One of Sun Valley's most celebrated artists is among the most unknown here in his own hometown.
Photography: Kendal Nelson
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Joan Davies, former director of the College of Southern Idaho’s Blaine County campus, says she “pestered him until he agreed to teach art there. Ralph is a total perfectionist, but he has the ability to meet students right where they are in their skills. He does meticulous research on every one of his paintings. He actually corresponded with General Paul Tibbets, commander of the Enola Gay, during the creation of that painting. He created a physical scale model of a pirogue with clay models for one of hisLewis and Clark paintings. I think he captures reality with an almost photographic quality, and an incredible artistic element.”
This intense devotion to accuracy and detail is immediately evident in Harris’ depiction of historical scenes. He has worked with other artists to create replicas of Meriwether Lewis’ clothing, for example. Harris took the research further by actually “becoming” his subject in public reenactments along the path that Lewis and Clark took with the Corps of Discovery.
“I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember,” Harris says. “But, I considered myself a closet artist. I didn’t want anyone to know I liked to draw. I thought it was kind of a sissy thing then.”
But, he designed and coordinated the theme for his 1958 Hailey High School prom. “And that let the cat out of the bag,” he says with a slow grin.
Following in his father’s footsteps (and his paternal grandmother’s), Harris went to Idaho State College in Pocatello. Two years later, he transferred to The Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles. During his sophomore year there, he won a competition to design the official seal for Idaho State University. He joined the Marine Air Reserve program in 1964. During his time at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in Southern California, Harris was also a member of the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators. Those connections led him to become a member of the documentary art staff for the U.S. Air Force in 1967. The Air Force presents many of Harris’ paintings on traveling exhibitions throughout the world, loaning them to other air base facilities, universities and selected special events.
In 1967, Harris returned to Hailey to help his folks in the furniture company. That same winter, Sun Valley ski instructor Jack Colven mentored him on the finer points of becoming a ski instructor. “I worked nights as a bellman at the Sun Valley Lodge so I could ski every day,” he smiles. Harris practiced on the slopes at Hailey’s Rotarun Ski Area, using the rope tow there that Harris’ father had helped to build as a member of the sponsoring Rotary Club. The legendary ski instructor Sigi Engl hired him into the ski school, “and I’ve been there every winter since.”
During his first winter with the Sun Valley Ski School, Harris was granted a travel scholarship by Rotary International Exchange and traveled to Australia. Rotary International later published his sketchbook and diary of this journey in three languages. In the summer of 1972, he taught skiing at a small private area outside of Christchurch in New Zealand and worked for Skiing Magazine. Throughout his career as a ski instructor, Harris has produced instructional drawings and articles for various skiing publications and the U.S. Ski Team.
One common belief about the lives of ski instructors is that they are filled with romance, even if the instructor is somewhat shy. And, in 1970, a lovely young graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles came to Sun Valley with a girlfriend for a ski vacation. Harris’ good friend and fellow ski instructor, Floyd Dupius, introduced his latest student, and Jacqui Blake became Jacqui Harris in 1974. She has worked for Sun Valley Company since their wedding and is currently Director of Condominium Operations.
The Harrises now live in Hulen Meadows, north of Ketchum, where Ralph Harris paints. He is often in Hailey to teach at the College of Southern Idaho, or to join his father for lunch at the Blaine County Senior Center.
And so the story of the Harris family in the Wood River Valley quietly continues—a story of one of Hailey’s most long-lived businessmen and civic devotees and his celebrated artist son.