Arts July 24, 2008

Quiet Contributor

One of Sun Valley's most celebrated artists is among the most unknown here in his own hometown.

Ralph Harris has the classic chiseled profile, the tall, dark and handsome looks of a ski instructor, but his appearance conflicts with his humble, shy side. He is soft-spoken and reticent to talk about himself. If you mention his name at a cocktail party, not many people will say they’ve met him. Ah, but they will certainly recognize his work.

By day, Harris has been a ski instructor for Sun Valley every winter since 1968. If someone says they know Harris, it’s usually from meeting him on Bald Mountain. But, Sun Valley is steeped in intriguing personal stories of ski instructors turned filmmakers turned media moguls. Of love stories, lasting and otherwise. Of families arriving by covered wagon in the mining days of the late 1800s or by train in the early part of the 20th century, staying on to shape the Valley through its years in mining, the sheep industry, the development of Sun Valley as America’s grand dame ski resort. The Harris family has been part of all these things since 1881, and four generations later, Ralph Harris paints the history-capturing mural we see as we hurry along Hailey’s Main Street. Twenty-one of his highly-acclaimed paintings hang on permanent display in the Pentagon, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force Museum, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

On the local scene, Harris has created five of Ketchum’s beloved Wagon Days Labor Day parade posters, including one of the very first ones printed. He also painted a 15-by-90-foot mural commemorating historical events of the Wood River Valley—twice. The mural was first created in the ’70s on the exterior wall of the Blaine County Historical Museum in Hailey. When the original adobe wall deteriorated, it was replaced with cinderblock, and Harris kindly obliged by re-painting it. The project took two years to complete.

The stained glass windows in Ketchum’s Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church were a collaboration between Harris and local glass artist Herman Lirk, as was the trout scene in the front of Ketchum’s Pioneer Saloon. Over 20 years, the two artists have worked together on many private stained glass commissions.

The local reverberation continued with Harris’ work for the 1990 Ducks Unlimited auction and banquet in Sun Valley, and the 20th, 25th, and 30th anniversaries of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Idaho Fish and Game has awarded Harris five Muzzleloader and five Archery stamp competition designs since 1982. His painting of elk wintering on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wy., was commissioned as a poster to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the refuge. The image was later presented to then Vice President George Bush for the launch of President Reagan’s “Take Pride in America” program. The U.S. Postal Service commemorated the image again on a First Day Issue Postcard.

In 1994, Harris won the Idaho Upland Game Bird Stamp competition with a painting showing chukar partridges flying off the Bruneau River Gorge. In 1994, the board of the Snake River Stampede commissioned Harris to create two stunningly dynamic rodeo posters of Ty Murray, then six-time All-Around World Champion cowboy. A year later the board had him paint Butch Small, champion saddle bronc rider. The “Cowboy Up” party at the 1996 National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas also sported one of Harris’ signature works. In Boise, the Idaho Historical Museum displays a Harris depiction of Shoshone women gathering camas during the spring. Three four-by-six-foot paintings of world champion cowboys Harry Charters, Dean Oliver and Shawn Davis are on permanent display at Nampa’s previous First Security Bank of Idaho, now a branch of Wells Fargo Bank.

Clearly, you may not know the name of this quiet, private man, but you’ve been surrounded by his work since your arrival in the Valley. And, you’ve lived amid the silent evidence of his family’s long history here.

Harris’ great-grandfather, Charles E. Harris, arrived in Hailey in 1881 from Delhi, Iowa. “By train, I think, but perhaps by wagon,” Harris ponders. “He built his home in 1887 on Third Avenue and Silver Street in Hailey.”

In 1891, Charles E. Harris opened Harris Furniture and Mortuary in Hailey on Croy Street, moving to the intersection of Main and Bullion Streets by 1895, where the family business was conducted until 1973.

