The Man Who Drew Too Much
An appreciation of Portland artist Bil Harrison
by Chris Busby
Last month, a couple days after his seventy-second birthday, the artist William C. “Bil” Harrison ditched the hospice facility in Portland where he’d been sent the week before and somehow wrangled a ride to Ruski’s. The plan had been for his friend, Jay Petersen, to pick him up at 2 p.m. and bring him to that West End watering hole to do an interview for this story. Maybe Bil just forgot — cancer will do that to a brain. But more likely it was just Bil being Bil, living by his own rules and his own clock, as he’s been doing for more than half his life.
I arrived to find Bil in his usual spot, the chair against the wall at the end of the bar, sipping a tall can of Schlitz. A year or so ago, Leo Pelletier, proprietor of Mainely Frames & Gallery, a shop in Portland’s Arts District that sells Bil’s prints, published a coffee-table book containing dozens of the artist’s iconic pen-and-ink drawings — panoramic cityscapes of Portland and other cities across the country, local monuments and statues, some portraits, and a section devoted to one of Bil’s favorite subjects, cars. Bil had his copy with him. On the clean white cover he’d written, in cursive, with a orange-yellowish marker: What I’ve done is far more important than who I am, and signed it below, “Bil.”
I’d chatted with Bil at Ruski’s numerous times over the years, and we’d once casually discussed the idea of him contributing work to The Bollard, but like so many conversations like that in bars, nothing came of it. Last November, Carl Currie, a cook and bartender at Ruski’s who’s written for this publication, informed me that Bil had been hospitalized. A neighbor had noticed a light askew in his apartment on Salem Street and peeked in to find him unconscious on the floor. He’d undergone surgery, but the cancer in his lungs and brain was considered terminal, and Bil, as is his wont, is refusing treatment.
“My mind is 100 percent — maybe 98,” he said when our interview began. “My body’s wore out. I know my body’s used up, but I’m not finished. And I’m not ready to quit. And I don’t want to do it the way they say you gotta do it.
“I didn’t do life the way other people did it,” he continued. “I didn’t do anything the way I was told. … I learned things by being around people that knew what they were talking about. I didn’t learn things by going to school and being taught something by people who didn’t know what they were talking about. And you can tell when someone knows what they’re talking about and when they don’t.”
By what metrics do we measure the greatness of an artist? Is it money, the sums their work will fetch at auction or on a gallery’s walls? Is it prestige — the number of museums that have collected the artist’s work and the number of critics who’ve praised it?
I find it more useful to apply a localized, populist standard to the question, one that takes into account not only the artist’s skill, but also the impact their work has on their community, the degree to which it inspires the public to see and appreciate their place in the world in a new way. By that measure, Bil Harrison is, by far, the greatest artist Portland’s ever known.
Most Maine artists would consider themselves successful if they sold a few hundred works over the course of their career. Harrison’s sold thousands, and that’s not counting the limited-edition prints of his illustrations available at Mainely Frames, where several runs of 1,000 have nearly or completely sold out.
Pelletier, who’s been selling Bil’s work for 20 years, leases art to numerous restaurants around town, which is one reason Harrison’s illustrations are more commonly seen on Portland’s waterfront than a wharf rat. J’s Oyster, DiMillo’s, Commercial Street Pub and Rosie’s are among the dozen or so establishments where locals and visitors by the tens and hundreds of thousands have marveled at Harrison’s deft renderings of Portland over the decades.
If Bil cared about money, he’d be a rich man, but he doesn’t, so he ain’t. Friends recall him making the rounds of Portland’s bars almost every day for years, carrying his artwork in a bag. He’d talk up the tourists and reconnect with acquaintances, selling or bartering enough art to get by, or get fed, or get a six-pack for the day.
Unlike so many of his aloof contemporaries, who consider their practice an almost holy calling, Bil’s always been a workingman’s artist. He’ll draw on commission. I ran into many locals last month who remembered giving Bil a photo of their house, or their car, or their parents, or their pets, and the joy they experienced when Bil delivered his rendering of their special place, person or thing.
But let’s not beatify the man, either. Bil can be difficult and cantankerous. “The only way he’ll do a portrait of somebody [is] if they’re gone,” said Pelletier. “He will not do a portrait of someone that’s still alive because, for one thing, if you ever insult him, if you ever say it doesn’t look right, he will throw the biggest fit you’ll ever see. … That’s why I literally will not let customers talk to him.”
