Transcending Language with Harold Balazs

The world fell away slowly as I skidded down a steep drive off Highway 395 just north of Spokane toward Harold Balazs’s home. I could no longer hear the traffic nor see the bossy yellow lines painted on asphalt.

Instead, two enormous pillars made of bricks, pieces of weather-beaten wood, and a sharp variety of repurposed metal objects declared my entry into a new aesthetic.

I made the pilgrimage north because I wanted to hear about the legend’s art, but first he told me the remnants of a story. As with many a good tale of adventure, we sat around the kitchen table on a cold winter afternoon discussing good friends, a much anticipated expedition, and an unfortunate mistake. “Years ago,” he said, gesturing toward the past with big, worn hands, “Ken Spearing, Mel McCuddin, and I went to Alaska caribou hunting, and I did a journal of it.”

His words came out like single drops of water falling unevenly into a bucket. “We didn’t get a guide because all of us had enough hunting experience. The first thing we found is we forgot the stove.” I nodded, thinking of my own excursions and how forgetting shoes or a sleeping bag infused my stories with greater uncertainty and higher stakes.

He couldn’t remember exactly how they made do, so he described other parts of the trip. “What happens is an airplane flies you in for a week or near there and comes back and gets you… we just wandered around until we saw one of the animals and shot it.”

Although the comment sounds casual, the images revealed Harold’s deep study of the lakes, trees, and stone around him. He sketched an organic, bulbous cross and titled it “A shrine to the caribou spirit that will feed us this winter.” The artist-hunter also described a ritual baptism: “a cleansing of the spirit with a brisk bath in a little lake.” The body and the spirit united in the presence of a kill.

The journal transported me to a specific time and place, but Harold does not often aim to represent the world around him. His artistic lexicon swirls in the collision of color and shape. He disarms the consciousness through simplicity and impacts it through the staying power of surprise. His work is childlike yet sophisticated in its evocation of wonder.

In fact, a sense of curiosity and intrigue is the only thing Harold is interested in creating. “Everything else is just rearranging stuff. Sometimes it’s rearranging a whole bunch of stuff.”

This is true even of Harold’s language. I sense that he used the journal and other books of his art that were scattered around the big kitchen table before us the way an actor refers to a script. He knows the lines, but sometimes they got lost or mixed up.

Being in Harold’s house, surrounded by his art and images of his art, helped me understand how the man became a northwest legend. Here is my two-part theory as to why so many people, including myself, are drawn to Harold’s corpus of art. First, his work is unpretentious. We feel at home with his materials—steel, ceramics, and concrete— because they are the primary substances of our physical lives.

Secondly, we are drawn to his work because we are drawn to him. Steve Gibbs, who has been showing Harold’s art for decades at the Art Spirit Gallery in downtown Coeur d’Alene, told me that his popularity is due to the fact that he has been very involved in the region since graduating from Washington State University in 1951. “By being here, present, helping create wonder, a whole region of people appreciates who he is and what he does.”

Harold and I moved to a more formal sitting room to take photos and conclude the interview when he apologized again about his lack of words. I wanted to squeeze his hands together and say: Forget words. Don’t you see? I can think of nothing more beautiful than having the world know your life through materials, textures, and so much spectacular color.

Instead, I smiled, thanked him for the conversation, walked back out the big blue door of his house, and climbed into my truck.

But on the treacherous drive away from the house so plugged full of art back to the gray roar of the highway, my mind lingered some place in between. I blinked often and saw bright patches of color among the shadows, shapes, and daringly playful light.

- Summer Hess

Editor’s Note: The daring can interact with Harold's work by going “transcending”—ask around Spokane for what that means, and please be safe.

portrait photography by Rajah Bose, for Field & Compass Ltd.

Art photos hosted by the Art Spirit Gallery: see many more of Harold Balazs's works.

left: Untitled, circa 1964, right: For Each Her or His Own, 2014