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Detroit painter's career exploded after 'Critical Race Theory' piece. Now what?

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Standing in his light-filled studio in a large house on West Grand Boulevard, Detroit painter Jonathan Harris leans in to take a look at one of his latest paintings which depicts a woman in a head scarf, wrapped in an American flag. It’s nearly done.

The painting is part of a new series Harris is creating, “I Pledge Allegiance,” which explores the idea of what it means to be American. Next to the friend in the hijab is a portrait of another friend, who is Asian. Harris started each painting with a photo and then created an outline on canvas with a Sharpie. From there he used an oil base enamel paint, which he pours.

The only color in the painting is from the blue and red of the American flag.

The paintings were inspired by “seeing and hearing so many stories of Black people, Asian people and Arabs being treated unfairly,” said Harris. “I’m pushing for equality in a place where I’ll never be seen as equal.”

Just months after Harris’s “Critical Race Theory” painting blew up — it depicts a future world in which some of the biggest Black leaders in American history, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X, are painted over with white paint — Harris isn’t shying away from big, divisive issues, or the spotlight into which he’s been thrust. If anything, he’s leaning into it.

“It’s a good pressure,” he says, wearing a “Bad Boys” hoodie. “It’s something I’ve wanted.”

Later this year, Harris will have his first solo show, likely at Detroit’s Irwin House Global Art Center and Gallery, which is just down the street from his studio. He’s also gearing up to open a gallery on Saginaw Street in downtown Pontiac with a co-owner. And he’s also signed up to do projects at both the University of Michigan and Detroit Public Schools Community District.

“It’s been astonishing,” said Misha McGlown, director of Irwin House, where Harris’s “Critical Race Theory” was originally displayed as part of a gallery show last fall and where Harris is a resident artist. “It’s been unexpected, of course, and a little overwhelming, not in a bad way. There’s no way to really prepare for that kind of overnight success, especially when you don’t see it coming.”

Harris’s career exploded after “Critical Race Theory” was shared on a left-leaning Facebook page, The Other 98%, last November and went viral. It’s since been shared 11,000 times.

Think what you will about the concept of critical race theory, which explores the intersection of race and law in  the States, “people did not have a voice to express how they felt about it,” said McGlown. “And the painting gave people that voice. Just the painting being out there stimulated so much conversation — from both sides.”

The reality is no one really expected “Critical Race Theory” to take off the way it did. Featured as part of a show, “Triptych: Stronger Together,” at Irwin House last fall, it was a smaller piece, said McGlown, and “a bit of a sleeper.”

“Everything else was so big and bold,” she said. “But the woman who bought it connected with it right away and snapped it up.”

But it was after The Other 98% shared an image of the painting in mid-November that both the painting and Harris’s career took off. Harris remembers scrolling for his name on social media later and he couldn’t believe how many times it had been shared.

“It took on a life of its own after that,” said McGlown.

Harris wants his work to keep provoking conversations. He said 95% is inspired by politics, history and the Black experience.

The other 5% is family. A portrait he painted of his father, Ray Harris, rests on a mantel on the lower level of the house where his studio is. Flower petals across the front represent his mom who died suddenly of a heart attack roughly seven years ago.

With “Critical Race Theory,” Harris said the idea came to him  last summer. While doing research, he learned some states were removing words from some literature.

“The wheels just started to turn in my head,” said Harris. “Right now, they just want to remove certain words in certain literature. What would happen in the future? That painting is actually based in the future.”

Harris had been working in marketing at Coca-Cola in March of 2020 when the pandemic hit and he decided to focus on his art full-time. When the shutdown ended and he was supposed to go back to Coca-Cola, Harris decided to switch gears and continue to focus on his art instead.

His work includes not just oil paintings but oil enamel paintings, or pours, where he actually pours the paint on the canvas without using a brush at all. His “I Pledge Allegiance” series, for example, will eventually include 10 paintings, all depicting people of different backgrounds, each wrapped in an American flag.

“I want it to be beautiful but I also want it to start a discussion,” he said.

Henry Harper, Harris’s mentor and co-founder of the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, sees big things ahead for Harris. He remembers meeting him a couple year ago when Harris was primarily painting portraits of celebrities. Harper encouraged him to continue perfecting his craft, but not paint celebrities because those pieces wouldn’t end up in museums.

“His work is more finite, it’s definite in subject matter. It’s become more social justice conscious,” said Harper, who is also an antiques dealer. “He’s a modern contemporary history painter.”

Harris said Harper’s advice changed the trajectory of his career. Now, he’s aiming high — and wants to keep starting conversations. 

“I want to change the world,” he said. “I want to set the world on fire.”

Jonathan Harris

Age: 33

City: Raised in Detroit; splits his time now between Detroit and Bloomfield.

Work: A painter, he's gearing up to open a gallery in mid-June in Pontiac. He'll also have his first solo show this year, possibly at Irwin House. And he has projects planned with the University of Michigan and Detroit Public Schools Community District.