting that needed beach sand,” Harris said. “I Googled images and ended up seeing the black-and-white photo that started the ‘Lost Holidays’ series. It was a woman and a child on the beach, probably in the ’40s.”
“I felt a huge connection to her,” the artist added. “I have children of my own and have spent many an afternoon at the beach just like her. And that’s what the paintings are about, love and loss, appreciating where we are, the past that came before us, and the future yet to be.”
In her paintings, Harris seeks to give new life to the images she finds. She said she often has an idea of what colors will replace the black and white but that she also leaves that part of her process to spontaneity.
“I am confident enough in the process to leave room for a painting to take on a life of its own,” she said. “The only thing set in stone is the composition, which I work on diligently before I start the painting. Then there’s room for the color and brushwork to be spontaneous.”
Harris said her subjects are typically “strong, confident women going against the stereotype of the ’50s housewife.”
She crops the figures to give them “an iconic feel that all of us can relate to, as opposed to a portrait of a specific person,” she said.
Harris has shown her work across San Luis Obispo County and the country.
More than 20 of her pieces were featured in the 2014 film “The Face of Love” as the work of the character played by star Ed Harris (no relation).
“I had the fun adventure of coaching Ed at his home studio and being on the set any time art was being filmed,” Tracey Sylvester Harris said. “It was so much fun!”