Meet Visionary Artist Dennis Harroun

Colliding Worlds with Dennis Harroun

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Dennis Harroun's mother drew fantastic comic strips of her children on adventures“One of the first things I remember her drawing in pencil growing up,” says Dennis Harroun about his mother, “is all these pictures of us as little babies, little comic strips of us riding this dragon fly that carried us away and went on this adventure with us.” Currently the owner and creator of Mana Digital, he was raised between lush Hawaii and naked New Mexico, with an unstoppable imagination that runs rampant between both worlds, “My dad’s an engineer [who] started out doing computer science ... I think that’s really what he liked to do, was just build things. My mom is an artist so, I really had the best of both worlds growing up.”
Moth RiderHis eyes are gripped by the intricate form of a moth. That’s it! A moth! He imagines harnessing light to guide a moth through the night and riding it. Oh, what adventures await the Moth Rider? What adventures await us all in each and every future across the world? The image of the Moth Rider is a symbol for that unknown journey we’re all taking, “She’s going through the darkness, the unknown with this light” The constant inspiration he finds from nature knows no bounds. Every tree he sees gives him a new idea, every landscape and cloud in the sky! It can be overwhelming, just what to do next.
But this wasn’t always the case: “My original re-inspiration for art came in Valley High School, from Mrs. Sirl, my art teacher, and she allowed me and my friends to be graffiti artists while it was taboo and no one else was accepting it and she said, ‘I know you love what you’re doing so I’m going to let you do it, make your ceramic pots on the side and get them in to me for your grades and as long as you’re following what you really want to do in art I’m gonna pass you.’ I found the art community in Albuquerque was where it was (Street Art) it was the only logical place for me to go.”
Artwork by Dennis HarrounThis teacher embraced the expression of her students and allowed it to flourish. Instead of stifling their creativity with some predisposed aesthetic doctrine, she allowed them to follow their adoration down an avenue that was stereotyped, looking past its borders to see it as an outlet for the exasperation of young minds that wanted to cry out with a language they found exciting.
Dennis Harroun with his Graffiti Train DioramasAt the Rail Yards, light glitters across the window panes and the roots of our history rest deep beneath the tracks. Trains are moving through the night, moving across the tracks and he imagines the cars getting coated with many colors. Colors falling through the air, funneled out of cans, the sound of paint cans rattling in the night, bewitching with serpentine messages falling across the surface like a magic spell. SWOOOSH! And then those messages become a blur traveling in time and space; perhaps they’ll change the future. Somewhere an artist melts back into the shadows, stepping carefully through the night after a superstitious act of creative vandalism. To some, such acts are sacrilege. To others, they are raw, daring, outcries of spiritual reconciliation and the artist some strange urban Shaman.
But these days, you won’t find Harroun hooded beneath a streetlamp, instead, he spends his nights and his days colliding the immaterial world of the pixel with that world we can touch and feel. How did this once boy go from the streets of Albuquerque’s Street Art scene to the farthest reaches of creative technology?
“I didn’t like 3D animation for a long time," says Harroun, "I really thought it was never going to work for me as an artist, it just didn’t make sense…One day my dad took me to Siggraph, which is a computer graphics conference, so animation companies like Pixar and Dream Works and all the little studios that you’d never heard of—they all get together once a year…all over the country. The first one I went to was in New Orleans at their convention center, and it opened my eyes to 3D animation. It was a world where actual artists were really making things happen. I thought, up until that point, that it was just computer guys that I didn’t know—I mean that was my brother—I didn’t quite understand computers at that point. I was still just drawing with paint and pencils and I didn’t really think a computer could make art, well at least I didn’t think I could make art with it. Then I saw Siggraph and I was like, Holy crap! This is exactly what I want to do with my life! I saw a bunch of geeks and weirdos and artists making beautiful things together and that’s when I realized that when you put a geek and an artist together in the same place they can make magic unlike anything, and that’s essentially what happened is engineers and artists getting together and expanding and imagineering.”
