Rachel Harris, Visual Artist and Playmate Who Loves Black Metal | Q&A
The L.A.-based artist talks with Inverse about her muse, conflicting identities, and how technology has evolved personality artists.
For her first exhibition, visual artist and Playboy’s November Playmate Rachel Harris says her biggest inspiration came from early Norwegian black metal. “It was a cool period with an uproarious music scene. They burned churches built on top of other churches. They found it hypocritical, so they would burn them.”
From her cell phone in Cabo, Rachel reminisces about the paintings that put her on the map of L.A.’s art scene. “All of my pieces had that color and mood, and the pieces were named after songs so I had ‘White Devil,’ ‘Ghost Whisperer…’” She sighs. “It was so cool.”
On December 11 at The Well in Los Angeles, Harris is challenging herself to host her next show, her biggest one yet. Curated entirely by her, “Psychedelic Rock” will consist of original works inspired by ‘60s drug-induced rock ‘n roll and pop culture. Should it do well, Harris will move forward and set up shows in other major cities. If it doesn’t, she’s moving on. “I [can’t] imagine doing anything else,” she explains about herself.
But she is modeling, and for Playboy. It’s an unexpected endeavor that blindsided her, but she’s embraced it to work against the Playboy stereotype.
“We’re not smiley bunnies. And the art world says to me, ‘You have to be tortured and messy to create,’ but I’m saying, ‘No you don’t.’”
During downtime at a photoshoot, Harris spoke to Inverse about reconciling her dual occupations, her inspirations, and ultimately, what’s next.
Where and when did your artistic aspirations begin?
Art isn’t a big part of my family. I’m the only artist. We have a lot of doctors and scientists, and I grew up isolated and just spent a lot of time drawing and painting. I’ve been drawing my whole life. My mom says I was born doodling, but I would make to feel self-validated. That became a part of my identity. Art was something that I could work on and push myself and then I could look at it and feel really fulfilled.
When did you realize art could be something you could pursue as a career, especially coming from a family that chose the “stable” paths?
I went to art school. I went to art school for 5 years, and in school I kind of realized the potential of being a successful artist is slim-to-none. So I got my teaching degree and started to focus on fashion illustration.
When I graduated, I self-planned an art show just for my personal works before I’d go into the corporate world. But my show ended up successful. That’s generally the ultimate dream here. If I could what I love and it can support me, then I’m winning.
That was quite the gamble, banking on one show.
It’s scary. Art is super risky. I compare it to being like, “Oh, I want to be a famous actress.” A lot of it is who you know, but that’s like cheating from the start. I’ve always been more of a realist and optimist second, but art was so hugely a part of my life.
What are the one things that you find your muse in? What do you use to mine for inspiration?
I love Vice. I live for Vice. I love all their documentaries, and I like documentaries quite a bit. But everything, really, is an inspiration. I travel a lot. My dad’s a pilot and sailor and my mom’s from England so exploration and travel is in my blood. It feels good to just step outside, the world is such a big place.
But music is my number one. In fashion, what they do is they come up with a theme and they focus on that theme and carry it throughout their collection. This is sort of how I treat my art where I just come up with a theme and have it follow-through, and mine was based on the early Norwegian black metal scene.
What’s the theme for your next show?
Entirely different. It’s psychedelic rock, and there’s no black in it at all. It’s neons and rainbows, and it’s so, so different.
What made you move forward in that direction?
Everybody had that same comment that my work was really dark, and I wanted the next collection to represent a different aspect of myself. I use a lot of the same techniques and it’s going to have the same texture. You’re going to be able to tell that it’s mine, but a completely different body.
You set out to become an artist but now you’re Playboy’s November Playmate. How much did that sneak up on you? Did you see yourself modeling like this at all?
No, not at all. Never considered it. I was mostly focused on my work. There was some concern because traditionally, in the art world, selling yourself can kind of demean your art. But the art world is changing and I really want to be a part of that because people are actually interested in the person behind the work now.
Do you think technology has had anything to do with that? Social media lets artists advertise themselves sometimes more than their own art now. They become a brand.
Oh yeah. I think in part it started with Banksy, people wanted so badly to know who he was because he was this brilliant creature. Art became not just something visual but about the creator. I’m all for that.
You bring up Banksy. He’s a case study in artist versus persona. There’s Banksy as we know him, and whoever Banksy really is. Would you ever want to separate yourself from Rachel Harris the artist and Rachel Harris the you?
No. I think it goes hand-in-hand. I spend all my time by myself in my studio, and it’s really important for me to get out and meet people and involve myself. I think letting people know who I am, at least on a visual level, doesn’t hurt my work at all. I think it enhances it.
Do you feel conflicted or feel you have to reconcile your two occupations?
In a lot of aspects, I feel like they’re a double life. But Playboy actually has a strong history of supporting artists, and Hugh employed a lot of different artists. He loves art.
Were they supportive of you?
Everybody at Playboy is super stoked and really supportive on my art. I’ve come to them with ideas for drawing some of the girls, and they’re really excited to have an artist on their team.
What’s in store after your next show?
Honestly, I just want to see how this [upcoming L.A]. show does. I’m kind of doing another “risking it all” because I’m putting up everything for the show. I’m curating the entire thing, and if it’s successful then I’ll move forward. If not, then I’m going to figure out something else because that’s totally me risking it all.