IT’S LIKE peeling back the layers, peeling back the veneer on the inner workings of the mind—that’s what the experience of visiting an artist’s studio is like. It seems only natural, then, that after descending the carpeted stairs of Neal and Tammy Harrington’s home in Russellville, passing through the finished basement and entering the studio that the two artists share, you should find something resembling a jumbled composite of two complete minds—something curious, something unexpected, something telling of who each artist is and the shared bonds between them.
Turns out, that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Not that the Austrian-born icon necessarily has an oversized role in the Harringtons’ defining aesthetic (and, rest assured, he makes no appearances in either artist’s printmaking). But the two posters that hang in a small storage space just outside the studio proper—depicting him as bodybuilder and Conan the Barbarian—do give a visitor some sense of what they’ll find on the other side of the studio door, a space that feels very much like a Being John Malkovichian portal into a prepubescent boy’s subconscious.
In other words: There’s a lot of Neal.
After pointing out a third Arnold poster, this one attached to the ceiling, Neal says, “So, yeah, there’s a lot to look at, I guess.”
This is what you might call an understatement. Most every inch of the low-ceilinged space, its walls pegboard and plywood, has been papered with small prints, the shelves and floor space filled with curiosities of varying vintage. But as we learn in the hour and a half that our staff spends with the Harringtons, there is nothing slapdash, nothing haphazard about the choice of decor. An extremely abbreviated list of the items Neal makes note of is as follows: Star Wars figurines he played with as a child; his childhood dresser with an old Walkman in the top drawer; a Presidential Fitness Award from Ronald Reagan; a “missing tooth award” from when he lost a tooth in February 1980.
“I’ll have to say, most of the decor is probably Neal’s,” Tammy says. “Neal-inspired.”
“Anything that is controversial or dirty is Tammy’s,” Neal says in a slow deadpan that won’t come across as well in print as it does spoken aloud. “Just right away, I have to lay that out. I’m very conservative. In my decorating.”
It’s a space that bears the hallmarks of having been settled and lived in. As such, it’s not terribly difficult to believe they’ve been there since 2001, when, fresh from graduate school at Wichita State University in Kansas, the South Dakota natives moved to Russellville so Neal could take a one-year visiting professorship at Arkansas Tech University. Not long after, Tammy was hired on as a tenure-track professor at the University of the Ozarks; Neal subsequently landed such a position at Tech. In the years since, reflected to greater and lesser degrees by the space where they now stand, life has changed dramatically as their family has grown and the focus of their work shifted.
For his part, Neal has gravitated toward and earned widespread recognition for his large-scale black-and-white woodcut prints; Tammy has recently been shifting more toward traditional paper-cuts, also on a larger scale. (Both were selected for the 60th Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, which opens this month.) Although they’re both now fixtures in the artistic community, it has never been easy. The studio where they’re now standing, Tammy perched on a stool near the door, Neal massaging his massive beard, has no doubt seen the artists devote countless hours to their respective crafts.
When asked whether they both work there, they answer nearly simultaneously:
Tammy says, “Yes.”
“Not at the same time,” Neal says.
“Usually what ends up happening,” Tammy says, “is that we have different projects, and they have different timing.”
As they’ve gotten older, she explains, she’s continued to be a night owl, often “burning the midnight oil” to meet a deadline. Neal, on the other hand, has already been asleep for hours by the time she gets to work. What’s more, while Neal tends to work for long blocks of time, playing full albums on the small MP3/CD/cassette stereo they’ve had since moving into the house, Tammy can work anywhere on her paper-cuts. Some days she might work in the basement, listening to Top 40 hits on the clock radio she’s had since she was in high school. On other occasions, she’ll camp out in the family room, pulling a tiny plastic pink stool up to the child-size table where their 11-year-old daughter does most of her own work.
“It’s been a lot easier now that our kids are older,” Tammy says. “When our kids were younger—and this is even before we moved in with my parents—we would give each other a day, one day a week. This is your day to do art. I’ll take care of the kids. So, we would switch on and off. We tried to make it to where we could have time.”
