Humanitarian paints hope for students of Vietnam


Fred Harris looks around the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Yurakucho, central Tokyo, and observes with his usual keen but fond eye, “This was the first club I joined when I came here in 1964.” (He was also in Japan while serving as a U.S. soldier during the Korean War.)

Described as one of the top 50 foreigners making a difference in Japan, Harris says that first and foremost he’s a painter — “oil and watercolor.” But he has so many other strings to his bow that sometimes it’s hard to know where art stops and business and entrepreneurialism begin.

Being as much a pragmatist as the romantic he claims to be, he switched from teaching in an art school in his hometown of New York (“I’m a Brooklyn boy.”) to working for an architect who wanted to open an office in Japan. Today he is chairman of TDS K.K., which is still going strong after 40 years, offering architectural and interior design, and strategic facilities consulting, mostly for major corporations.

Despite recent ill health — “heart problems,” he says casually — Harris still travels in from Kunitachi to his corporate desk in Kanda Jimbocho several times a week. He feels fine, while at the same time admitting to frustrations. “There’s so much to do. And right now I can’t fly” because of the problems.

He wants to talk primarily about the Dong Son Today Foundation, a nonprofit organization he helped found to promote international exchange between America, Japan and Vietnam through the shared value of art.

Harris has traveled and painted throughout Asia over the last 45 years, with regular exhibitions. Honored by the Japanese government with numerous prizes, his paintings — portraits, landscapes, street scenes — hang in many official buildings and private collections and homes. He was even asked to design a postage stamp to honor Japan-U.S. relations.

He is admired for having perfected his own style using sumie ink. He never studied it traditionally, just found his own way, adapting the technique. He carries basic artist materials wherever he goes, and can conjure up a lasting impression with just a few lines and a trace of color. “I don’t paint from my imagination,” he once said. “My work is a reaction to what I see.”

An acknowledged art historian, Harris has authored and published several books on Japanese art, and is currently an adviser and representative of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., helping maintain artistic standards throughout Asia.

And talking of books, he is still donating his amazing collection of Asian art books — many of them exceedingly rare copies — to a university in America. Four thousand have already gone.

Harris loves to teach and has enjoyed a deep connection with the University of Ohio since the mid-1990s. “I’ve taught there, also Art Center School in Los Angeles, from which I graduated — that was fun! And most recently, of course, in Hanoi.”

He first went to Vietnam five years ago to buy art for the Chase Manhattan Bank. “Vietnamese art is different to any other. Taught according to French academic standards, it has evolved as European art in an Asian setting. It’s very original, not derivative as in Japan.”

Seeing Vietnam’s poverty and need, Harris — who describes himself as a “people person” — volunteered to teach. His offer was snapped up, and soon everyone — students, staff and Harris alike — became enamored of one another. In 2004, the Japanese government sponsored an exhibition of his work in Hanoi, “to make people happy and so that they could see what I do.”

Harris likes young people. Over the years he has adopted hundreds of art students and sailors from the Yokosuka naval base, plus thousands of kids. “I’m not a fusspot. I encourage them to blow their top.” Also, he never imposes his ideas of art on others, just tries to display sincerity and integrity. “My work changed a lot after going to Vietnam. It’s grown, developed tenfold over the last five years.”

Working in Hanoi for a year, and meeting many influential and talented people, Harris got the idea to establish the Dong Son Today Foundation, named after Vietnam’s famed Dong Son culture of the fourth to first centuries B.C. Its aim is to help deepen understanding and friendship, and establish a foundation to help Vietnamese students study in the States. “Hanoi Art Academy and the University of Ohio forged a sister relationship in 2003.”

Luckily, Harris is good at raising money. “In October there will be an auction at the Hilton Hotel in Shinjuku of works by famed Vietnamese artists to raise funds. We also plans a calendar, showing the work of 16 artists.”

But the project nearest to his heart is the Vietnamese opera “Road to Infinity,” which Harris is bringing to Tokyo for two performances (afternoon and evening) on Sept. 18. Imagine traditional music fused with jazz, he says. “If DSTF can make 1,000 yen on each of the 350 tickets after expenses, I shall be happy.”

Mind you, he adds, there are a lot of expenses involved in bringing over 11 musicians, singers and technicians. “I’d like to say thank you to a great many people for their help and support. PR leads the way.” On the 19th, there will be a lecture, demonstration and photo opportunity at The American Club.

Harris, who describes himself as “the last of the Harris Mohicans,” would also like to thank his wife, Kazuko, who he admits “has put up with a lot over the years.” (All those books to dust, for starters!)

“Life is a series of links on a chain. Being well known, reasonably secure, a recipient of medals, scholarships and assistance, I feel good about paying Vietnam back. As an American, if I can help create harmony between us, I think I can die a very lucky and a very happy man.”