Artist John Harbinson, known in the world of art simply as ‘Harv’ was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland is a sixties decade which saw his beautiful country on the brink of a Civil War. The following years of his upbringing were known as a period called ‘The Troubles’ and a young Harv was brought up with terrible things happening, bombings, shootings and the daily news was constantly reporting on fresh atrocities.
Harv’s antidote to the grey atmosphere of these times was to lose himself in pencils and paint creating a colourful alternative to anything he was witnessing going on around him in the real world, on paper and canvases he could create a parallel universe where his eyes were focused on everything from the beautiful mountains, landscapes and coastlines which no amount of troubles could ever affect to dragons and all manner of beasts which resided in a young man’s mind. Like all teenagers he was obliged to study all manner of subjects during his school years, but art was always the subject on his mind.
Coming from a working class estate in East Belfast he was fortunate to find himself qualifying for a place in a grammar school, but because his mind was always focused on art he was still not expected to achieve the results in all subjects which were the requirements to advance to the last two years if school, an essential part of any aspirations that students had if they were to get the grades necessary to on past school to college. Harv was determined to get to art college!! Miraculously at 16 he passed the 8 subjects, known as O’ Levels which then allowed him to study for the next stage, 3 A. Levels, Harv chose four, English Language, English Literature, History of Art and, if course, Art! The next two years would prove to be a unique experience for him, because showing no real aptitude for the English subjects his English teacher told him that he would be better not going to the classes! So he didn’t!! And after a discussion with his art teacher he was allowed to spend the time that he would have been in English classes instead creating art, in a room especially set aside for him, ‘Room 14’ a room in a school with only one pupil and for two years this is were Harv spent his school days, painting, printing, etching, sculpting, finding his niche, occasionally (very occasionally) studying a little art history, partner the bargain made with his art teacher. There were adventures outside of creating art in Room 14 over the next two years, but this has to be a short biography introducing Harv as an artist, many more pages would be needed to describe the shenanigans this unique art room saw, another day perhaps!
Harv was obliged to sit the English exams…unsurprising he did not pass them… but he did pass the important art exam with flying colours and was given a place in the College of Art in Belfast. Another 4 years lay ahead to obtain the elusive ‘degree’ in art and design, and during this time Harv had discovered a passion for rock music, which was to be an asset for him during his first year at art college. This was the 80’s, the rock scene was vibrant around the world, it had many fans in Northern Ireland and many bands aspiring to emulate the bigger acts.So Harv found himself in demand painting album covers and band logos on the back of denim and motorcycle jackets, as well as larger pieces of artwork such as backdrops and murals for the local bands to display behind them at gigs. This allowed him access to the local music scene and he had ambitions to add being a musician to his passion for art.
During his first year in college he ended up painting hundreds of jackets and backdrops, but of course these were things that people wanted to own, not have as something that Harv could put in a portfolio, so while all his fellow students were building a collection of work to show at the end of the first year, Harv was seeing his painting developing but ultimately disappearing to be worn! His tutors were not very happy to see very little available at the end of year one, Harv had worked hard, but there was little to show for it. It came to a head close to the end of term when Harv ‘entertained’ his fellow students by bringing a guitar and amplifier to college and performing very loudly on the roof of one of the art department classrooms. The head of the whole university approached while Harv was in full swing and the mood was ruined when he stated that students who were sitting their final exams in the main faculty 500 metres away were unable to concentrate on their questions because of the noise, Harv was asked to desist, ordered to see the Principal the next day and told that he was being expelled. It was actually a blessing because he did not have the necessary portfolio to sit his own final exams, he would not have passed them anyway, so he went out of college with a bang!!
He found a sympathetic arm around his shoulder in the shape of famous Irish artist Neil Shawcross who knew that Harv had been producing great art and, to an extent, was actually ground-breaking because Harv was creating original paintings on denim and leather and his original artwork was artwork constantly on the move, constantly in different places and at concerts it was seen by many people! So Neil told Harv not to give up and to take a year to do things on his own, forget college, Harv could not really be taught!!
He did as advised and this time he built a portfolio which, at the end of a further year, came to the attention of Miles Scott who was providing graphics for the advertisements on Ulster Television, UTV. Harv got a job which he was to stay at for several years, but as important as the work he was doing was, it was quite unfulfilling, he was making a living as an artist, but mostly to customer requirements, these advertisements had to be displayed clearly on TV, precise and clear, there was very little room to be expressive, it was a good job, but the soul wasn’t there, straight lines, letters, photographs, flat images, it wasn’t how Harv saw himself developing, he wanted to develop a unique style of his own, several styles even, maybe at the risk of losing job stability and a steady income, but at least he would be being true to himself and very importantly making a mark as a unique artist in a very overcrowded art world, he wanted people to be able to see his paintings and be able to instantly recognised them as having been done by Harv! That is something that fills someone’s soul, especially the soul of an artist!
It was time to break free from the shackles of commercialism, Harv wanted to be an artist, but not necessarily a graphic artist and in the following years he worked self-employed and had a varied career, he began to get recognition as an artist who could be commissioned for everything from family portraits in oils and watercolours to huge murals painted on gable walls in Belfast representing both sides of his home city’s culture. Work would come and go, swamped one week and leaner during others, so Harv subsidised his expression and development by working in several different environments over the years to make ends meet, paid work but always loosely associated with artwork. One such period saw Harv working in a tattoo parlour for a few years. A tattooist values his book of ‘flash’, his unique set of designs which no other tattooist has access to. Sometimes when a tattooist dies or retires, the family will sell his book of ‘flash’.
The tattooist for whom Harv worked for managed to buy an elusive book of ‘flash’ from an Australian tattooist. The problem was the designs were quite dated, tattooing was moving forward and artwork needed to keep up with the times and be as contemporary as the period being lived in. So Harv was employed to work in the tattoo studio, going through each page of the rare book and bringing the designs up to date, giving them fresh appeal and broadening the extent of the tattooists collection, therefore with more choice of designs he had more customers so Harv’s work during this period was valuable. It wasn’t all work though, there were lighter moments, usually involving what was known as the ‘fainting chair’, a seat placed in the tattooist’s back garden on which was placed anyone who, perhaps getting a tattoo for the first time, fainted! It would be easy to think that they would awaken and then have second thoughts about returning to the studio to get the tattoo completed, but the first thing that they would sense when they were coming round was a wet sensation on their arm, and once able to fully focus they were able to see that they were being licked by the tattooist’s pet WOLF!! There was no window from the studio to the garden, but Harv and the tattooist generally knew when the poor person who had fainted had regained their strength, it was usually because they heard a loud scream followed by a frantic return of the customer to the tattoo chair where they generally didn’t faint again knowing what was waiting for them in the garden if they did!!
Harv would use this experience later on in his career to do a series of paintings combining rock stars, rock fans and tattoos, exceptionally colourful and featuring many of the designs he had worked on in the tattoo studio 25 years earlier!!
Other art related jobs which Harv participated in over the years included working as an assistant to the art teacher in a Belfast integrated college, designing posters for a Belfast travel agents which they then displayed in their window to attract passers-by in to their shop and working for a local comic store designing the covers of their monthly cataloge.
This was a pleasure because Harv was a huge fan of comic art, although he did ocassionally have to work behind the cash register when the shop owner went for lunch, and sometimes the shop owner would go for lunch for several weeks!! Apart from designing the stores catalogues Harv had to quickly develop an ability to value comics in order to buy a collection if the store owner happened to be on one of these ‘extended’ lunch breaks, which usually saw the owner in Benidorm for a quite lengthy liquid lunch!