“But also, you have to work in with their events as well,” Neal says. “Thinking about that, first I would have to go, Well, do I have to drive the kids anywhere?”
“Is there something this weekend? …”
“Yeah, and that can change in an instant. Like, someone’s got a fever. Well, there went that day. And you have to learn to be cool with that. It can be frustrating, but I am hoping to do some work tomorrow.”
Although Neal says they’re not collaborators—“only on the children, man. Like, I can’t collaborate on anything. But kids, we did”—there’s undoubtedly a great deal of support between the two. Back when they were still in grad school, they started referring to themselves as Team Harrington. It was an unspoken but understood thing that, no matter who found success, they’d be happy for each other. Neal puts this in terms of the classic 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: “Tammy’s the brains. And I’m the brawn. And so, together, we are the perfect unit. Because we are Master Blaster. And I think all of the nerds will understand that.”
“Well, I’m lucky that I have Tammy,” Neal says of how they influence each other’s work. “She has probably made valuable contributions to every single print—and I’m not just saying that because she’s here.” He gives an exaggerated wink before correcting himself, saying, “No, it’s true. She has made contributions to every single print that I’ve done that have improved it greatly.”
“Well, sometimes you need that eye that’s outside of yourself.”
“Or to say, That leg is a man leg. You need to make it look more like a lady leg.”
“Yes, I did tell him that,” Tammy confirms.
By way of example, they lead us through the white double doors into the aforementioned storage space. Against the far wall, just to the right of the Arnold and Conan the Barbarian poster duo, rising probably 3 feet above a stack of already shoulder-height canvases, is a woodcut, a roller-skating waitress with heart-shaped sunglasses, that nearly touches the ceiling.
“But yeah, this is Tammy holding pizza pans for the photo reference,” Neal says, putting a hand midway up the woodblock to keep it from falling. “I had her roll up her pants, and then took some photos, and made her not Asian.”
Behind him, Tammy has started flipping through a stack of smaller, knee-high woodcuts leaning against the wall beside an old-timey gumball machine.
“Well, see this one?” Tammy says, stopping on one that depicts a woman pushing a drunken man in a wooden wheelbarrow, a large jug between his knees. “We took a picture in the backyard …”
“And I got in the wheelbarrow,” Neal says, “and did some posing.”
A few minutes later, the subject of collaboration is again broached, and the couple returns to the storage area. They return with a massive roll of what appears to be paper, but is actually Tyvek, the material used to wrap houses under construction. When unrolled, it’s revealed to be a massive—probably 5 feet squared—exceptionally detailed paper-cut.
“This is how Tammy’s brain works,” Neal says. “It’s all one piece.”
“I would say this probably took three or four weeks,” Tammy says. “But it was always between just trying to work and kids, but I was really excited that I did this because it pushed my boundaries. Because I can’t work big like Neal. But I can work big, I think, this way with the paper-cuts. That’s where I see myself moving forward.”
Neal takes a seat in a big brown chair—the one they’d gotten during their undergrad years—that squeaks viciously as he sits down on it.
Maybe it’s the sharpness of the sound, but there’s something about this moment that causes you to take a step back and again take stock of the space the two artists share. Indeed, as Tammy had pointed out before, there is a lot of Neal. Elsewhere, though, it’s clear the space is very much a shared one. Of course, there are the physical things emblematic of this: the printing press they got each other for an anniversary gift in 2015; a skeleton missing one hand, which Tammy purchased from Kmart for 75 percent off; the salad set they got for their wedding, which Neal has since used to print his woodcuts. But there’s also something less tangible. As they sit there talking across Tammy’s paper-cut, Neal in the old squeaky chair, Tammy on a stool beside the printing press, each of them finishing each other’s thoughts in this space they’ve made their own, it’s clear they’re cut from the same stuff. After all, they’re Master Blaster, Team Harrington.