Harris’ father, Charles A. Harris, was born in Hailey. Among the plentiful and vibrant life stories of this man is the tale of his becoming a jockey at age 10. “Local horses would just line up on the track, and somebody would just yell ‘GO!’ Mostly, Dad raced where the Hailey rodeo grounds are now, and over in Carey, Picabo, Gannett and Bellevue,” Harris recounts. Turning 93 this year, Charles A. Harris still lives in Hailey, just down Main Street from the furniture and mortuary business he ran throughout his adult years.

Listening to Ralph Harris reminisce about growing up in Hailey, it’s obvious he has always had a keen eye for details, and a very good memory. But it is in looking at his paintings that those qualities become undeniably real. >>>



Joan Davies, former director of the College of Southern Idaho’s Blaine County campus, says she “pestered him until he agreed to teach art there. Ralph is a total perfectionist, but he has the ability to meet students right where they are in their skills. He does meticulous research on every one of his paintings. He actually corresponded with General Paul Tibbets, commander of the Enola Gay, during the creation of that painting. He created a physical scale model of a pirogue with clay models for one of hisLewis and Clark paintings. I think he captures reality with an almost photographic quality, and an incredible artistic element.”

This intense devotion to accuracy and detail is immediately evident in Harris’ depiction of historical scenes. He has worked with other artists to create replicas of Meriwether Lewis’ clothing, for example. Harris took the research further by actually “becoming” his subject in public reenactments along the path that Lewis and Clark took with the Corps of Discovery.
“I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember,” Harris says. “But, I considered myself a closet artist. I didn’t want anyone to know I liked to draw. I thought it was kind of a sissy thing then.”

But, he designed and coordinated the theme for his 1958 Hailey High School prom. “And that let the cat out of the bag,” he says with a slow grin.
Following in his father’s footsteps (and his paternal grandmother’s), Harris went to Idaho State College in Pocatello. Two years later, he transferred to The Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles. During his sophomore year there, he won a competition to design the official seal for Idaho State University. He joined the Marine Air Reserve program in 1964. During his time at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in Southern California, Harris was also a member of the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators. Those connections led him to become a member of the documentary art staff for the U.S. Air Force in 1967. The Air Force presents many of Harris’ paintings on traveling exhibitions throughout the world, loaning them to other air base facilities, universities and selected special events.

In 1967, Harris returned to Hailey to help his folks in the furniture company. That same winter, Sun Valley ski instructor Jack Colven mentored him on the finer points of becoming a ski instructor. “I worked nights as a bellman at the Sun Valley Lodge so I could ski every day,” he smiles. Harris practiced on the slopes at Hailey’s Rotarun Ski Area, using the rope tow there that Harris’ father had helped to build as a member of the sponsoring Rotary Club. The legendary ski instructor Sigi Engl hired him into the ski school, “and I’ve been there every winter since.”

During his first winter with the Sun Valley Ski School, Harris was granted a travel scholarship by Rotary International Exchange and traveled to Australia. Rotary International later published his sketchbook and diary of this journey in three languages. In the summer of 1972, he taught skiing at a small private area outside of Christchurch in New Zealand and worked for Skiing Magazine. Throughout his career as a ski instructor, Harris has produced instructional drawings and articles for various skiing publications and the U.S. Ski Team.

One common belief about the lives of ski instructors is that they are filled with romance, even if the instructor is somewhat shy. And, in 1970, a lovely young graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles came to Sun Valley with a girlfriend for a ski vacation. Harris’ good friend and fellow ski instructor, Floyd Dupius, introduced his latest student, and Jacqui Blake became Jacqui Harris in 1974. She has worked for Sun Valley Company since their wedding and is currently Director of Condominium Operations.

The Harrises now live in Hulen Meadows, north of Ketchum, where Ralph Harris paints. He is often in Hailey to teach at the College of Southern Idaho, or to join his father for lunch at the Blaine County Senior Center.

And so the story of the Harris family in the Wood River Valley quietly continues—a story of one of Hailey’s most long-lived businessmen and civic devotees and his celebrated artist son.

This article appears in the Winter 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.