PHILADELPHIA — It’s best not to get too close to the art in Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Walk within the narrow space between a sculpture and the wall and you’ll hear a warning across the expansive space of the gallery. The artworks in this show are fragile, and Linda Harris needs to let you know.
People remember Harris, the 56-year-old woman who has guarded the museum every day from Wednesday to Sunday since 2002. The fourth oldest of 11 children, she grew up on 29th and West Oxford Streets in North Philadelphia, in the same neighborhood where she still lives. She takes the bus every day to the ICA, where she swaggers about the gallery rooms and sings to herself, chatting with those who come in to say hello to her and taking clandestine phone calls from her children.
Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison opened in early September, and as with each new show, it’s taken Harris a while to fully adjust to it. With every exhibition cycle, walls in the galleries shuffle and reform, creating rooms and corners that weren’t there before. “This is like a story,” she says, sweeping her arm out and over the art. “It’s all about a strong woman who raised three children.” Dim bulbs cast wan light over sculptures painted muted pastel hues. “Precious, I would use the word precious,” she adds.
Harris wasn’t always a security guard. She earned her certification to work as a geriatric assistant in 1982. She keeps the yellowing certificate from the now-defunct National School of Health Technology in her souvenir binder. It’s pressed between notes from her years as a nurse, as well as a memento from when her son, Jerry, was a cub scout, and letters from galleries and artists voicing their appreciation of her. She continued nursing until a bus accident in 1998 hurt her back; sitting in the seat immediately behind the driver, she was flung forward when the bus stopped short.
Before settling at the ICA, she worked all over Penn’s campus. She was posted at Sansom Place East, Penn Law, the Arch, the Sheraton, the Inn at Penn, College Hall, Van Pelt Library, Meyerson Hall, the Arthur Ross Gallery, and the Penn Museum. When she was finally stationed at the ICA, she remembers thinking: “What the hell is this? Oh no, I can’t be in here. I can’t be in here.”
Harris walks over to a sculpture hung on a wall deep in the exhibition. “Now look at this,” she says, pointing to Ree Morton’s “Maternal Instincts” (1974). It’s a halo of cream-colored celastic, a material that consists of plastic-impregnated fabric that is highly malleable when activated and rigid when set — a characteristic that allows for sculptures to appear delicate when they actually are not. The outer ring of “Maternal Instincts” encloses three smaller celastic sculptures, each lit with its own small lightbulb and marked with a letter: L, S, and S. “You can put two and two together. Linda, Scott, Samantha. Her three children,” says Harris. “I have three children, so I feel for her.”
“Linda, OK, don’t get it twisted,” she says, repeating the name of Morton’s first daughter. “That’s why I like this show so much,” she continues, noting how she can draw clear lines between her own life and that of Morton, who died in 1977.
Artist Alex Da Corte, whose exhibition Easternsports was installed at the ICA in the fall of 2014, says that Harris is never held back by the “invisible guidelines” that at times dictate how one should act in a museum setting. “And that’s really refreshing because she’s also the guard. […] There are rules, but then those rules in some ways are supposed to be broken and changed.” He notes that Harris’s dual roles, as an authority figure and as a non-traditional educator, allow her to help the museum stay true to its “Free for All” mission statement. Beyond free admission, the museum seeks to be a space where anyone from any community can come and have an experience with contemporary art. Harris represents the position that you don’t need to know everything about a work of art to comment on what it’s doing or how it makes you feel.
She walks next to Morton’s “Sister Perpetua’s Lie” (1973), a large installation against a gallery wall comprised of a painted wood sculpture below an austere gray painting, with chalk drawings on the floor. “This looks like the crib, or it could be a jail,” she muses. “Because she seemed like she was trapped in her own world, she had to escape. A mother, and then a mother want to be free.”
Though Harris’s expansive knowledge of contemporary art is now a resource for visitors to mine, when she first began working at the museum her insights weren’t so appreciated. Robert Chaney, the Marc J. Leder Director of Curatorial Affairs at the ICA and the only employee with a longer tenure at the museum than Harris, remembers early visitors complaining: “We wanted it to be a quiet visit and a security officer kept talking to us.” Now, he says, people come in specifically “to talk to Linda, and to see what she has to say within the context of an exhibition.”
Chaney recognizes the value of Harris’s presence: “A contemporary art space can be intimidating for people. It’s often not work that’s easily defined or easily understood. […] And so Harris attends our training sessions for docents. And she talks to the artists often. I think she’s able to be, if not an authority, a welcome, informed voice for people coming in.”
Though these walk-throughs with docents and conversations with artists inform Harris, she vehemently denies that they influence her thinking. Rather, she says, her perceptions come “from my own experience.” She attends talks with curators only to see if her line of thinking is in the right direction: “I just listen in to see if my experience and my words fit their words.”
Beyond sharing her knowledge of art with visitors, Harris also helps activate interactive pieces, letting visitors know when they are in fact allowed to touch the art and making them comfortable enough to do so. Da Corte notes the presence of oranges scattered on the floors of his past installation: “It was a prompt that you could take the oranges if you so chose, but it wasn’t advertised anywhere.” With explicit instructions absent from the wall didactics, Harris was essential to installation’s functioning.
“This reminds me of her kids sitting at the table, playing,” Harris reflects about Morton’s “Souvenir Piece” (1973), a precarious-looking lime green table that holds worn and striped stones, the kind you take home from a visit to the beach, perched on blocks of wood. On the wall before it are six drawings that correlate to the objects on the table. “To me it looks like kids, children. She’s doing her work, they’re sitting at the table playing,” says Harris.
Talking about the piece makes Harris consider what her own art would be about. “It all depends on who I would be working with,” she states. “It depends on who I would work with,” she repeats, “and then we could take it from there.”
Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison, curated by Kate Kraczon, continues at the ICA Philadelphia (118 S. 36th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through December 23. Linda Harris is around every Wednesday through Sunday.