One of Sun Valley's most celebrated artists is among the most unknown here in his own hometown.
Photography: Kendal Nelson
Ralph Harris is known for his precision with detail, making his work documents of history that have turned into posters like those seen at Sun Valley's Labor Day Wagon Days celebration.
(page 1 of 2)
Ralph Harris has the classic chiseled profile, the tall, dark and handsome looks of a ski instructor, but his appearance conflicts with his humble, shy side. He is soft-spoken and reticent to talk about himself. If you mention his name at a cocktail party, not many people will say they’ve met him. Ah, but they will certainly recognize his work.
By day, Harris has been a ski instructor for Sun Valley every winter since 1968. If someone says they know Harris, it’s usually from meeting him on Bald Mountain. But, Sun Valley is steeped in intriguing personal stories of ski instructors turned filmmakers turned media moguls. Of love stories, lasting and otherwise. Of families arriving by covered wagon in the mining days of the late 1800s or by train in the early part of the 20th century, staying on to shape the Valley through its years in mining, the sheep industry, the development of Sun Valley as America’s grand dame ski resort. The Harris family has been part of all these things since 1881, and four generations later, Ralph Harris paints the history-capturing mural we see as we hurry along Hailey’s Main Street. Twenty-one of his highly-acclaimed paintings hang on permanent display in the Pentagon, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force Museum, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
On the local scene, Harris has created five of Ketchum’s beloved Wagon Days Labor Day parade posters, including one of the very first ones printed. He also painted a 15-by-90-foot mural commemorating historical events of the Wood River Valley—twice. The mural was first created in the ’70s on the exterior wall of the Blaine County Historical Museum in Hailey. When the original adobe wall deteriorated, it was replaced with cinderblock, and Harris kindly obliged by re-painting it. The project took two years to complete.
The stained glass windows in Ketchum’s Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church were a collaboration between Harris and local glass artist Herman Lirk, as was the trout scene in the front of Ketchum’s Pioneer Saloon. Over 20 years, the two artists have worked together on many private stained glass commissions.
The local reverberation continued with Harris’ work for the 1990 Ducks Unlimited auction and banquet in Sun Valley, and the 20th, 25th, and 30th anniversaries of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Idaho Fish and Game has awarded Harris five Muzzleloader and five Archery stamp competition designs since 1982. His painting of elk wintering on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wy., was commissioned as a poster to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the refuge. The image was later presented to then Vice President George Bush for the launch of President Reagan’s “Take Pride in America” program. The U.S. Postal Service commemorated the image again on a First Day Issue Postcard.
In 1994, Harris won the Idaho Upland Game Bird Stamp competition with a painting showing chukar partridges flying off the Bruneau River Gorge. In 1994, the board of the Snake River Stampede commissioned Harris to create two stunningly dynamic rodeo posters of Ty Murray, then six-time All-Around World Champion cowboy. A year later the board had him paint Butch Small, champion saddle bronc rider. The “Cowboy Up” party at the 1996 National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas also sported one of Harris’ signature works. In Boise, the Idaho Historical Museum displays a Harris depiction of Shoshone women gathering camas during the spring. Three four-by-six-foot paintings of world champion cowboys Harry Charters, Dean Oliver and Shawn Davis are on permanent display at Nampa’s previous First Security Bank of Idaho, now a branch of Wells Fargo Bank.
Harris’ great-grandfather, Charles E. Harris, arrived in Hailey in 1881 from Delhi, Iowa. “By train, I think, but perhaps by wagon,” Harris ponders. “He built his home in 1887 on Third Avenue and Silver Street in Hailey.”
In 1891, Charles E. Harris opened Harris Furniture and Mortuary in Hailey on Croy Street, moving to the intersection of Main and Bullion Streets by 1895, where the family business was conducted until 1973.
Harris’ father, Charles A. Harris, was born in Hailey. Among the plentiful and vibrant life stories of this man is the tale of his becoming a jockey at age 10. “Local horses would just line up on the track, and somebody would just yell ‘GO!’ Mostly, Dad raced where the Hailey rodeo grounds are now, and over in Carey, Picabo, Gannett and Bellevue,” Harris recounts. Turning 93 this year, Charles A. Harris still lives in Hailey, just down Main Street from the furniture and mortuary business he ran throughout his adult years.
Listening to Ralph Harris reminisce about growing up in Hailey, it’s obvious he has always had a keen eye for details, and a very good memory. But it is in looking at his paintings that those qualities become undeniably real. >>>