But this was only the beginning for Harroun. After his father brought him to the Siggraph conference, he went to the Denver Colorado Art Institute and graduated with an animation degree. Then he returned to Albuquerque to work in visual effects, but the prospects had become grim, “At the time it was really, really, frightening. We had a couple big studios here, and they up and left because of the incentive. The state wasn’t going to be the right fit for them. But, I started realizing at that point that I didn’t want to be a gear in a machine. I didn’t want to be that guy doing one little task on an animation, going nine to five Monday through Friday, making something I loved into a real chore.” Harroun had to do something that was different, something that pushed conventional boundaries in the creative world, “That’s when I decided to get into 3D printing and had the backing of some family and other people that were just always supportive of me and bought my first 3D Printer.”
B9 Creator by Dennis HarrounThe Kickstarter project financed his B9, a bare bones 3D Printer that taught him the essentials of 3D printing capacity and potential, “The first time I saw something print… it’s one of the most beautiful feelings to see something you spent so much time in the computer on, and you can’t touch it, and you can’t feel it, and then all of a sudden, this printer makes it and you can hold it in your hand and feel it. That was the epiphany for me.” That’s when Harroun decided that the 3D Printer was a fantastic tool which he’d incorporate into his work for the rest of his life.
The advent of 3D printing coupled with his deeply moving experience of the Siggraph conference has driven Harroun to expand his artistic endeavors in both artistic expression and practicality. He’s envisioned and begun a line of jewelry that’s both stunning and whimsical. His pieces have yet to find a wider acceptance in the fine art scene. Harroun is well aware of the bias against accepting this new medium, and his response is one of calm understanding:
Geometric Rabbit Necklace by Dennis Harroun“I feel like I snuck into jewelry and I feel like a lot of jewelry artists think that too. Who am I? I just started printing this stuff, I don’t want to step on their feet, their toes, I want to expand—let them know…that this is happening. It’s going to be more available. In the future you’ll be able to do it. You don’t have to look at it like this threatening technology, your talent as a jewelry artist is going to take you further than someone like me, who doesn’t know anything about it, so getting into it and learning a little bit of modeling skills—it’s intimidating but it can be a real big help.”
I looked at the jewelry he had been wearing all this time, a geometric rabbit sat on his breast and what I recognized as some kind of complex sacred geometric patterns wrapped around his finger. I was enthralled by how these came into being and asked, “So the ring that you’re wearing, that’s a 3D model that you created and you had it printed? So you could have that ring printed in any size to fit anyone?”
“Exactly. Scale it up and down. I measure the inside diameter...scale it so this diameter is an exact dimension...I’ve found that this particular pattern (he’s referencing the ring I just mentioned) when it starts getting really small, I have to change the flower shape a little bit or it doesn’t look right.”
There are physical limitations of resolution that Harroun has learned from experience. Like so many of his projects, and in the very spirit of Siggraph which inspired him, his ability to produce the jewelry he’s designed is a collaborative effort, “I’m not printing it into metal, I’m printing it into plastic, and then I take it to a guy here in town, Silver Cloud, Charles, he’s probably one of the best at it there is…” Silver Cloud casts Harroun’s 3D prints into the final metal product that people will wear. It’s a process that Harroun has been able to touch thanks to the experience and knowledge shared with him by his brother, Doug, who has studied fine metals through UNM, “so one reason I can even touch jewelry and understand it is because I have my brother,” says Harroun.
DSC collaborative work by Mana Digital and Grey Matter GlassHe tells me a little more about his brother and the importance of incorporating fellow creatives into your world as an artist, “My brother’s studio is called Grey Matter Glass. He does a lot of stuff with glass blowing...and we collaborate. My brother’s more of a technical mind than me ... but we definitely balance for talent. We’re really close...He’s 38 now, I’m 36, two years two days a part so we’re both Gemini’s...It does take a lot of people to create this ... the more people you bring into your world as an artist, the better off you’ll be.”
