African-American culture, unique techniques inspire Harry Seymour

Mr. Seymour with "Ferry Dusk." — Photo by Brooks Robards

Oak Bluffs artist Harry Seymour smiles a lot these days, and he has good reason to. The studio in his newly renovated Oak Bluffs summer home was completed a month ago, and he is able to concentrate on developing the painting techniques that make his work, already unusual in its concentration on African-American culture, unique.

A Professor Emeritus of Speech and Hearing Science at UMass Amherst who retired 11 years ago to paint full time, Mr. Seymour, who is self-taught, works primarily with egg tempera, scratch painting, and pastels. His work depicts scenes of African-American life on-Island and elsewhere. Two of his works hang in the collection at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He has devoted one corner of his new studio to a display of work representing President Barak Obama and his family.

“One of the reasons I’ve done so many pieces on them is the magnitude of the achievement,” he said. “I keep returning to the theme.” A news photo he saw of the Obama family at a food bank inspired “In the Eyes of Children.” In it, black schoolchildren hold up a sign reading “We love our Prez!”

“For me, it’s a special piece,” Mr. Seymour said. “When I was in school, we really didn’t have any black figure to look up to. The images in our textbooks were white people. I saw how those little faces were beaming with pride.” Another work, “Obama’s Little Patriots,” represents the kind of coalition that put the President in office. Mr. Seymour chose children to convey a sense of innocence and included many flags because he felt they offer so many different meanings to people. Both of these paintings combine scratch painting with pastels.

“There’s probably no one else in the world working in the methods I am,” he said. Scratch painting, or sgraffito, entails scratching an image onto Masonite boards covered with white clay and a layer of black ink.

Mr. Seymour’s technique entails a sophisticated process. He uses special microscopic medical pins that allow him a precision not possible with conventional tips on scrape pens. Many of his works combine pan and wax pastels with traditional scratchboard materials, and the specialized tools he’s developed allow him to create tonal effects not otherwise possible.

“The method evolved out of my allergies,” Mr. Seymour explained. “I’ve always been sensitive to smells. I can’t tolerate perfumes or fingernail polish. They affect my nervous system.” Oil, acrylic, and watercolor paints affect him the same way. After someone suggested trying egg tempera, he fell in love with the medium, which dominated European art up to the 15th century. “It preceded oil painting,” he continued. “The thought that something could last that long intrigued me.”

Egg tempura is exactly what it sounds like: a fast-drying medium that is mixed with a binder such as egg yolks. The precision possible with egg tempera also appealed to him, but in keeping with his interest in experimentation, he has worked to create impressionistic effects not usually associated with that medium. Mr. Seymour cut off the tops of his brushes to make a ball, so he could pat on the medium instead of stroking it on, for a less linear effect. In a small image of a dinghy, “Ready to Go,” Mr. Seymour used a palette knife, not usually considered possible with egg tempera. By protecting himself with a mask and gloves, Mr. Seymour is able to work in egg tempera, scratch painting, and pastels without developing allergic reactions.

The artist calls his most recent combination of scratch painting and pastel a symbiosis, in which he is not just creating an image, but the process itself, so that the doing of it becomes just as exciting. His technique is time-consuming, but he said, “I’m willing to take the time if the journey is worth it.” He worked on “Obama’s Little Patriots” for six months, and each figure took several weeks of work to create.

One remarkable piece, “Departure,” depicts a Steamship Authority ferry arriving in Vineyard Haven with such intricate detail that the artist says he felt as if he nearly went blind completing it. He has also experimented with reproducing his works so that he can enlarge them or change them in other ways.

Compositionally masterful and original in approach, “Arrival” presents the interior of a Steamship boat from just above the cars as the boat approaches land. Light from the open ferry door helps color the image. Yet another, “Ferry Dusk,” captures waning light from a ferry.

Although he has exhibited in the past at Dragonfly Gallery in the Oak Bluffs Arts District, at the Carol Craven Gallery (formerly in Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury), and at l’Elégance (formerly in Oak Bluffs), Mr. Seymour prefers now to offer private showings at his studio. He will, however, exhibit at the Oak Bluffs harbor on Saturday, August 24, from 4 to 6 pm as part of a series of shows sponsored by The Dockside Inn. He will also contribute work to the Harlem Fine Arts Show at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on Tuesday, August 6 through Sunday, August 11.

“An artist tries to make visible that which is not,” Mr. Seymour said. In this artist’s case that means joining a love of experimentation and creating something new with his love of painting.

Private Showings, Harry Seymour Studio, 66 Pondview Dr., Oak Bluffs. For more information, see For an appointment, call 413-531-1084 or email