HAWARDEN—Dan Harry, seventy-three, remembers the first time he knew he wanted to be an artist. He was 7 years old and he was drawing a horse. The horse loomed in front of him, running across the blank page, muscles almost rippling, forged by the pencil he held in his hand. He said that horse almost came back to life – except for one part, which hung him up.
“I really liked it, but I couldn’t get the back foot to look good,” he said.
Her father, a gifted artist, intervened.
“He just whipped it like nothing, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that looks easy. But you know? I just followed him,” he said.
He still has that photo, a reminder of where he started.
Harry, who lives in Sioux City, was born and raised in Hawarden and graduated from West Sioux High School in 1967. During his childhood and teenage years, Harry drew and sketched, accumulating a portfolio of sketches and other works of art that eventually earned him admission to Omaha. Art School in 1970. He attended for three years under the GI Bill of Rights, after returning from Vietnam in 1969.
“I knew an artist was what I wanted to be; I just loved it,” he said.
After graduating in 1973, however, Harry realized that pursuing a career in the fine arts would require moving to a large urban area like Chicago or New York.
“I had spent my time in Vietnam and decided that I no longer wanted to go back to an uncertain place,” he said of his decision to stay close to his family, in a place where he felt rooted.
From art to mechanics
Rather than a life filled with blank canvases and oil paints, he chose to employ his art in an unusual way – building and repairing high-performance racing car engines.
After dabbling in carpentry for a while, Harry began to work in the piston and cylinder business, training his intuition to carry out finely calibrated repairs to complex engines. Work sometimes kept him awake until the wee hours of the morning, waiting to hear that telltale “whistle”: moving on.
After spending several years working as a mechanic in auto shops in Sioux City, he realized he preferred to run a shop on his own terms, and in 1990 he opened Harry Heads & Auto Machine Inc.
“I was working about 16 hours a day for nothing – it felt like I was working for $3 an hour,” he said of the early years of his business, when overhead costs were overwhelming and that he was only beginning to accumulate the expensive machines he would need. a viable business.
“I was passionate about it, though, and I knew what it takes to have a business is to have something to sell,” he said.
He identified a market in the race car world and began spending more time wearing cylinder heads on high performance engines, which when done right increases airflow and maximizes horsepower. and engine efficiency. In machines that average at 6,000 rotations per minute, or RPM, this increase in airflow has resulted in significant performance gains, Harry said.
“Not many people were trying to figure out how to do this back then,” he said, although new technology in recent years has reduced the need for highly skilled mechanics with the patience – and artistry – that the job demanded before. .
“It took an artist – not just anyone could do that back then,” he said.
By 1997 Harry had managed to acquire all the machinery he needed to offer a full range of automotive services in his workshop, although he continued to specialize in racing cars. He always felt like something was missing.
“Don’t get me wrong, my heart was really in it. But I always wanted to be an artist,” he said.
Once he could rely on his employees to oversee more of the store’s business, he got out his paints and crayons and invested in a new camera with a powerful zoom.
“It wasn’t that I was trying to make money from it. It’s just what I loved to do,” he said.
Harry retired from his day job in 2020, and he began to devote more time to some of his loves: nature photography, especially wildlife photos, animal sketches and painting of landscapes.
Until the end of May, Harry is the featured artist at the Prairie Woods Nature Center in Oak Grove Park, near Hawarden. The rotating exhibition features local artists or artists with local ties and can be viewed during the centre’s regular opening hours.
“We welcome all different mediums,” said Jessica Van Oort, office assistant at the center, responsible for organizing the rotating exhibition. In the past, the exhibit featured watercolors, chainsaw carvings, and calabash carvings, all made by local artists.
“It’s their wall for four months; it’s their space to play with,” she said.
Harry’s exhibition at the center is a mix of pencil drawings, paintings and photographs, and like most featured artists, his work is linked to the natural world, although this is not a requirement of the exhibition.
Some of his works come easily, he says, but others, like this elusive horse from his childhood, take patient work.
“Eyes are one of the most important things,” he said, pointing to a pencil drawing of an eagle, with its sharp, predatory eye, then to a nearby rendering – on a chalkboard. scratch – of a Beagle puppy, with his wide, sad look.
Harry sometimes spends as much time on the eyes as he does the rest of the drawing, getting them right.
One of the two eagles featured in the exhibit didn’t animate on the page until Harry erased a crescent from the pupil, to create a reflective reflection. A pair of colored pencil turtles, recreated from two photographs, perch atop a log, their intricate undershells reflecting in the water. Their eyes might have been an afterthought, small as they were, but he also devoted patient labor to them.
Sometimes it’s like tinkering with an engine at dusk, trying and trying again.
“Not everyone wants to take the time, and that’s okay,” he said. “But to be an artist, you can’t give up when something isn’t working. You continue.