Based in Phoenix, printmaker Harold Lohner explores the dichotomies of individuality and anonymity, absence and presence, concealment and revelation in his work. With their layered patterns, colors, faces, and figure shapes, his visually arresting compositions require you to spend time and look closely, searching and discovering for yourself all that is hidden yet visible.
A working artist for more than 30 years, Lohner is also the proprietor of Harold’s Fonts, a digital type foundry. He holds an MFA in printmaking from the University at Albany, is a professor emeritus of art at The Sage Colleges, and has been an artist in residence at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York; Kala in Berkeley, California; the Contemporary Artists Center in North Adams, Massachusetts; and the Mesa Arts Center, right here in the Valley of the Sun. We spoke with Lohner to learn more about his practice and inspirations.
Here’s Harold Lohner, in his own words.
“[M]y subject is male identity and beauty. I’ve always made pictures of people primarily. Novelists and filmmakers tell stories about people. Why would I want to make pictures of, say, a still life?”
Harold Lohner. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell us about where you’re from and what first inspired you to become an artist.
Harold Lohner: I am originally from upstate New York and lived there full time until about 6 years ago. I always wanted to be an artist even though I didn’t really know that meant, having lived in a world without art or artists. But I always loved making things. My mom sewed, and my father did woodworking, both as hobbies, which instilled a love of materials and tools. And I’ve always loved the transformative power of art—how you can take this and turn it into that. I remember using an eraser and pencil to alter the faces in a newspaper; they were black and white and very smudgy back then! I sometimes wonder why I keep creating, but I know it’s a part of my personality and life. To quit now would be a great sacrifice and very difficult.
PhxArt: What topics do you like to explore through your work?
Lohner: Very simply, my subject is male identity and beauty. I’ve always made pictures of people primarily. Novelists and filmmakers tell stories about people. Why would I want to make pictures of, say, a still life? When I completed graduate school, I also came out, and it was doubly liberating. There were no more tedious editions of black-and-white lithographs and etching; now I was free to explore color and other media. I was also inspired by feminist artists of the period to look at myself and my own gender instead of always applying the “male gaze” to women. There’s a Walt Whitman poem that has the line: “Resolv’d to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment.” And I have felt that was where I should and could best turn my attentions as an artist.
Harold Lohner, Fusion, 2020. Woven assemblage of monoprints. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are the media you prefer to work with?
Lohner: My primary medium is monoprints, one-of-a-kind prints that I make by drawing in ink on plexiglass and then transferring the images to paper or fabric. The plate is never marked, so the image is unique, unlike other kinds of printmaking, and instead of making editions, I make series of related prints or gather images together in artist books. I also use found objects and print them using a mixture of stencil and relief techniques in subsequent layers, always one color at a time.
By using a subtractive drawing technique that is gestural and expressive, I’m able to add emotion to my faces and figures. I choose textures, colors, and patterns that are rich, beautiful, and vivid—a peacock palette—and take a cue from male animals, birds and flowers by using color and pattern both to camouflage and to call attention. Through this process, I create dense layers of pattern that both veil and reveal my subjects.
Harold Lohner, Take Off 4, 2020. Monoprint on linen fabric. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: When you were a professor, what did you teach, and did that experience influence your practice at all?
Lohner: Over my 33 years at Russell Sage College (as it is now known), I taught a lot of different studio art classes. In my later years, I was able to concentrate mostly on printmaking classes but also taught artist’s books and professional practices. Teaching undergraduates was very influential on my work, as I was constantly having to remind myself of the essentials and was always asking very fundamental questions. Why make art? Which medium? Which tool? Why this subject? Why keep at it? It taught me a kind of discipline, and because I did not have my own press and I was very busy during the semesters, it forced me to work in concentrated periods between semesters.
PhxArt: Tell us a little bit about your font business. How did you get into that work, and who are some of the clients you’ve worked with?
Lohner: I’ve always had a love of letters and lettering and did this alongside my art, although I didn’t really know what to do with it. When I finally got my first computer 25 years ago, I fell in love with the choice of fonts. Then I discovered I could at last design my own. Previously, my shaky hand and limited patience did not let me draw fine lettering, but the computer does. At first, I gave them away or sold them for $5 each and made limited editions of CDs. Now a company called Font Brothers handles all my sales and licensing, and I release about one new font a month. I don’t work with clients directly but have been pleased to see my fonts used in many different ways—it’s kind of strange to release these creations and then watch what people do with them. A big thrill was seeing my fonts used on The Simpsons, and they even paid for them!
Harold Lohner, Shiny Happy People, 2020. Installation of monoprints. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Lohner: Walt Whitman, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Michelangelo, and Ben Shahn come to mind. I actually try to not look at any art while I’m in a work period because it’s too distracting. I find it’s better for me to have absorbed that stuff beforehand.
PhxArt: What are some works or projects you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited? Did the pandemic affect the reception of your work at all?
Lohner: Two recent series are Houses and Rooms are Full of Perfumes and I am mad for it to be in contact with me, both of which are inspired by a poem by Walt Whitman called “Leaves of Grass.”
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it. The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it, I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
Whitman’s writing is so unabashedly queer and natural. It gives me a deep sense of recognition.
I also had a solo exhibition at Mesa Arts Center called Forbidden Colors that just closed in April.
It was about as successful as one could hope for during a pandemic; there was no reception, but it was open for safe viewing. The show was a selection of my work from the past two to three years, and you can still see images from the exhibition here. The title is borrowed from the novel by Yukio Mishima. It’s also a euphemism for homosexuality and a reference to colors that were forbidden to be worn by people in the Japanese court. At first it’s hard to imagine mere color being forbidden, until you think of gang, team, and political party colors and the emotions these stir in many people. And I remember my training in traditional printmaking—so many black-and-white editions of etchings and lithographs! I also think of the general dearth of color in much of modern art.
Then as far as the pandemic is concerned, I had a lovely two-person show with Wade Carter installed in the Eric Fischl Gallery at Phoenix College in the spring, and unfortunately, it was closed and removed without anyone seeing it. And then I was accepted for a juried show at the Udinotti Museum that never happened, and the Palm Springs gallery that was representing me dropped me during a round of downsizing. So sadly, it has not been a good time for the exhibition and business end of art for me.
Harold Lohner, Houses and Rooms are Full of Perfumes 6, 2020. Monoprint. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
Lohner: While I am making new work, I’m also looking for new exhibition opportunities as things reopen. I’m all vaccinated and opening up my studio on the First Friday of each month from 6 – 9 pm at the Desert Sun Plaza on 1325 Grand Avenue in Phoenix.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Harold Lohner shares what’s giving him life as a creative during quarantine.
Lohner: I feel so fortunate to have a studio where I can go work whenever I want; this has been my primary means of maintaining a normal routine during the pandemic. I work there about five to six mornings per week, and I have made a huge amount of work—there must be something worthwhile in all that! I like to listen to podcasts (non-fiction, non-music) in the studio. It’s almost like human companionship.
We’ve also watched all of the past seasons of The Amazing Race. It’s like vicarious travel, with enough problems thrown in to not make us too jealous.
Harold Lohner, No Word for Blue, 2020. Monoprints on sewn cotton fabric. Courtesy of the artist.