Rhode Island Painter Karen Drysdale Harris Finds Beauty in Banana Leaves

A local artist turned a childhood memory into the medium for her exhibit on view in North Kingstown


Throughout her life, art has been a constant for watercolorist and oil painter Karen Drysdale Harris. Channeling the challenges she’s overcome and her Jamaican roots, Harris’ most recent body of work – currently on view at the BankRI North Kingstown Gallery – uses banana leaves to tell her story.

Harris immigrated from Jamaica to Rhode Island when she was nine, a number of years after her mother had moved to the US to find work. “That experience of coming to the US was definitely shocking and different – it was jarring for me,” Harris recounts, explaining the difficulty of living with a mother she hardly knew at the time and being bullied in school for her differences. “I didn’t want to talk, so I did a lot of drawing in my classes,” she recalls. 

Harris threw herself into weekend art classes and found mentors at local high schools who encouraged her to apply to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). There, she landed in the late illustrator and painter Tom Sgouros’ class, where his hands-on instruction left a lasting impact on her work. “What I loved about his class was that when something was not perfect, Tom could always see the edge of something that was good about your drawing, and he always encouraged you to push it a little further,” says Harris. 

After she graduated, Harris began a rollercoaster of a career. “Knowing that I had to figure out how to survive with an art degree, I took on the personality of trying everything and jumping right in,” she explains. Harris worked as a teacher, colorist, graphic designer, and art director, among other occupations. She and husband David also founded Harart Designs – a jewelry business influenced by Native American petroglyphs – before finding her current job at RISD, where she is now an internship manager and career advisor. 

All along, Harris continued creating art on the side, noting, “I’m one of those artists who needs to keep painting for sanity.” She has shown her work in several spaces over recent years, and in her current exhibit, Watercolors and Banana Leaves by Karen Drysdale Harris, the leaves are both her canvas and her subject, serving as an ode to her love for nature, her late mother, and her Jamaican childhood, where she spent years in her grandparents’

banana fields. 

The series began when her husband gifted her a banana tree for their 25th anniversary. Harris was captivated by the way the leaves played with the light, changing into sculptural shapes, and soon began to experiment with printing and painting. Rather than aiming for a realistic portrayal, she explains, “I’m more painting the texture, or the shadows, or the feelings it evokes inside of me.” While she wants viewers to enjoy the visuals she creates, her compositions are also a way for her to express her origin story and the feelings of displacement that she and many others have experienced
as immigrants. 

Harris is a board member of The Steel Yard in Providence, and encourages others to support non-profit organizations that bring under-represented populations into the industrial arts. Learn more about her work at KarenHarrisArt.com and visit the BankRI North Kingstown Gallery through March 1 to view her exhibit.


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