Brush with Greatness
Local artist's paintings have helped set the scene for four Hollywood movies
Tue Jan 22 2008
By Cheryl Binning
Julie Harris's star-studded resumé includes the Renée Zellweger movie Chilled in Miami, currently shooting in Winnipeg; You Killed Me, starring Ben Kingsley; the sci-fi thriller Maneater with Gary Busey; and Vinegar Hill, featuring Mary-Louise Parker.
Funny thing is, Harris has never set foot on a film set. Her brush with the rich and famous has quite literally come through her brush -- a paint brush, that is.
Harris is a Manitoba visual artist who has spent the last 30 years painting landscapes. But her artwork doesn't just hang in galleries. It has also been featured in four Hollywood movies that were shot in Winnipeg.
"It is very exciting," says Harris, who currently has four of her paintings on the set of Chilled in Miami, which stars Zellweger as a Miami businesswoman banished to a frigid Minnesota town with the assignment of turning around a failing factory.
"It's a different way of having my work exposed. It's advertising for me."
In building sets for movies, art departments want the rooms they create to look as real as possible. So in addition to knick-knacks on tables and desktop photos, they put art on the wall. And very often these paintings are rented from local artists.
Harris, who lives just north of Winnipeg in Grosse Isle, creates photo-realistic oil paintings depicting local landscapes. Her work has been shown in galleries in Toronto, Calgary, Minneapolis and Saskatoon, and has been purchased by big companies like The Royal Bank of Canada.
In Winnipeg, her work is represented by Warehouse Artworks Gallery in the Exchange District. That's where the set decorator from Chilled in Miami saw her work and chose four paintings to be hung in the office of a character named Lucy.
The paintings include: Rough Terrain, a winter scene depicting Harris's daughter's wooded property in Anola; Late Harvest, a Grosse Isle snow scene; and Wetlands, depicting a lake in the Whiteshell during the summer.
Rod Sasaki, owner of Warehouse Artworks Gallery, says he has rented quite a few pieces of artwork to filmmakers who are shooting in Winnipeg.
"Movies come and scout our gallery quite a bit and we have a good relationship with the local set-dec people who source the artwork," says Sasaki.
But Harris is the only artist he represents whose paintings have been featured in so many movies.
"I think it's because a lot of movies that come to town are period pieces or set in small towns and Harris's work is realistic landscapes with woodlands and grain fields, so they work well with the tone of many of these movies."
Local artwork is often preferred over reproductions and paintings from non-locals, explains Debbie Kuzina, a local set buyer.
"The biggest reason we use local artists is because you have to get permission to use the artwork in a movie and it's easier to get the clearance from a local artist," she says.
It can be a long process to track down the ownership and copyright of a reproduction or a piece of work from an artist from an earlier period of time. In such cases, the movie people have to research who now holds the rights to the artwork.
"This can take many, many phone calls," says Sasaki. "But with local art, the artist is often just one call away, so there is a lot less hassle."
Kuzina says art is used to help set the right setting and mood of a particular character's home or office and helps define the time period.
"Chilled in Miami is set in small-town Minnesota, so we are looking for older style pieces, more traditional and not modern," she explains. "One of the characters works in a factory and her house has a real colonial look. She is also a scrapbooker, so we put homemade crafty art purchased from thrift stores, such as cross-stitching, in her house."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, for Make it Happen, a hip-hop dance movie that shot in Winnipeg, Kuzina rented pieces last fall from the Graffiti Gallery that helped define the modern and cool vibe in one of the character's loft apartments.
"The art has to look like it goes with the character and develops the character of that person," explains Kuzina. "But at the same time, the artwork shouldn't stand out. If you notice the set too much, then we aren't doing our jobs."
Artists don't get rich from renting their artwork to Hollywood.
"You get just a small per centage of the value of the painting," explains Harris. For example, Rough Terrain, a 16 x 24 painting, has a purchase price of $1,100. The Chilled in Miami production is giving her 20 per cent of the painting's value, $220, to rent the artwork from Jan. 9 to Jan. 30.
And having your artwork featured in a movie doesn't mean you get to hang out with stars, either.
Harris has never been invited to a set to see her artwork in action.
"I asked to go on set for Vinegar Hill but they said it wouldn't be possible because it was a tiny house and there wasn't enough room for visitors," she explains.