I first encountered Seattle artist Ethan Jack Harrington when he was painting Belltown scenes en plein air, back in the day. You might have seen him around town painting outside, capturing the city with his unique and colorful style.
In May Clark and I ventured up to the hill to interview Ethan for the Belltown Messenger. We sat on his front deck and he cracked open an icy cold 40 ouncer of PBR, on a beautiful spring afternoon.
Elaine: Ethan, I looked you up on the web and found out all sorts of things about you. How long have you been an artist, and where did you grow up?
Ethan: I’ve been an artist for twenty years, thirty if you count my childhood. I was born in Vermont but I grew up mostly in Seattle; lower Queen Anne, in the valley of Magnolia, Crown Hill in Ballard. We moved around a lot. I went to Franklin High School.
Elaine: When we first heard about you, you were a Belltown guy. Standing out on the streets doing your art stuff.
Ethan: I still do it but I don’t live in Belltown anymore. I lived in The Castle for about 7 years and I was showing my art the Whisky Bar. I opened a little gallery on 2nd Avenue right next to Shorty’s. I had business partners it was called the V Gallery. That was open for about a year as that. Then we split ways and when the gallery vacated I was able to stay month to month for a few months and that was about a year or two ago. I could do what ever I want.
Elaine: Do you have a Gallery now?
Ethan: I had an art show scheduled at a gallery in Tacoma and they just went out of business due to the economy. That was supposed to be my June show. I’m not with a gallery right now. I have a client coming over later today. I use my house and my easel whenever I’m out painting as my studio gallery.
Elaine: This idea of the plein air painting is a very old fashioned idea popular in the eighteen hundreds. What made you decide to go outside?
Ethan: Well, my dad is an artist. He worked as an illustrator for his career, but he’s an amazing painter. He lives in Vermont now. He encouraged me to stay away from commercial art and be a painter. That’s been a tough choice for sure. As a kid he would train me in art. For birthdays he would buy art supplies and show me how to use them. What he also did was to give me a real sophisticated appreciation of art history and some amazing artists that you could never hope to measure up to. I got a very sophisticated old school art education growing up.
Elaine: You were like an apprentice to him in learning the craft.
Ethan: And he’s still way better than me. He’s my hero. The guy is amazing. Painting is a language. A real painter can see another artist’s work and read their language and see the exact thought process; oh they did that to suggest this, and came over that with this, oh how clever, I should try that; you don’t think consciously that you would try it but be impressed by the nuances. My dad is a smart motherfucker. You can see it in his work. He would pace around preach to me about the soul of art and what it is meant to be. (Ethan pretends to be his dad - his deep voice deepens even more) “These guys spending 40 hours on a painting and think it’s worth three grand. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about two hours of real soul and you can see it you can feel it.” When you’re a twelve-year-old kid that’s real powerful stuff.
Elaine: Did you rebel against all of this?
Ethan: I did in high school when I was attempting photo-realism using an airbrush. Not his cup of tea. I don’t sign my name the way he does. I use Ejak.
Elaine: What did your dad think about your graffiti?
Ethan: He wasn’t too impressed when he started getting phone calls. I didn’t cost him any money because of the graffiti I got caught doing, but definitely some social embarrassment.
Elaine: Did you do the graffiti to show off your skills?
Ethan: Graffiti is a cool culture because it’s so competitive. I was a skateboarder when I was a kid which was competitive but also appreciative. You do a cool trick and everybody is going to high-five you and give you a clap on the back. Graffiti is like that, a lot of one-upmanship. Be a little better than the other guy. I was good with fine art style with spray paint.
Elaine: What I noticed on your web site was your trip to Paris. That was a lovely video. Who took the film?
Ethan: I did, I got really into it. Now I have a Flip™ video camera. I love it. For me it’s a new art thing not how I make a living. It’s cool to have another creative process.
Elaine: I loved the video of you painting in the snow. Your pallet was covered in snow.
Ethan: I kinda chose badly. I thought I was in an alcove but the wind was blowing the snow. There was a fun chaos to it. I definitely got cool reactions to painting outside. I didn’t have any money for the trip and I put a Facebook update out asking if anyone was interested in me doing a commission while I’m there and within a few hours I had enough money for the plane ticket and five or six days later the rest of the trip was paid for.
Elaine: How did you pick the places to paint?
Ethan: A few were commissions. I had five commissions, so I had to get busy. These were scattered around town. I had my easel, canvases and my backpack. I couldn’t take the metro so was walking all over. I was doing sometimes ten miles a day with my thirty pounds of equipment. It was pretty intense.
Elaine: Oh, you also went to Mexico. How did you do that?
Ethan: First we need to refresh our beer and when I get back I’ll tell you.
Elaine: On your Mexico video I thought your set up was great, painting on the rooftop.
Ethan: I’ve been going every year for 3 years now. I’m pretty stoked about Mexico.
Elaine: How did you develop your style?
Ethan: It kind of developed in high school and it was a bit of one-upmanship. It was a good time and a good group of kids. We all did the same kind of thing. A graffitish stroke, the lines were characterized. I was starting to plein air paint and I was so frustrated and out of pure anger with myself I tried one in that graffiti drawing style and everything just popped right into place. It was a huge break through for me. I remember I was under the Aurora Bridge doing a painting of the parking meters. I stylized them gave them a little personality and that was the first painting I ever did.
Elaine: That must have been a great aha moment.
Ethan: There are some other people that take a similar approach and that’s why I wanted to branch out. When I’m doing my figure work it’s a complete different discipline. You can still stylize a little bit but you’re not allowed as much rope. You have to get certain things right. When I started doing a lot of figure work it improved all of my paintings.
Elaine: The Whisky Bar girls were very controversial. They got you attention.
Ethan: It was like a scene, all the people there had tattoos and slicked back black hair. I thought I know what will please these people. Sure enough I was right. They really embraced me. I never got any negative comments. I had free models. I would betting sitting there drinking my whisky and a girl would come up to me and say, “I’ve got great tits, you should paint me.” Most of the comments I got were that they seemed empowering. I wasn’t painting idealized women I was painting real women. I always see the beauty in people.
Photos by Fiona Minx