Thursday, June 24, 2021
His Art Has Appeared in Ski Magazines and on Postage Stamps
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Ralph Harris’s landscapes and wildlife have a unique touch.
   
Sunday, May 2, 2021
 

STORY BY LESLEY ANDRUS

PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

 In Blaine County, where most residents are transplants from somewhere else, it is very special to meet a fourth-generation Idahoan, especially one as incredibly talented as Ralph Harris.  He is a quiet, unassuming artist whose work has memorialized historical events and celebrated nature and beauty in a multitude of mediums for many decades.

 It was in 1881, three years before the railroad made its way here, that Ralph’s great-grandfather arrived from Delhi, Iowa.  He worked as a carpenter in the Wood River mines before starting the family business--Harris Furniture and Undertaking Service--which operated until 1973.

 
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Ralph Harris has a keen interest in history, which lends to him riding as Meriwether Lewis in Ketchum’s Wagon Days Parade and painting works detailing the Old West.
 

 The Harris men were hard workers, toiling in farming, carpentry and mining, but the first two generations died young, leaving their wives to keep the family going against incredible odds. The other side of Ralph’s parentage arrived from the Basque provinces of northern Spain in 1907.

 When Ralph’s grandmother became a widow, she had four children, a herd of sheep, a boarding house and jai alai court but lost it all when she subsequently married a gambler who deserted her, leaving her destitute with five children. 

 While Ralph’s father continued with the furniture business, he encouraged Ralph to go to college.  So, after graduating from Hailey High, Ralph went off to Idaho State College in Pocatello.  Taking business courses per his father’s suggestion, Ralph also studied art history.  He had always loved to draw but growing up felt it was “too wimpy” for a farm boy in Idaho who spent summers moving irrigation systems, driving tractors, hauling hay and autumn weekends hunting pheasant.

 After turning 18 Ralph was employed for six summers with the Sawtooth National Forest, working trail, and fighting fires.

 
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This work features the Wells Fargo stage that rolls through the Big Hitch Parade set against the backdrop of Baldy.
 

 In his second year of college Ralph saw a catalog from The Art Center of Design in Los Angeles.  It was exactly what he wanted to do.  He submitted his transcript and 12 art works and was accepted! His father drove with him to L.A. and, when Ralph walked down the entry hall and viewed the top student art works, he became intimidated and afraid he could not compete but his dad told him to stick with it for the year.

 For four years Ralph lived in a residence hotel where for two years he and his roommate, Larry, slept for four hours each night and spent the rest of the time working, creating art for advertising and illustration.

 With the Vietnam war in full force, Ralph’s deferment ended just after he graduated.  Not desiring to go to Vietnam, Ralph followed Larry’s suggestion, applied for and got a position with the Marine Corp Air Reserve program.  He spent 13 weeks training in San Diego before transferring to Jacksonville, Fla., for an additional nine weeks. Previously, while interviewing at Los Alamitos, he was requested to repaint portions of a mural.  It was so well done that he was offered a position as a photojournalist in the MOS (Military Occupational Specialty).  These stints fortuitously satisfied Ralph’s military obligations.

 Encouraged by a friend Ralph moved to Seal Beach and enrolled at Cal State Long Beach to work toward his masters.  Then in 1967 when his mother developed health issues, Ralph returned to Idaho.  Here he learned to teach skiing and became part of the Sun Valley Ski School.  Then another opportunity opened up when Rotary International gave Ralph and six others a travel scholarship to spend three months in Australia, living with host families, studying the Australian economy and essentially being ambassadors for Idaho.

 
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Trish Wilson talks with Ralph Harris during the ribbon cutting for the gondola car he painted.
 

During that time Ralph continued to draw and kept a diary of his activities and the places he traveled.  Upon learning about it, Rotary International published his journal in three languages.

 Returning to the Sun Valley Ski School Ralph heard that the editor of Skiing Magazine was here.  Braving a hearty snow storm, Ralph rode up the mountain and amazingly found the editor.  That evening they met, Ralph showed the editor his art work and in February he was hired to design a cover for the September 1970 issue of Skiing. 

 However, before that due date, Ralph was asked if he wanted to test new skis at Mammoth Mountain as part of the annual new ski evaluations for the magazine’s Consumer Reports.  That led to an offer for illustration work in New York for the summer and participation in the fall ski shows in seven major cities around the United States.  Returning to Sun Valley and the ski slopes in the winter, Ralph got to repeat the ski testing and ski show tour the following two years.

 Then life continued even more fortuitously. He met Jacqueline who had come here with her girlfriend to take lessons in the ski school and they married.  Jacqueline, who had graduated from UCLA with a degree in Public Health and Health Records Systems, had just the expertise needed for management of the newly created condominium association in Sun Valley, where she worked for 37 years.

 Ralph continued teaching at the ski school for 44 years, along with teaching one summer in New Zealand, writing articles and doing illustrations for Skiing and Ski magazines, Nastar and the US Ski Team, and creating a plethora of beautiful, amazing art.

 He painted murals, including the north side of the Hailey Museum and the Hailey National Guard Armory, and collaborated with Herman Lirk creating stained glass windows for the Catholic Church and the Pioneer Saloon.  Ralph’s designs have won numerous competitions, creating posters for Wagon Days, Snake River Stampede, the National Finals Rodeo, and the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, as well as First Day Issue postcard for the U.S. Postal Service and 11 hunting stamps for Idaho Fish and Game.

 Then there are his paintings documenting achievements of the U.S. Air Force that are hanging in the Air Force Academy, Air Force Museum and the Air and Space Museum and those celebrating nature and the wildlife of Idaho.

 If he has one regret, Ralph says it’s being unable to convince the City of Hailey to restore the grand old building that was his grade school with its 12-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, hand crafted brick walls and solid timbers.  It would have made a unique museum and space for offices and restaurants.  He was also unable to convince the city to celebrate its history by designing the downtown core with western storefronts and covered walkways.

But, ever true to his art, Ralph found new canvases to paint, including the first wraparound on Sun Valley Resort’s Roundhouse gondola car.

 The wrap was typical Ralph Harris offering skiers a stunning look at the Pioneer Mountains, deer and other scenes from Sun Valley as it climbs up Bald Mountain.

 “Ralph is to be congratulated on the quality of art. It doesn’t get better than this,” said Trish Wilson who funded the work, along with her husband David.

 

 


 

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