He mentioned a more controversial perspective, regarding the need to work with others, “We want to collaborate. I think competing is the most dangerous thing our species is toying with right now.” He didn’t go too far into this topic, but I had the sense that it was a matter of principle to Harroun, something he valued perhaps knowingly, to a fault. I sensed something stubborn then, stubborn and beautiful like a wolf as part of a pack. There is no doubt that when humanity most succeeds toward a goal it is in collaboration with one another that we excel as a species. Our greatest achievements are not made alone, but are made with the support and knowledge of others. It was a powerful statement, and I realized that I wasn’t just talking with Harroun, I was meeting some part of his brother, his father, and his mother. I was meeting some part of the teachers he’s had in the past and the fellow artists he’s worked alongside to materialize the beautiful creations he was sharing with me.
Squid Charmed by Dennis HarrounLong and graceful curling ligaments swoon over a head capped by the elegance of tentacles. Harroun’s work leaves no doubt that 3D modeling and 3D printing is as much an art in its own right as is every other practice from drawing to oil painting to wood burning and sculpture. “The way I look at 3D Printing,” says Harroun, “is it’s the physical extension of the internet…anything people make in any part of this world can be shipped to someone else and made in their house. That’s unheard of in our history...I think as an artist, it’s the most interesting place to be for it.”
He’s right. It’s one of those pinnacle inventions that has changed the world. There was a world limited in ways before the advent of 3D printing, and then there is the world we’re coming into now with people like Harroun who are using this technology to expand their horizons and to push the confines of traditional methods.
Bond of Union by MC Escher recreated by Dennis HarrounAs Harroun knows, there are many artists and business owners who have yet to realize that this technology is one of creative human endeavor and potential. As I write this, it’s July 25th, 2017 and just the other day I was showing some fantastic work to a friend who lost interest the moment she realized it was digital. Harroun understands the dilemma and moves forward despite it:
“I would say this—with regards to technology and art—the electric guitar did not get rid of the acoustic guitar and great guitarists are going to play both equally well. But when the electric guitar came out, people laughed at Bob Dylan and wrote him off for it. They said, ‘You don’t know how to play music! This is a machine making music for you!’ and all of 3D printing kind of plays itself into that thought process for some people now.”
I ask Harroun what he imagines for the future, “In ten work I think it’s gonna’ be more prevalent and a lot more people are going to be doing it. I think there’s a younger generation, maybe the high school and college age right now, that are taking computer art and running with it and are going to show me, in a way, where to go too. Traditional art—it’s everything you have to know it—but there’s also a whole ‘nother realm to it,” Harroun tells me excitedly. Then he became just a little bit sad, but hopeful and said, “We’re stuck behind technology, and the money behind it too. Albuquerque particularly, with the lack of funding for a lot of things like this, a lot of people don’t get to touch on it.”
He’s right. Access to the technology comes at an expense, and most students in our New Mexico schools won’t ever work in a 3D modeling program much less experience the thrill of watching that model print out. Harroun has been lucky, and he knows it. He appreciates it. “I’d love to help people more too,” Harroun tells me, “I’ve done some workshops, lending my hand out to the community to help other people do 3D Printing. Is it accessible? Yes and no. Are kids just gonna’ be able to go just find a printer and start making their own stuff?...” Some will.
Dali Lama Online by Dennis HarrounDigital art is here to stay, and it takes the same visionary skills to render an image with the tools of technology as it does to envision and render that image in any other form. Every tool has its challenges. There was a time that art stores weren’t prevalent and artists had to grind their own precious pigments into powders to make their own paint. The ability to order paints online and shop at Artisans doesn’t make today’s great paintings any less beautiful. There are still those who have a bias against the use of tracing paper or projectors as techniques in the process of producing a visionary image. There are those who will, until their dying day, never think that a digital painting is beautiful or impressive even though they know nothing about the techniques and skills used to produce those images. There are those who will never love photography. Why? Is it their lack of knowledge or some subconscious envy of those who have had access and taken hold of new techniques? I don’t know, but it’s always those who can appreciate the beauty of a creative work who will make the effort and give the means to share it and uphold its value.