That’s not entirely true — I’ve seen a portrait Bil did of a friend’s parents when they were alive — but it is true that Bil has zero interest in glad-handing rich patrons or sucking up to the powers-that-be in the art world or anywhere else.
“I have done art shows that were sponsored for the first, maybe, five or six years of getting involved in the art field,” he told me at Ruski’s. “But when I finally got down and saw how commercial it is, how unreal, how made-up it is, I decided that’s not me. I know I’m different and I’m not gonna be somebody else, and that’s when I quit doing art shows.”
“I had a book-signing here,” Pelletier recalled. “The first one, I had all I could do to make sure he come over here sober, because if you’re doing a book-signing and, you know, you’ve got mucky-mucks in here, that ain’t gonna fly. The second time we did it, he was right completely hammered. It took him an hour and a half just to [settle down] — dancin’ out here and drinkin’ out here.
“Well, that’s Bil,” Pelletier added. “What can you say? He does not want to play the game.”
Bil’s name appears three times in every illustration he does. There’s the signature placed at the bottom of the image, next to a little logo he designed using his surname, and his signature is also somewhere else in every picture, invariably where it’s hard to find. I asked Bil what inspired him to do this. His reply was one word: “Meanness.”
Harrison grew up around Norfolk, Virginia. I hesitate to say he was “raised” there, because he describes his childhood as one during which he was largely free to do whatever he pleased. His father worked full-time at the Navy shipyard in Norfolk and “farmed 12 acres of land with a horse on his off time,” Bil said. Both of his parents had previously raised families before they met and had him. “I was a grandson to them,” Bil said. “I was pretty much allowed to be Bil.”
“If ever I wanted to do something, all I had to do was say, ‘Dad, can I have a quarter? I want to go swimming in the canal all day and not do anything.’ And I got my way,” he recalled. “I got a quarter every day. My grandfather paid me a quarter to draw out of a phone book, to keep me quiet. He’d sit me down with a Yellow Pages and say, ‘Here, draw that fire truck over there on this piece of paper here. Or draw that gas station or just draw stuff. Shut up. Be quiet.’”
In high school, “I always tried to be the fuckin’ class clown,” Bil said. He recalled how his teachers, who recognized his talent for art early on, would let him skip class to paint banners for the high school football game. After graduation, Bil joined the Navy and served for four years, from 1962 to 1966. He worked in the printing office at the Pentagon, in a part of the building that was subsequently destroyed on 9/11.
Bil got married the year before he left the service, and after his discharge he and his wife moved to California, where Bil attended El Camino College for two years, ostensibly to study art. The couple, who had two sons, moved to Maine in the ’70s, but divorced before the decade was over.
Bil put it this way: “I moved to Maine because I was fascinated with Maine, and I was fascinated with Maine because I met and married a girl from Rumford, Maine. We were a married couple for seven years, and when that was no longer a fact, I still liked Maine and I chose Maine for my home, and my ex-wife chose wherever she chose.”
The couple had bought a house in Cape Elizabeth, but after the split Bil moved into a series of cheap apartments in Portland’s West End. Again, the man is not a saint. “He partied with the best of ’em,” a friend remarked, and that lifestyle had its drawbacks. In the early-to-mid ’90s, Bil was literally living in a van down by the river. Pelletier bought the artist’s collected works in 1995 from a friend who’d bought everything from Bil out of fear the art would be ruined inside that leaky van.
Bil’s an aesthetic, not an ascetic, though he has a monk’s self-discipline when it comes to his craft. As Cliff Gallant (the Bollard columnist) notes in an essay he wrote for Pelletier’s book of Harrison’s work, Bil gained local notoriety in 1979 when he created a large mural of Portland’s skyline for a restaurant on the waterfront called Yesterdays. The restaurant, and the mural, are long gone, but you can still view an astounding, 20-foot-long pen-and-ink mural Bil did of Old Orchard Beach, in 1983, inside the lobby leading to the lounge of The Brunswick, a hotel on West Grand Avenue.
If there’s a valid criticism of Bil’s work, it’s that he draws too much, capturing every detail of a scene, down to individual bricks and leaves, with almost photographic accuracy. (Bil’s been known to take rolls of photographs to find exactly the angle he wants to present.) His style leaves little-to-no room for the type of expression some viewers want and expect from art — a sense of the artist’s emotion, a sense of the artist’s emotion, their personal perspective on the scene. By rendering his subjects so true-to-life, Bil takes himself out of the picture.
When I asked Bil if he has a favorite among his works, he replied, “Do you have a favorite child?” But then he said he does have a favorite, a drawing titled “The Old Man” that he did in 1971.
Bil told Gallant it was the first pen-and-ink he ever sold. In 1980, he bought it back from the woman he’d sold it to, made 100 prints of it, “and gave her print #1. Thus began my career.”
Perhaps tellingly, “The Old Man” is the most loosely drawn illustration in Bil’s book. “There’s no real border,” he explained to me. “It’s something about the looseness. And then you get into the reality of it, the depth of it, the character of it and all of that, the personality. You see the glow, the reflections, the light, the dark, the light; you feel the wetness of the lips, the eyes — the reflections of, maybe you. But then again the background is ambiguous. It could be anything. It’s drawn with the marker out of the bottle. It’s not even the pen point at all.”
The selections in the book Pelletier published, William Harrison, just scratch the surface of Bil’s vast body of work. There are countless pieces, many of them created in different styles, in apartments and penthouses and vans along rivers all over the world. I got a glimpse of some colorful pieces Bil did a few years ago, when he got interested in depicting the images found on bills and coins. There was another phase when Bil was fascinated by bar codes and made art out of them.
“Pretty much anytime he drew something, he sold it,” Petersen, his old friend, told me. “And if it wasn’t selling he would give it away to somebody. He would just be inspired because he liked someone and he’d draw something and just give it to ’em.”
“Some folks, I’m sure, got some great deals and wonderful pieces off him over the years,” said Dave Levasseur, another close friend. “I know I did.”
If you happened to meet Bil on the right day, you could walk away with a mini-masterpiece for the cost of French fries with gravy and a beer. Sometimes when Bil needed cash, he’d go to Mainely Frames and meticulously hand-color one of his black-and-white works for, say, $100. Pelletier said that, 20 years ago, Harrison prints were being sold at half a dozen galleries around town. “He had stuff scattered all over the place.” These days, Mainely Frames is pretty much the only place to buy Bil’s work, which covers several walls in the large gallery.
Bil’s known for his lightning-quick wit, his intolerance of fools, his distrust of authority, and his amiability as a drinking companion and conversationalist. Sentimentality is not his thing, which is why I was taken aback when, in the midst of one of his stories, he got choked up.
He was describing a visit he made many years ago to his old high school, how one of his former art teachers had him show his work to her fourth and fifth period classes. After school, Bil and some of the teachers retired to a local bar. A former classmate who’d gone on to become a teacher at the school said, “‘We’ve got one question to ask you, Bil,’” and at that point Bil stopped talking. My phone’s app recorded about a minute of the song playing on the jukebox, The Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” while Bil collected himself.
“‘Bil, we have one request…’” and he paused again to wipe away tears before finally finishing the sentence: “‘All the kids in the other grades — first, second, and third — want to know if you’ll come back tomorrow.’”
“Were you able to come back?” I asked, dabbing at my own leaky eyes.
“Would you turn that down?” he replied, nodding to indicate that he did go back the next day.
A short time later, Petersen played a song on the jukebox that he knew would lighten the mood: “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’,” a 2006 pop hit by Scissor Sisters. Sure enough, Bil got off his chair and began hoofing it in the middle of the bar, as he’s been known to do over the decades that he’s been a regular at Ruski’s. Thin as a rail even before the sickness, Bil dances with surprising grace and fluidity. The 10 or so patrons there that early Thursday afternoon clapped along and hollered encouragement as Bil beamed. I caught some of this on my camera-phone [and you can see that footage here], but for me that’s superfluous — I’ll never forget that sight.
Throughout our talk, friends arrived to shake Bil’s hand and hug him. “I love being missed, but not like this,” he told me. “I’m in a hospice now. Do you know what that is? I never knew about that. I don’t want to go back. I’m not gonna stay.”
None of us can stay.
“I don’t want my legacy to die,” Bil had said at the start of our interview. There’s no chance of that happening anytime soon.