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The last post on Facebook by San Antonio artist Jim Harter was a quote from Sadhguru, “Life is neither a gift nor a punishment. It is just a phenomenon that you need to learn to ride.”
The next day, Sept. 27, James Fredric Harter experienced a cerebral aneurysm. His friends and family observed his 74th birthday Oct. 2 at his hospital bedside. Harter died the morning of Oct. 7 and the art world of San Antonio will never be the same.
Originally self-taught as an artist, Jim Harter played a part in creating concert posters for Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company, Armadillo World Headquarters, and other counter-culture establishments. Harter allowed some of his those early images to be used in a Rivard Report article about San Antonio’s Main Avenue in the ’70s.
Influenced by San Francisco artist Wilfried Satty, Harter became skilled as a collage artist. Later, he became a magazine illustrator and published several books of his surrealistic works. “Die Gretchen” (The Crunch), from 1973, is one of his earliest publications.
Harter did illustrations for numerous periodicals including New York Magazine, Omni, Psychology Today, Saturday Review, Rolling Stone, San Antonio Monthly, New York Times, San Antonio Express News, Village Voice, Berkeley Barb, and many others.
The subjects Harter published with Victorian engravings include everything from insects to trains, from automobiles to angels, from landscapes to cities. He clipped engravings from books and magazines from the 1800s to use in his collages.
“Journeys in the Mythic Sea: An Innerspace Odyssey,” created with some of these clippings and published by Harmony Books in 1985, remains one of the most favored of Harter’s books but it is long out of print.
“Almost all of the images contained in that small book (“Mythic Sea”) were included in his larger work with Wings, ‘Initiations in the Abyss: A Surrealist Apocalypse,’ which is still in print and available,” Milligan said. “’Initiations’ also contains a significant autobiographical text by Jim.”
Milligan said Harter was an artist whose visions took him into mystical realms, both of imagery and speculative philosophy.
“I’ve rarely met anyone so consistently aware of the presence of the cosmic within the commonplace,” Milligan said. “To Jim, every tree was an aspect of Yggdrasil, the world tree; every living thing was an expression of the divine. We shared a fascination with the origins of inspiration, and it was that search that informed much of his art.”
Milligan articulates the praise for Harter that others simply feel.
“As a craftsman, he was beyond meticulous, working sometimes for years to capture the perfection of a particular line,” Milligan said. “Likewise, he honored the work of other, often anonymous, artists by reproducing for modern eyes immaculate versions of what most would consider ephemeral work, like 18th and 19th century engravings and advertising line art.
“His was a great soul,” Milligan said. “It was an honor to publish his work.”
Harter was born in Lubbock in 1941 of German ancestry. West Texas has many claims to fame; Buddy Holly, UFOs, and the treeless level land contributed to Harter’s artistic vision.
After graduating with a BBA from West Texas State University, Harter began an association with Texas artists Jim Franklin, John Shelton, Don Evans and Norman Rene Avila. This was followed by a trip to California and an association with San Francisco collage artists Satty and David Singer.
He traveled to India in the late ’70s. He was fascinated with the region and the varieties of religion. During the early ’80s Harter became friends with Dr. Jean Letschert, a Belgian visionary painter and former student of Rene Magritte. He also met members of Holland’s Metarealist group, and fantastic realist painters in New York. In 1986, Harter returned to San Antonio and resumed his collage work, digitally colorizing a number of his creations.
His paintings and collages owe much to symbolism, surrealism, fantastic realism, and an exposure to Eastern philosophy. The online book, “The Surreal Collages of Jim Harter,” gives a glimpse into his mind. Harter’s work, like his philosophy, is hard to describe.
“Generally speaking, my images are an attempt to tap into an archetypal reality, one that to my mind seems both timeless and deeply human,” Harter wrote in an artist’s statement. “Thus I feel less like I am part of some modern trend but rather I am one following a well-trodden and ancient path, a path known not only to artists, but poets and others who have tried to express what is ultimately mysterious and ineffable.”
His art exhibitions are many: Nicholas Roerich Museum and New York Open Center (New York), Execucom Gallery (Austin), Long Hall Gallery and Carver Community Cultural Center (San Antonio), just to name a few. His last exhibition was in late 2014, curated by his friend, Michael Ann Coker.
“We were very pleased to have hosted an exhibit of Jim Harter’s amazing art at South Texas Popular Culture Center (Tex Pop) in late 2014,” Coker said. “His was a popular show which included a range of his work from early music posters to more recent Symbolist oil paintings.”
Coker, a regional rock and roll historian, maintained a friendship with Harter for a generation.
“I have known Jim Harter for decades,” she said. “The most impressive aspect of his persona was that he was a seeker who shared his discoveries on his life journey through his art. All that he learned through his physical and spiritual pilgrimages he offered as gifts to his audience.”
“He was such a kind and spiritual man, Coker said. “His art was wonderfully transcendent.”
Jim Harter is survived by his brother, Mike Harter, and wife, Monique Dupuis; sisters, Marty Marmaduke, and husband, John, and Barbara Whitton and husband, Jim; niece Meg O’Brien and husband, Alex; nephews, Matthew Harter and wife, Kelli , Jacob Harter and Sam Marmaduke, all of Amarillo; and nephew, Owen Marmaduke, of New York City. He is also survived by an aunt, Drusilla Curry Cieszinski, of Roswell, N.M., two great nieces and one great nephew, as well as numerous beloved cousins and friends.
A memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14, in the Coates Chapel at the Southwest School of Art, with Rudi Harst of Celebration Circle officiating. A reception will follow. Burial will be in Lubbock at a later date. Arrangements are by Porter Loring Mortuary.
An additional memorial service will be held for Jim in Amarillo on Saturday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. in the Children’s Chapel at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1601 S. Georgia Street, with The Rev. David Green officiating. A reception will follow.
Harter’s most recent book, Early Automobiles: A History in Advertising Line Art, has just been published by Wings Press. In lieu of a signing party, a memorial gathering in celebration of this work and others will be held at the Twig Bookshop on Nov. 3, from 5-7 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests gifts in memory of Jim Harter be made to the Southwest School of Art, 300 Augusta, San Antonio, Texas 78205.
*Top image: This Day of the Dead design was submitted for a poster competition in 2006. Artwork by Jim Harter.