Artist Theresa Harsma of Owatonna draws inspiration from the small trinkets and items she finds outside, in her junk drawer and the environment around her.
She’s known for her handbound books and sculptural wall pieces using mixed media and upcycled materials. She prefers to find a use for items rather than having them end up in a landfill.
Unlike some artists, who might use more traditional mediums such as oil paint, clay or pencil, Harsma uses material she finds lying around her house. Her pieces include old window screens, a cut up old garden hose, wire hangers, her favorite pair of old socks, tea bags and bread bag tabs among other items.
“I save all kinds of things, so I have a lot of stuff in my studio,” Harsma said.
Harsma founded the Escape Artist collective alongside Dee Teller and Marsha VanBuskirk decades ago. The group hosts retreats for artists to get away from their busy lives and provides a chance to focus on their art. Throughout the years new artists have joined the group, encouraging each other and building fellowship along the way. The Escape Artists exhibit is now up at the Owatonna Arts Center until Nov. 22 where Harsma’s art is featured.
“Over the years I’ve done a lot of kinds of different work,” Harsma said.
Harsma said she first developed her artistic skills many years ago, first through acrylic painting and drawing, adding that she studied art in college. It wasn’t until she viewed a handbound book exhibit at the local arts center, that she decided to change her artistic direction. She could still use the skills she learned in the more traditional medium and apply them to her work with books and mixed media. Like painting, she still has to determine which colors to use and where.
“I think as I work on it, I’m not always sure what the piece is about,” Harsma said. She added that the idea becomes more apparent as the piece is developed.
Many of her pieces have elements of the environment, which complement the use of recycled materials well. For example her piece, On the Ragged Edge, represents the degradation of the environment, another piece represents the thriving nature of native plants and their ability to sequester carbon.
Throughout the process Harsma has a conversation with the piece, “listening” to what the piece needs and where certain mixed media elements might fit in the piece. She comes in with a general idea of how she will approach her work, with an idea of what type of materials she wants to use. She’ll place an item on the canvas, stand back and look at it to determine if it “works.” If not, she tries a different material and placement until she feels it’s right.
“The thing that always impressed me was that relationship she has with the piece that she is working on,” said Silvan Durben, creative director at the Owatonna Arts Center.
Harsma explained how one of her pieces — “Streams of Consciousness, Rivers of Green” — began. After replacing her house’s windows, Harsma set the old window screens with a “free” sign out on her lawn hoping someone would swipe the items. However after about a week of no one grabbing the screens, Harsma brought them into her studio.
“And one day I looked at it and said ‘hm,’ and I laid it on the floor and started rummaging through some of my things, just sort of laying down things on it and standing back and looking at it,” she said.
She ended up stitching items onto the screen, including pieces of wood, plastic tabs and yarn. She would also incorporate pieces of a retired garden hose and rusty scraps of metal found littered on the streets into her work. Other materials have been collected by other artists and gifted to her.
When asked how long it takes to complete a piece, she responded that it varies. Some pieces are easier to travel with and work on, whereas other larger sculptures are difficult to move and are awkward to work with.
Beyond the wall sculptures, Harsma also has a few small handbound books displayed at the arts center. She says she really enjoys stitching the books together, adding that stitching is also a technique she uses in her mixed media sculptures.
“There is something very satisfying about making a book,” Harsma said.