For several years Harv used his experience of having watched every episode of the legendary landscape artist Bob Ross’s tv programme ‘ The Joy Of Painting’ during which Bob would do a completed painting during each 30 minute episode. Harv booked a room in a local community centre and basically taught people how to paint like Bob Ross, perhaps taking two hours to do what Bob would achieve in 30 minutes, and with a varying degree of success, but he did discover things that would help him later to understand the human mind because his classes did have people who really did want to stand back and admire their work, but he found that some people simply wanted to use the two or three hours to help forget about a stressful job or family life and, indeed, some used the classes as an essential step towards helping them deal with various mental health issues, anxiety, depression or panic, so sometimes he was teaching a class how to paint a blue sky mountain range with trees and a waterfall, and what he would sometimes see would be perhaps a journey into a maelstrom or totally alien environment to what he had painted himself, but it did confirm to him that he had done the right thing all those years ago when he left the commercial side of art!
His desire to be an individual and to express himself without the confines of rules and regulations stipulated by the demands of advertising and the customers wanting everything to be ‘exact’ had paid off because here he was seeing people not conforming to what he was teaching the majority of the class to do, i.e. paint like him, but there were people who just needed to get things out of their systems, art was proving to be very therapeutic for some people, Harv admired this approach and began to promote it in his own artwork. This meant that he had to say goodbye to another artwork adventure because teaching went against this principle, he discovered that you can’t actually teach people to paint and expect them to be themselves, just give people a canvas, paints and a brush and let them be themselves!A trip to Spain would see Harv meet a beautiful Spanish girl while spending time in Madrid. This would lead to a long relationship, a wonderful son and a fantastic association with Spain which has lasted for almost 20 years. Harv moved to Madrid for the first time in 2010 and that is when his life as an artist became meaningful and invigorated. Belfast would always be in his heart as his birthplace and original home, but Spain entered his head, heart and soul with a passionate force and he began to become more and more influenced by his time living there. Not so much by the architecture or scenery, he loved that but these were well trodden paths embraced by many artists before him.
It was the atmosphere, the culture, Spanish attitudes and of course the brightness, warmth and vibrancy of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Madrid was in his blood and it poured out of the end of his paint brush. He used a familiarity with the buildings and landmarks of his home country Northern Ireland, but painted the buildings and scenery with flamboyant colours, no brown and grey cityscapes, his were purple,red and blue, abstract for sure but always recognisable, places from his home city which he imagined they would look like if they were placed in Madrid and occupied by the people of Spain. And Spain embraced Harv, offering him opportunities that he did not easily get in Belfast, achieving several exhibitions of his artwork in various Spanish locations. It was during one of these in the Madrid neighbourhood of Chueca that he encountered the legendary artist Fabio McNamara and Harv’s passion for unique colours and painting portraits with an unusual approach saw him being heavily influenced by Fabio and this gave him an outlet for a very individual development of the style Harv embraces to this day. Other Spanish artists began to become familiar to Harv, namely Perecoll, a master who worked simply with black oil paints on black canvases.Harv adored his work because every artist sometimes needs a break from colour, if only to be able to return to using it with fresh eyes! The beauty about Harv’s subsequent paintings utilising touches of Perecoll’s style is that the subject of the finished painting is not apparent until something is added to it, light!
Thickly layered black oils are applied to black backgrounds and on first glance the paintings make no sense, but shine a spotlight on the finished painting from an angle and you see trees, seas, mountains, crows and moonlit beaches rising from the canvas, the thick ridges of the applied paint catching the rays of light and transforming the paintings into moving recognisable environments!!Now living back in Belfast Harv now has a wealth of influences and of course the magic of Spain is something now etched firmly in his being. He never stands still with regards to a series of paintings and working out of his new Harv Art Studio his creations differ with his relentless ambition to stay relevant and individual, to have that recognisable style of his own no matter what the subject matter might be.
What lies ahead is always exciting because no canvas ever knows what Harv is going to apply to it on any given day, we hope that you enjoy the selection of his paintings which we have chosen to represent his career as an artist here on this website, please continue to return because new content will constantly be added, thank you for reading this introduction and we hope that you have a pleasant visit to Harv Art Studio.