A creative force in Salina, Kansas, Harley Elliott is a one-of-a-kind, locally beloved artist and poet whose decades of work as a Kansas art educator, working artist, and writer have lit up this Smoky Hill corner of the Great Plains. A global pandemic has done little to slow Elliott down. This year he has published two new poetry books; Creature Way (Spartan Press) and The Mercy of Distance: New and Selected Poems (Hanging Loose Press) alongside the continual production of 16×20″ pieces for his “Allies” series, which as of this writing total 143 mixed media. You have perhaps encountered some of his Allies over the past five years in exhibits at the Salina Art Center, the Peaceful Body Wellness Retreat, galleries at Kansas Wesleyan University and Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Salina, and even gracing the cover of Patricia Traxler’s book of poetry Naming the Fires. We are fortunate to have twenty Allies lined up for a Virtual Gallery 708 exhibit, which will be live on the Salina Public Library’s website between December 2, 2020-January 3, 2021.
Using imagery from his mind’s eye, his mystical and at times creature-like Ally figures borrow from ancient civilizations and languages. Some Allies feel important and powerful, but they can also express his sense-of-humor. He casually described Ally 34 to me as a “donut-inspired Buddha.” While some have a serious and figurative omnipresence, others carry lighter and abstract undertones. There is something that feels anthropological in the series, at times the Allies appear to be something ancient or omen-like. To this effect, Elliott says some Allies are, “borrowed forms from past civilizations. There might be forms such as a samurai-like figure and others are abstract.” There is no doubt that each Ally is thoughtfully put to paper, “Health is not just a physical matter, it’s also a mental and spiritual matter. Those are two areas these works serve, mental and spiritual,” Elliott says of his Allies.
The manipulation of color and water is an important element of Elliott’s work. The mediums are humble; uniformly each ally is crafted atop 16×20″ illustration board. From his home living room floor, the flattest surface he has to work on, the figures are carefully created from any combination of acrylic paint, Conte crayon, inks, colored pencil and every once in awhile non-traditional mediums. Ally 63 in the series, which will be on view in the library’s Virtual Gallery 708 includes coffee used as a color stain.
Where did this work all begin? Elliott described during our recent interview their origins in detail. “In 2014, I had a health crisis, a pretty serious one and I needed some sort of help. I had done a few years earlier a piece I called Ally and I gave it to a friend of mine who was a real ally of mine. And I thought I need some allies now, so I began making these. They could be anything from a recognizable form like a humanoid type of figure to something purely abstracted. One of them might be about balance, which is an ally, although it’s not something we can point a finger at. So I just continued making these. I’m getting ready to start number 144, so there are a lot of them. Since I began these, this is the only artwork I’m doing. I think any other thing might just get subsumed somehow into this category. Sometimes it’s a matter of recognizing allies more so than wanting allies. Creating some is also good because art is a matter of process of discovery. I might discover an ally within myself that I didn’t know I had.”
Elliott’s Allies are gentle creative works no doubt in part influenced by his low-tech lifestyle. “I have a typewriter, it’s actually an electric typewriter; when I bought it the sales guy looked at me and said, ‘You know you’re going backward,’ and I didn’t tell him that to me I was going forward,” Elliott says when asked about how he writes poems without a computer. “My lifestyle includes no credit cards, no cell phone, no microwave, and no computers – There are downsides, of course, I miss out on a lot because I’m not on the internet. The good side is that I’m back here in what I consider a personal reality,” he continued. Note that he’s not anti-technology; he owns a television and DVD player and of course answers his landline phone and writes letters. “I think emotions and imagination are being rapidly replaced by a kind of mechanistic way of thinking. So I think that’s pretty pitiful actually and I’m much more interested in the world of rawness, raw emotions, raw thought, the first-hand experience,” he says.
There is no doubt when viewing Elliott’s visual artwork that there is a conversation happening between his Allies and poems. He is an auteur of language, recognizing and listening to his ideas, finding out whether or not they will manifest themselves as artwork or written word. “I read poetry whenever I can and I think probably most of the people who read poetry are poets. It’s become this sort of the thing that’s way, way down the scale from the internet. It’s not immediately accessible. You can read it like a grocery list and get nothing out of it. But sometimes maybe an image from a poem will kick off or connect with something, get together and start something going. Or it could be something a clerk says at the supermarket. It’s all there. The thing is to try to be open to it. If I’m going around, and I’ve been in this state before, continually worried or thinking about what I need to do or where I need to be or how I’m going to solve this or that, distracted, then my brain is essentially living ahead of my body and I’m not really experiencing much at all. So I try to keep from doing that,” says Elliott on finding inspiration.
A lifelong student of the arts, Elliott received his B.A. from Kansas Wesleyan University in Art and English then earned an M.A. in Painting from Highlands University, Las Vegas, New Mexico. Early in his career, he started out as a book designer at Syracuse University Press (1968-1970) and later went on to teach art as an assistant professor at Salina’s Marymount College for 13 years. After Marymount, he served as the education coordinator at Salina Art Center for over a decade. Today he is an established Kansas visual artist and the author of 13 books including 11 poetry titles, one children’s book, and one memoir, many of which can be found in Salina Public Library’s book collection.
Elliott explains, “I think the secret to living is to be alive each moment at a time, no five-year plans, that sort of a thing. Just make sure you can soak up what you can soak up. Like today, with all of the leaves yellow and the wind knocking them down, it’s just a real Walt Disney day out there. Everything is wonderful. But if I was stuck in here all day long, I would miss that.”
Due to COVID-19, in-person exhibits and receptions have been suspended at the library until further notice. A virtual exhibit of Harley Elliott’s Allies will be on display from December 2, 2020, to January 3, 2021, on the library’s Virtual Gallery 708 webpage. To learn more about Salina artist and poet Harley Elliott, check out two interviews with Harley via the Salina Public Library’s Youtube channel. Links to both are below.
The full Allies by Harley Elliott interview filmed in November 2020:
Brothers Harley & Fred Elliott talk about Salina in the late 1950s as part of an Oral History Project of Salina, Storycatcher’s on June 2, 2016: