A stunning portrait of Captain Meriwether Lewis, in full military dress, hangs in the entryway to the home of Ralph Harris north of Ketchum, Idaho. Looking at this painting, one can almost hear the snap of the U.S. flag in the wind as Lewis sets out with the Corps of Discovery in 1804, a trip that would take him and his rugged party through Idaho in search of the Northwest Passage. "What many people are not aware of is that the Corps of Discovery was representing the United States Government, which required the conduct and discipline of a cohesive military operation," says Harris, whose painting of Lewis in military garb contrasts with many depictions of the voyagers as mountain men. "They had to dress and act as military men," he says. Historical accuarcy is paramount to Harris' work.
Harris' own family settled a few hundred miles south of Lewis and Clark's route in the Wood River Valley only 80 years after the Corps of Discovery passed through and long before Union Pacific Railroad president Averill Harriman decided to build a swanky ski resort beside the sleepy mining town of Ketchum. Harris is a fourth-generation Hailey native. His eclectic career has included teaching skiing for 40 years at the Sun Valley Ski School, working as an illustrator for the ski industry during its glamorous hey-day, completing community art murals and bringing the landscapes of Idaho to life in vivid color. His ongoing work as a portrait artist for the U.S. Air Force Art and Museum Branch attests to his passion for history and for getting the visual record straight. He is one of about 100 artists creating images of Air Force history, a duty he has fulfilled for the last 34 years.
"Back in my school days, I wanted to be an illustrator like Norman Rockwell or Bob Kuhn, who painted all those wonderful pictures in Argosy Magazine and Field and Stream," says Harris. "I studied figurative drawing intensely. In the military, I found an outlet for this training."
Harris' art career began in 1962, when he designed the official seal of Idaho State University. At the time, he was in his second year of study at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles. He worked for several years at various advertising agencies in Los Angeles. In 1967, he returned to the Wood River Valley, in part to take care of his aging parents, but also to take part in the burgeoning and glamorous ski industry. He took a job as the night bellman at the Challenger Inn in Sun Valley. "I skied every day and attended clinics on ski instruction," he says.
"There were a lot more Austrians in the ski school when I started," Harris recalls. "Ski instructors were like gods. There would be 1,000 people waiting for lessons on a Monday morning at the top of Baldy. This was when Sepp Froelich and Sigi Engl were in charge. They ruled with iron ski gloves. We had nightly meetings to cover basic problems and criticisms of guests, but there was the unspoken duty to party with the clients."
Unlike many of the other new hires at the ski school, Harris was fulfilling a family legacy started by his uncle Eusebio Arriaga, the first non-Austrian to work at the Sun Valley Ski School. "Uncle Seb was eating his lunch at the Exhibition Chairlift operators' station on Dec. 7, 1941," says Harris. "He was in the process of clearing trails and repairing the chair lifts when he got news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He joined the U.S. Air Force right away. He flew in World War II, Korea and three tours in Vietnam before retiring as a full colonel."
Harris frequently visits his uncle, now 89 and living in Boise, to discuss various aspects of Air Force history pertaining to any new art projects out of the dozens Harris has completed, including a painting of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager. Some of his paintings hang permanently at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
Harris followed his uncle Seb into the military in 1964, during the height of the Vietnam conflict, joining the Marine Corps Air Reserve at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. Already a trained artist, Harris was put to work by the recruiting gunnery sergeant at Los Alamitos to paint corrections and details on a military diorama at the air base. During basic training in Jacksonville, Fla., he also created color chalk portraits from snapshots of his compatriots' girlfriends. Back at Los Alamitos, he completed a portrait of the air base commander, landing himself a job in the publications department.
"No night watches. No carrying rifles. No fatigue duty," he says. "I was lucky. Of the 75 men in my platoon at basic training, only 12 became reservists. The rest went to Guam for tropical warfare training and then to the war in Vietnam."
In 1967, he was back home in the Wood River Valley. Harris had deep roots in the area. Ernest Hemingway was a close family friend of his Basque grandmother, Pia Arriaga, who sometimes cooked dinner for the novelist at her home in Hailey.
In 1968, Harris was looking for Ski Magazine editor Doug Pfeiffer during the CBS-sponsored Killy Challenge, a dual giant slalom race in Sun Valley. Harris was in search of a job."I saw this gentleman on his hands and knees fiddling with radio equipment at the top of Dollar Mountain and asked if he knew where Doug Pfeiffer was," says Harris. "Pfeiffer looked up and asked, 'Who wants to know?'"
Pfeiffer agreed to see Harris' portfolio over drinks that evening in the Duchin Room at the Sun Valley Lodge, and was impressed with what he saw. Before one drink was finished, Pfeiffer asked Harris to create a cover for the September, 1970, issue of the magazine. The next spring, Preiffer hired Harris to test new ski designs for the magazine at Mammoth Mountain in California. During the summers for the next 25 years, Harris traveled and worked as an illustrator for Ski and Skiing Magazine. At 68, Harris will be teaching skiing in Sun Valley this winter, with the atmosphere slightly different from the good old days.
Harris went back to his roots in 1982, when he won a First of State competition put on by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for the muzzle-loader hunting stamp image. Based on The Federal Duck Stamp Program begun in 1934, Idaho's muzzle-loader and traditional archery stamps were illustrated by painters from 1982 until 1995. Harris won five archery stamps and five muzzle-loader stamps and one upland game bird stamp competition before the programs ended, twice using his life-long Hailey buddy John Davies as a model.
"This was a wonderful program and exciting to work on," says Harris, who regrets that it ended. "The stamps are simply numerical digital images these days. The illustrator's art is fading away, just like blacksmithing or any other old-fashioned craft."
Harris still paints anyway, with a steady hand and ready smile. Whatever he puts his talents to, you can tell he has a heck of a time doing it.