You can see more of what Dennis Harroun is up to on his blog and visit his website 
What follows are some more works by Dennis Harroun and excerpts from our conversation regarding those works. Enjoy!
Intergalactic Ambassador
Intergalactic Ambassador by Dennis Harroun“He got detained for being from the wrong planet. Turns out he came from a star system that sponsored ‘Unearthly Activities’, and so he got thrown into a detention facility for being too alien-like.”
“Sherri Brueggemann [is] doing the Intergalactic Ambassador Project and she got these characters from Powerball actually, here in Albuquerque. The Powerball had these little spherical characters. The city was going to get rid of them and throw them away and she said, ‘That’s a horrible waste of these cool fiberglass sculptures!’ and there were about 30 of them that the city had made and put in the various Circle K’s around town to advertise the Powerball. So, she adopted them and repurposed them to be intergalactic ambassadors.”
“New Mexico is the only state that recognizes aliens [with] Alien Appreciation Day—it’s the day after Valentine’s Day. We have a state acknowledgment of aliens. So my concept, and it’s controversial... I I made him an illegal alien.” “She took them down to Spaceport and there’s 30 of them there, and now he’s at my studio and he’s not really doing anything. Mine stands out because he’s wearing a giant orange jumpsuit...there’s a lot of good artists in that show!”
“Sktrachworks is how I made that intergalactic ambassador, it’s a cool material! Jared Nicholson made this product based on wasp paper.”
Off The Wall (casht)
Off The Wall (casht) by Dennis HarrounHe was trying to extract something about his past, something that was a mixture of the street art, Sci -Fi , cartoony styles he adored. He used the piece to write CASHT, the name of a band he once played in during High School. I’ve always been mystified by those who love graffiti, and so I asked Harroun if he really found it beautiful and what it was about graffiti that he liked so much.
He was as surprised by the tone of my question as I was feeling surprised at his love for graffiti. Yes he found it beautiful, and then some:
“It’s free. It’s as free of an art form as it gets. It doesn’t need to answer to anyone. it has some rules and codes people go by, but those are always being broken and changed. It’s the ultimate act. Graffiti says that a country is free. If you see graffiti you know that something is going right because kids are gonna paint graffiti anywhere in the world. It’s those oppressive places that squash it, but then the human spirit is squashed in the process. You have to crush the human spirit to get rid of graffiti and it’ll exist whether people like seeing it or not. If we embrace it and allow it to exist in our cultures more, and we don’t condemn it, it’ll grow, blossom, thrive. It’s a perfect example to talk about how we can let our world be free-er and allow young people to be young...Yeah, I think it’s beautiful! I don’t think just tags on the streets—that’s like the off spurt’ve seen beautiful graffiti art haven’t you?”
“Not really. Most of the graffiti art I see, it looks angry, it’s like the walls are bleeding, like somebody’s sharing a wound.”
“Oh, wow! Well so then, to that I have to say that cities bleed. There’s a lot of traumas and a lot of people out there with issues ...I see a grey wall with nothing on it is trapping it’s secrets and it’s holding onto them and it will only explode eventually if you don’t let it—street art is a way to ventilate that emotional impact that these cities have on our psyches. They’re draining, so graffiti art is a way to color the world and I would doubt when you see the modern day graffiti art scene, especially here in Albuquerque, it’s been repressed to an extent that you don’t see the good side of it. If you go to Austin and Miami and places like that...When a city like Austin is doing as well as it is economically—music is spiritual energy so we can say spiritually—and everything in all these other ways, their art is gonna look better. Their street artists are going to be happier, they’re going to be going home to better stories on the news, and better healthcare, all of that is going to end up impacting the way their art looks and street art is a good litmus test of what’s going on in the city. So when you say bleeding, yeah no doubt, the city right now would show signs of that with Trump and the Hispanic people here, they’re really upset and crying inside, and some of the best artists in the world are street artists and they’re in Europe...Blu, Etam, Eron...amazing murals on huge walls, Banksy...”
He had a point. Seriously, who doesn’t like Banksy? That artist has brought graffiti to a new level entirely.


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